“Power, as human beings exercise power, to me means the ability to change: the ability to change oneself, the ability to change one’s community. And the positive use of power is transformation of self and community toward a high ideal, toward a healed world.” This quote by Katherine Jefferts Schori speaks to the topic we are exploring this month of personal power and to the needs of the world today.
Of Irish ancestry, Katherine Jefferts Schori was born in Pensacola to Keith Jefferts and his wife Elaine Ryan. Jefferts Schori was first raised in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1963, her parents brought her, at the age of eight, into the Episcopal Church (St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, New Providence, New Jersey) with their own move out of Roman Catholicism. Her mother converted to Eastern Orthodoxy a few years later and died in 1998. She attended school in New Jersey, then earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Stanford University in 1974, a Master of Science degree in oceanography in 1977, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1983, also in oceanography, from Oregon State University. She is an instrument-rated pilot. Both her parents were pilots. She married Richard Schori, an Oregon State professor of topology, in 1979. Their daughter Katharine is a captain and pilot in the United States Air Force, continuing the family tradition.
Jefferts Schori earned her Master of Divinity in 1994 from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and was ordained priest that year. She served as assistant rector at the Church of the Good Samaritan, in Corvallis, Oregon, where she had special responsibility for pastoring the Hispanic community as a fluent Spanish communicator, and was in charge of adult education programs. In 2001, Jefferts Schori was elected and consecrated Bishop of Nevada. The Church Divinity School of the Pacific gave her an honorary Doctor of Divinity in 2001. Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois awarded her an honorary degree in 2007, as did The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee the following year. (Most Episcopal seminaries award an honorary doctorate to alumni who become bishops.)
The Episcopal Church met in General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, in June 2006. Bishop Jefferts Schori was elected to serve a nine-year term as Presiding Bishop by the House of Bishops, on June 18, from among seven nominees on the fifth ballot with 95 of the 188 votes cast. The House of Deputies, consisting of deacons, priests and laity, overwhelmingly approved the House of Bishops’ election later that day. She was the first woman primate in the worldwide Anglican Communion and the 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church as well as the 963rd bishop of the Episcopal Church.
For the past thirty years, Presiding Bishops have traditionally served a fifteen year term, presiding over three General Conventions which are held every three years. Jefferts Schori announced on September 23, 2014, that she would not seek another term as Presiding Bishop. On June 27, 2015, the General Convention elected Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. In 2017, Bishop Katherine began serving as assisting bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.
Diana Butler Bass, an independent scholar and expert on U.S. religion and author of eight books, including “Christianity After Religion” wrote of Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori: “In the 21st century, with declining numbers who identify as part of mainline religion, church elections are mostly a matter of inside baseball and of no great consequence to American society. Yet this cannot be fairly said of Jefferts Schori’s tenure as the head of the Episcopal Church. In the last decade, the denomination became a sort of a laboratory in which to observe cultural and religious change.
“The first and most obvious fact about Jefferts Schori’s tenure is that she is a she. As the only female head of an Anglican national church, she was subjected to innumerable indignities, the most noteworthy of which was a 2010 order by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that she not wear a mitre (the hat worn by Christian bishops to symbolize their spiritual authority) when preaching in an English cathedral.” [It should be noted that most recently when giving the homily at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markel, the current Presiding Bishop Michael Curry did not wear a mitre.]
Bass continues: “Jefferts Schori proved a tough leader, determined to protect the church, employing her resources to quell dissent and maintain church law. As a result, the Episcopal Church lost far fewer members than had been predicted and won almost every court case brought against it.” It should be noted that the Episcopal Church is one of the oldest religious institutions in the U.S.A.
The basis for the gospels included within the book known as the Holy Bible is that love has no limits. The tenure of Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori proves, as Bass concludes, that finding such on earth is difficult. “Jefferts Schori’s tenure also points to the complex and intertwined realities of women’s and LGBTQ rights. Her opponents exercised the same tactics of discrimination against both her and Gene Robinson. Each was (often grudgingly) recognized as a bishop, but faced constant challenges to their leadership on the basis of gender or sexual identity. They were excluded from meetings whenever possible, sometimes forced to sit separate from groups, forbidden to wear symbols of their rank in certain places, and disallowed from performing the sacraments – practices of segregation resembling those often employed against African Americans – and functionally intimating that Jefferts Schori and Robinson were somehow unclean or spiritually unacceptable.
“Such overt discrimination demonstrates that while sexism, homophobia and racism are not identical, they prompt the same response from those who fear losing power or privilege, including within the religious community. In a comment that applies to too many American organizations, Bishop Susan Goff of Virginia said the Episcopal Church continues to suffer from “deeply ingrained structural and institutional sexism.” Having a woman presiding bishop does not eliminate sexism – and electing a bishop who happens to be gay does not end homophobia. The Gordian knot of equal rights for all has to be untied as a whole, not as its individual threads.”
As we move forward we need to see the world as “we” and not a competition between “them” and “us”. There can be no limits to our efforts to make the world a better place for all. To quote Bishop Katherine once said: “See the encounters of Jesus’ life as windows into possibilities for yours. Accept the invitation to go or strive to go through the narrow door. Choose between life and fear, for the unengaged life is truly not worth living, and has no possibility of salvation or abundance.”