Will the Episcopal Church have its first African-American presiding bishop?

The Episcopal Church plans to elect a new presiding bishop Saturday to succeed Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Her successor could be Bishop Michael Curry, who would be the first African-American presiding bishop in church history.

Bob Child/AP/File
The US Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori delivers the sermon at a ceremony in 2007. The Episcopal Church plans to elect a new presiding bishop to succeed her, after she made history as the first female Episcopal presiding bishop.

 The Episcopal Church plans to elect a new presiding bishop Saturday at the religion's conference in Salt Lake City.

The new national leader will succeed Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who will complete her nine-year term on Nov. 1. She was the first female Episcopal presiding bishop and the first woman to lead an Anglican national church.

The 80-million-member Anglican Communion is a worldwide body of churches, including the U.S. Episcopal Church, with roots in the Church of England.

More history could be made Saturday if they choose Bishop Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina. He would become the first African-American presiding bishop in church history.

He is running against three other nominees: Bishop Ian Douglas of the Diocese of Connecticut, Bishop Dabney Smith of the Diocese of Southwest Florida and Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of the Diocese of Southern Ohio.

The Episcopal Church, with headquarters in New York City, has about 1.9 million members and is known for its history as the faith home of many Founding Fathers and U.S. presidents.

About 9,000 Episcopalians are in Salt Lake City for the General Convention, which runs through Friday. The assembly held once every three years includes legislative meetings where bishops, priests and lay people vote on resolutions that set the course for the next few years.

Earlier this week, they began reviewing church policies on alcohol and addiction as part of a churchwide soul-searching over a Maryland assistant bishop charged in the drunken-driving death of a bicyclist.

Next week, they will decide whether they should eliminate gender-specific language from church laws on marriage so religious weddings can also be performed for same-sex couples. Right now, each bishop is allowed to decide whether his or her priests can conduct gay marriages. The proposal before the convention would allow clergy to decline to perform the ceremonies.

The new presiding bishop will take charge at a time when fewer Americans are formally affiliating with a particular religious group, contributing to steady membership declines in the Episcopal Church and other liberal Protestant groups, as well as some conservative churches.

Membership in the Episcopal Church has dropped by 18 percent over the last decade. Next week, the General Convention will consider restructuring church bodies and redirecting spending to more effectively reach out to the public.

The denomination has emerged from a period of turmoil after the 2003 election of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. Many Episcopal conservatives left or distanced themselves from the national church after his election.

For the election, the House of Bishops will meet privately in the city's Episcopal cathedral to vote, and the results will be presented for approval to the House of Deputies, the convention body comprising clergy and lay people.

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