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Episcopalians Elect First Woman to Head U.S. Church

June 19, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, new leaders for two major Protestant denominations. First, the Episcopal Church, Kim Lawton, special correspondent from Religion and Ethics Weekly, has been covering the Episcopalians’ convention. She begins with a report on the choice of the new presiding bishop.

KIM LAWTON, NewsHour Special Correspondent: She was greeted with shouts of joy here at the Episcopal General Convention in Columbus, but newly-elected presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori faces big challenges within the U.S. Episcopal Church and across the deeply-divided worldwide Anglican community.

REV. KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI, Presiding Bishop-Elect, Episcopal Church: I have awed, and honored, and deeply privileged to have been elected.

KIM LAWTON: When Episcopalians elected Nevada Bishop Jefferts Schori as their church’s top leader, she became the first women to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion. It’s been nearly 30 years to the day since the Episcopal Church began ordaining female priests.

Many women here were elated by the election of Jefferts Schori as presiding bishop.

MEMBER OF EPISCOPAL CHURCH: She is brilliant. She is thoughtful, and she brings clarity of vision, and she speaks Spanish.

KIM LAWTON: But there were also voices of concern.

MEMBER OF EPISCOPAL CHURCH: I am shocked, dismayed and saddened by the choice of the house.

KIM LAWTON: Three Episcopal diocese in the U.S. do not recognize the ordination of women. Today, one of those, the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, asked to be put under the oversight of another Anglican leader.

Across the global communion, only two other Anglican churches have female bishops: Canada and New Zealand. Many don’t even allow female priests.

Reverend David Anderson leads the American Anglican Council.

DAVID ANDERSON, President, American Anglican Council: Her election only intensifies the trajectory of the Episcopal Church in a seeming arc out of the Anglican orbit.

KIM LAWTON: American conservatives say their deepest concerns are theological. Her election adds a new layer of complexity to the already-simmering debates over homosexuality.

Jefferts Schori supported the consecration of Gene Robinson, the church’s first openly-gay bishop, and she has supported the blessing of same-sex unions. Conservatives believe her election will only lead to further divisions.

DAVID ANDERSON: We are truly two churches under one roof. How long that can continue is certainly a subject of discussion.

KIM LAWTON: Jefferts Schori is married and the mother of an adult daughter. She’s a former oceanographer and a licensed pilot. She says she will work to keep the church together.

KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: I think my witness needs to be about reconciliation. I have good relationships with almost every single member of the House of Bishops, whether we agree or disagree, and I will bend over backwards to build relationships with people who disagree with me.

KIM LAWTON: Those disagreements are emerging here again, as this convention now debates whether to move forward in ordaining gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions. Votes on those issues are expected over the next two days.

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez has more.

A church split in two

Scott Appleby
University of Notre Dame
So there is concern among some that having the first woman prolate or presiding bishop in the Anglican Church will further alienate conservative Anglicans.

RAY SUAREZ: There's also been a significant change for another denomination. Last week, delegates to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention elected a South Carolina pastor, the Reverend Frank Page, as their new president.

The 53-year-old Page has pledged to change the tone of the convention in a kinder and gentler direction. The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation's largest Protestant denomination, with 16 million members.

For more on these changes and their significance, I'm joined by Bill Leonard. He's the dean of the Divinity School and professor of church history at Wake Forest University.

And Scott Appleby, a religious scholar and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

And, Professor Appleby, the Episcopal Church was already involved in a long and deep family feud over the consecration of an openly-gay man as the bishop of New Hampshire. What's the significance of the election of the first woman presiding bishop?

SCOTT APPLEBY, Professor, University of Notre Dame: Well, to the worldwide Anglican Communion, it may seem to some to be a slap in the face. Of the 38 provinces in the Anglican Church around the world, only three of them have consecrated women bishops, and nine of them don't even ordain women as priests.

And they were, many of them, quite upset when Gene Robinson, an openly-gay priest, was consecrated a bishop in 2003. So there is concern among some that having the first woman prolate or presiding bishop in the Anglican Church will further alienate conservative Anglicans.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, at face value, these are really two separate issues, but do the constituencies line up? Are the ones who are likely to be against the consecration of the gay man also be some of the people who are not in support of a woman becoming the head of a national church?

SCOTT APPLEBY: We find in American religion and across the world the same kind of dividing lines on matters of gender, and sexuality, and abortion, and it's just as true for the Anglicans as for the Southern Baptists, that there seems to be a linkage in the minds of many people between women's rights, or feminism, and gay rights.

And so the ordination or consecration of a gay bishop is linked with the advancement of women in the Anglican Communion by those who see the dividing line that way.

RAY SUAREZ: Could this mean a break-up inside the American church, about 2.5 million strong?

SCOTT APPLEBY: Yes, there's concern already that some diocese will form their own communion now. There are some diocese who don't ordain women priests already in the U.S. Episcopal Church, so there is mounting concern of some kind of schism.

Rumblings elsewhere

Bill Leonard
Wake Forest University
And there's great concern, I think, among many Southern Baptists that their denominational statistics, a strong sign for them of their growth and continued spirituality, are declining.

RAY SUAREZ: Dean Leonard, are the Episcopalians alone in this kind of family fighting or have other denominations been quarreling recently over matters of women's rights, gay rights, and other issues?

