Surrounded by a historical timeline recounting the countless contributions and sacrifices that women have made to the church, 188 bishops sang many hymns, prayed many prayers and then, on the fifth ballot, took a historic step on June 18 to elect the church’s first female presiding bishop.
The timeline, which covered the sides and rear of the nave of, downtown Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio, where the bishops gathered, was a project of the Episcopal Women’s History Project, the Episcopal Women’s Caucus and the Committee on the Status of Women to celebrate 30 years since the first female priests were ordained. It featured occasions relevant to women and church history and focused on individuals who had carved out their own place in church history. Katharine Jefferts Schori, 52, bishop of the Diocese of Nevada, was added to that list when she was selected from among the seven nominees to be the 26th presiding bishop.
The other nominees were bishops J. Neil Alexander of Atlanta; Edwin F. Gulick Jr. of Kentucky; Henry N. Parsley Jr. of Alabama; Stacy F. Sauls of Lexington; Charles E. Jenkins III of Louisiana; and Francisco Duque-Gomez of Colombia.
Jefferts Schori, an airplane pilot and former oceanographer who taught in the religious studies department of Oregon State University before she was called to Nevada as bishop five years ago, will be invested and seated Nov. 4 during a liturgy at Washington National Cathedral. She will serve for nine years.
It was 10:30 a.m., after the convention’s morning worship at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, when the bishops boarded buses for the church. It was after 3:20 p.m. when word came to House of Deputies of the election. Applause, cheers and jubilant cries greeted the news before house President George Werner restored order. In the exhibit hall, a separate section of the convention center, cheers and screams greeted he news received by cell phone that Jefferts Schori had been elected. Women deputies lined up several deep at six microphones to voice their support to the election. As they spoke the gallery grew larger as hundreds moved into the deputies’ hall and stood to await the arrival of the presiding bishop-elect.
It was another 40 minutes before Werner called for a vote on Special Order E017, the resolution asking the deputies to approve Jefferts Schori’s election. They did, by the required two-thirds majority of both clergy and lay deputies.
When Jefferts Schori finally entered the hall with Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, it was to thunderous applause, cheering and screaming. People jockeyed for the best position to watch as 10 women bishops entered from the other side of the hall and took places below the speaker’s platform.
“This is an historic moment before the church, a wonderful moment before our church,” Bishop Cate Waynick of Indianapolis said from the dais. She praised Jefferts Schori’s leadership as “faithful and articulate.
“She has the ability to carry the vision and mission and to share it with the church and the world beyond us,” she said. “My heart is bursting; I hope yours is, too.”
Jefferts Schori then spoke in both Spanish and English, thanking the other nominees and reassuring the deputies and visitors of her passion for mission. She also offered a vision of reconciliation and actualization of the reign of God.
“I give deep and abiding thanks for the ministry of the current presiding bishop,” she said after an introduction by Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold. She added that she hoped his “gifts continue to be shared within the church and the world in years to come, because he has very much to give us all.”
Griswold later said that the “decision today is the fruit of the witness and ministry of women bishops, priests and deacons in the life of our church.”
In a pre-convention interview, Jefferts Schori said the priorities for the next presiding bishop included bridge-building and boundary-crossing as well as “moving our sanctuaries into the streets to encounter and transform the bad news of this world.”
Implementing the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals of embracing and celebrating diversity, eradicating poverty and hunger and creating an environmentally sustainable world also are priorities, she said.
Jefferts Schori, who voted in 2003 to consent to the consecration of New Hampshire’s Bishop Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, has said she brings “different life experience” to the top job of the church. She expressed a desire “to embrace and celebrate all the diverse cultures, languages and origins of the many parts of the Episcopal Church -- Haiti, Taiwan, Province 9, the churches in Europe, Virgin Islands, as well as the many cultures within the U.S. -- First Nations, African-American, Spanish-speaking, Asian and all Anglo varieties. None is more important than another; all are essential to the transforming work of the body of Christ.”