I guess this is why Anglicans pay the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the big bucks. For several years now, the worldwide Anglican Communion has been involved in a high-wire act involving two issues linked to moral theology. The first is the open, public ordination of gays and lesbians to the priesthood and, then, to the episcopate. The second is the open, public approval of sacramental church rites to bless same-sex unions, thus redefining the sacrament of marriage. Both of these issues threaten to shatter the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Behind the scenes, Williams has been pondering another issue -- how to handle the global Anglican tensions that will result, and the ecumenical bridges (think Rome and the Orthodox East) that will be burned -- by the Church of England's march toward female bishops.
It is true that many, perhaps even most, Anglicans have accepted the ordination of women to the deaconate and priesthood. But millions have not and most of them are in the rapidly growing churches of the Third World. They view the ordination of women as yet another imperial power play by the pushy Americans and, soon, the British. But the ordination of female priests only affects the status of those priests. The ordination of a woman as bishop affects the status of all of the priests that she ordains, both female and male. For millions of Anglicans, the priests ordained by female bishops are literally not priests. Who will keep track of who is who?
The current occupant of the throne in Canterbury knows that, when the mother Church of England ordains women to the episcopate, many more clergy and laity will hit the exit doors of a church that is already in sharp decline. Can the creation of an Anglican Rite Church in Great Britain by the Vatican be far behind? How many will join Eastern Orthodox churches?
Now those pushy Americans have gone and elected a woman -- from a tiny Western diocese (PDF) with fewer active members than many Roman Catholic parishes and even more Protestant megachurches -- as their archbishop. What will she do when it comes time for her to raise women and men to the episcopate? Will she note her own controversial status by making sure that at least three male bishops take part in the rites, making her role unnecessary?
This is a huge story. The question, once again, is whether the election of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada as the Episcopal Church's new presiding bishop is primarily an American story or an international story.
Let's play spot the lead on this one. Here are three leads. Your job is to pick which one is from the Associated Press, with its global audience, which one is from the Daily Telegraph, in England, and which one is from The New York Times, the official newspaper of the Episcopal Church establishment.
There is (a) this one:
A woman was last night elected as the first female leader of the American branch of Anglicanism in a historic but divisive development that could hasten the break-up of the worldwide Church.
The Bishop of Nevada, the Rt Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, who is a leading liberal on homosexuality, is the first woman primate in the history of Anglicanism. Her role as Presiding Bishop is the equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Her surprise election was greeted with whoops of joy by pro-women campaigners at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, where she was chosen by her fellow bishops in four hours of voting. But conservatives predicted that she would lead the Episcopal Church further along its liberal path on issues such as homosexuality, and her election will dismay traditionalists opposed to women priests.
Then there is (b) this one:
The Episcopal Church elected Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada as its presiding bishop on Sunday, making her the first woman to lead a church in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Many Episcopalians ... cheered the largely unexpected choice of Bishop Jefferts Schori, 52, the lone woman and one of the youngest of the seven candidates for the job. Her election was a milestone for the Episcopal Church, which began ordaining women only in 1976. She takes on her new responsibilities at a particularly fraught moment in the history of the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest church body, with 77 million members.
And finally there is option (c):
Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected to lead a church in the global Anglican Communion when she was picked Sunday to be the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. It was another groundbreaking and controversial move for a denomination that consecrated Anglicanism's first openly gay bishop just three years ago. ...
The choice of Jefferts Schori may worsen -- and could even splinter -- the already difficult relations between the American denomination and its fellow Anglicans. Episcopalians have been sparring with many in the other 37 Anglican provinces over homosexuality, but a female leader adds a new layer of complexity to the already troubled relationship.
So which is which? Personally, I think the Associated Press story did the best job of covering both the global and American elements of this story. The Telegraph story, writing to the British, focuses totally on that angle. The Times story, writing (I guess) for the New York City audience, sees this story through an almost totally New York City lens.
Many commentators have noted that it is more important that Jefferts Schori was the most liberal candidate in the race on issues of liturgy and moral theology than that she is a woman. That's true, but that doesn't help Archbishop Williams much at the moment. Meanwhile, there are almost certainly conservatives who are, in private, cheering today because a bluntly liberal presiding bishop may bring clarity to the current sexuality debate, instead of more fog.
It is also true that -- for a host of reasons -- there is already broken communion at the highest levels of the Anglican Communion, even if that painful schism has not received major media attention. The election of Jefferts Schori will only put a spotlight on the divisions that affect rites when the Anglican archbishops are together.
What will the alchemist at Canterbury do? That's the only story that matters right now. In his official reaction statement, he is already teetering on the high wire again -- sounding friendly, but noting that the Americans have tossed yet another bomb into a tense global situation. The election of Jefferts Schori will, he writes,
undoubtedly have an impact on the collegial life of the Anglican Primates; and it also brings into focus some continuing issues in several of our ecumenical dialogues. We are continuing to pray for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church as it confronts a series of exceptionally difficult choices.
Photos by Anglican Communion News Service.