BILL LEONARD, Professor, Wake Forest University: Yes, there's a great deal of general transition over issues of theology and policy and the way in which denominations organize themselves from -- in some ways, from the Pentecostals across the spectrum to the Episcopalians, with the Baptists somewhere in the middle.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dean, let's turn to the Baptists. Are Southern Baptist Convention elections normally a hotly-contested affair?

BILL LEONARD: They were for about 15 years, from about 1980 to 1990-1995, when the so-called moderates and conservatives went at each other over issues of denominational control and theological appropriateness.

RAY SUAREZ: So, with three candidates in this election, there seemed to have been a lot more comment, and foment, and communications, and blogging, and all kinds of things going on which must have been a new experience for the Southern Baptists?

BILL LEONARD: For the first time in several years, there was not one lone candidate picked by the group that pretty much runs things in the SBC, and they had to come to terms this year with the fact that a lot of information and even campaigning was done, directly and indirectly, through technology and on the Internet. And this is a pretty 19th-century denomination still in its organizational activities.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, are the kinds of controversies that face the SBC these days about theology or, as the Reverend Page suggested when he accepted the job as president, tone?

BILL LEONARD: I think it is more about tone. I don't think he's changing the direction of the theology of the denomination. They've pretty much purged the moderates and liberals for a number of years.

But I think a good many people, particularly younger Southern Baptists, seem to want a less shrill, less volatile rhetoric from the leaders of the SBC and to be a kinder, gentler denomination in the public square, as well as in their own churches.

RAY SUAREZ: But hasn't volatility worked? It would seem that the SBC has been pretty influential on the national scene. It gets a lot of ink; it gets a lot of attention and I guess, until recently, a lot of new converts.

BILL LEONARD: I think it can only work so long. And when you come together once a year and sort of beat up on particular groups, even out of your own convictions, it may in the public square sound much more strident over a period of time than you might wish it to be.

And there's great concern, I think, among many Southern Baptists that their denominational statistics, a strong sign for them of their growth and continued spirituality, are declining. Their membership is plateauing in many of their churches, and that's a real concern for a great many folks.

The changing face of religion

Scott Appleby
University of Notre Dame
And the churches seem to be, if not declining in this demographic, they're certainly struggling. So the fights of yesterday are a distraction, and I think this is recognized by both the Anglicans and the Southern Baptists.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Appleby, you've long studied that part of the spectrum of American religion. What do you make of the SBC election?

SCOTT APPLEBY: Well, while the Baptist and the Anglicans and the Catholics and others are fighting with one another, Rome and Canterbury and Greensboro, South Carolina, are burning.

That is to say they're fighting, but the issues are what Bill Leonard just mentioned: declining membership; declining fidelity to these Christian communities; and a need for a change in tone and, if not in substance, at least the orientation of the message to a new generation of leadership and to younger people, people under 55, under 40.

And the churches seem to be, if not declining in this demographic, they're certainly struggling. So the fights of yesterday are a distraction, and I think this is recognized by both the Anglicans and the Southern Baptists.

RAY SUAREZ: So, are we going to see, Dean Leonard, more foment in the American church? What's happening in American religion, that even denominations where a lot of things seem to have been settled and a lot -- a kind of a triumphal takeover from one side or the other completed, the battles are not over?

BILL LEONARD: I think we're in a time of what I'd call permanent transition in American religious life, as loyalties and identities shift.

One thing we have to talk about in this light is the rise of the so-called mega-church or the emerging church movements. These in many ways are little denominations, many denominations in themselves, that inculcate their own identity that is increasingly stronger or at least competing with denominations. Even if they claim a denominational name, they may have much more of an ability to pass on identity to their constituents, apart from denominations.

Melding denominations

Bill Leonard
Wake Forest University
I think [denominations] do matter, but they're no longer the only game in town organizationally.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, do denominations even matter that much anymore, when now arena-size and stadium-size churches are attracting tens of thousands of people every week who couldn't really say whether it was a Baptist, or a reformed, or Presbyterian, or any other kind of church?

BILL LEONARD: I think they do matter, but they're no longer the only game in town organizationally. And they're going to have to learn, much as the Southern Baptists illustrate and the Episcopalians, too, how to compete and how to change some of their structures and systems in a much more technologically sophisticated world that's found its way into the church.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Appleby, do you agree with that analysis of what the mega-church means to the established church?

SCOTT APPLEBY: Yes, I think the mega-churches are a real threat to denominations. I think the denominational identity matters a bit more to churches like to the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion that proclaim that communion with the church itself is, in fact, an article of faith. So we're talking about bishops in one case and presence of a convention in another.

Certainly, denomination is important across the board. Organization is important, amassing an identity and mobilizing people for mission, for both of these groups. But it's a particular crisis when the Catholics or the Anglicans claim, "Belonging to our church is a matter of faith itself."

And so the mega-churches or the independent churches that are attracting Catholics and Anglicans, Episcopalians, as well as Baptists, this is a deep threat across the board and it does speak to the individual identity of the believer, the focus on my particular needs, what works for me, in my age group, with my family, and much less loyalty to the idea of a denomination or a particular historic faith community. That's a crisis across the board.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Scott Appleby, Dean Bill Leonard, gentlemen, thank you both.


BILL LEONARD: Thank you.