This week, the US Episcopal Church installs a woman as "chief pastor" – the first to lead a national church in the five-century history of the global Anglican denomination.
Katharine Jefferts Schori – oceanographer, pilot, professor, mother, priest – will be invested as presiding bishop in a stately ceremony at Washington National Cathedral on Nov. 4.
Although most Episcopalians are eagerly anticipating the upcoming ceremony, it comes as the church grapples with history of another sort – the most troubled moment in Anglicanism. A rift over actions of the US church, especially in regard to homosexuality, has grown into a genuine threat of schism.
And the new leader herself faces predicaments:
•Seven US bishops have requested that the leader of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, provide them with "alternative oversight" to that of the new pastor.
•Leaders of some "provinces" in the developing world recently said they cannot sit down with her at a scheduled February meeting of the denomination's 38 "primates" (Latin for "leader").
Seventeen years after the first woman bishop in the United States was consecrated, female leadership remains controversial in most of the Anglican Communion. Archbishop Williams said after Ms. Jefferts Schori's election in June that it "will undoubtedly have an impact on the collegial life of the Anglican primates."
The strong reactions stem primarily from the ongoing theological dispute over biblical authority and church teachings on homosexuality.
Many Anglicans, including some in the US, say that the Episcopal Church has put itself outside the fold by taking actions contrary to Christian teaching. The church convention in 2003 approved selection of a gay bishop and allowed for the blessing of same-sex couples. In June 2006, the convention did not respond fully to official requests for it to repent and to commit to a moratorium on such actions.
Episcopalians have ordained gays for some time, saying all are welcome at God's table, and the convention agonized over its resolutions this year, which simply called for "restraint." Some dioceses continue to bless same-sex unions.
National churches (called "provinces") in the Anglican Communion are autonomous. But at a 1998 global conference, a large majority of Anglican bishops passed a resolution reiterating the faith's stand on homosexual practice as incompatible with Christian teachings.
Since her election in June, Jefferts Schori has affirmed her support for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church.
"She has gone out of her way to say that she's strongly in favor of the new position the church staked out in 2003," says the Rev. Kendall Harmon, of the South Carolina diocese. South Carolina is among a small group of dioceses and parishes in the US that has formed an Anglican Communion Network opposed to the convention's actions.
Last month, 20 of the 38 primates – those of the developing world where 70 percent of members live – met in Kigali, Rwanda. Their communiqué stated their intent to help build a new structure of Anglicanism within the US, acknowledging the "serious implications of this determination." Anglican rules preclude bishops from interfering in other jurisdictions, but some US parishes are allying with leaders in Africa and elsewhere. Recently, one of the largest US parishes – Christ Church in Plano, Texas – separated from the Dallas Diocese, paying it $1.2 million for the property. The church informally put itself under oversight of the bishop of Peru.
The Kigali communiqué also said some leaders would not sit at the table with Jefferts Schori in February, and called for another bishop acceptable to US traditionalists to be invited to the meeting.
This puts the Archbishop of Canterbury "between a rock and a hard place," Dr. Harmon says.
Williams is looking to a Communion-wide process involving prayer, communication, and careful listening – to fellow members and the Holy Spirit – to bring about reconciliation. The "Windsor process" also calls for developing an Anglican Covenant to provide a common confession of faith and mutual accountability. Developing-world leaders are working on a draft covenant, which would be discussed at global meetings in 2008.
Episcopalians on both sides of the divide express admiration of the capabilities of the new "chief pastor," who has been bishop of Nevada for five years.
"She is fearless in many ways," says the Rev. Ian Douglas, who has worked closely with Jefferts Schori on matters relating to the Anglican Communion. "She's an incredible listener and able to take in conflicting positions and information and not be shaken one way or the other."
During the ceremony on Saturday, the several thousand present will, by tradition, be asked to give her their full support. Jefferts Schori will preach on what it means to truly live the gospel.