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Thursday, June 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

A sign of hope for Episcopalians

Special to The Times

Why on Earth would there be any controversy about the election of the first woman as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church? When I heard the news of the election of the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, my heart leapt and I thanked God. I wanted to celebrate even as I was surprised by the news.

For some within the worldwide family of Anglican Christians, Bishop Jefferts Schori's election is cause for concern. I believe this election is an invitation into holy conversation about discovering the face of God among us. It is a sign of hope.

When the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) made the decision to ordain women to the priesthood 30 years ago, it made a bold theological statement. After 2,000 years in which a male-dominated tradition used Scripture to justify excluding women from positions of ordained leadership in the church — as deacons, priests or bishops — the question of baptism was fully addressed. If baptism made you a full member of the body of Christ, how could that same household of God, known as the church, exclude more than half of its members from responding to a calling to ordained ministry?

It is often assumed that Episcopalians in the United States were the first church within the Anglican Communion to ordain women to the priesthood. That distinction belongs to the Anglican Church in Hong Kong and Macao, where Florence Li Tim Oi was ordained a priest in 1944, an action that led to several decades of discussion among Anglican Christians about the impact of the ordination of women on the entire Anglican Communion.

Today, 14 of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Church have made provision for including women in the episcopate. (The Greek word for bishop is episcope, hence the name of the Episcopal Church, signifying a church ordered around the historic episcopate, going back to the earliest days of Christianity.) The conversation that has led to this reality has not confused unity with uniformity. In fact, the conversation has been rooted in the notion of agape, or love, which allows for unity in diversity.

This unity in diversity, a steadfast rejection of the need for uniformity in order for unity to exist, is an indelible mark of the global Anglican Communion. It is often a difficult dance because of the human tendency to impose our own view or will, by force if necessary. To be "in communion" with people of a shared faith who hold a variety of theological and other perspectives requires a commitment to listen, to seek God's face in the other, as well as a commitment to reconciliation that is more than a feel-good phrase, but rather is a way of life. Is it possible that this willingness to live with unity in diversity of opinion might reflect what is possible for humankind?

Bishop Jefferts Schori's election was a magnificent surprise to many of us in the ECUSA. We had not allowed our imaginations to catch up with God's dream! Christians believe that we are called collectively to be an anticipatory sign of the Creation, filled with justice and healing for every kind of relationship.

If this election results in a deepening urgency among Anglicans about defining the role and status of women in the world, would that not be a significant step forward?

The Episcopal General Convention at which Bishop Jefferts Schori was elected also reaffirmed the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations. The goals are designed to end extreme poverty and hunger throughout the world by 2015. That sounds like religious faith in action. The Millennium Development Goals acknowledge that ending extreme global poverty and hunger cannot happen without addressing issues of maternal care, child mortality, gender equality and empowering women. Faith traditions of many kinds have endorsed these goals.

Having the voice and presence of Bishop Jefferts Schori at the very highest levels of the councils of a global church cannot help but deepen the compelling discussion about gender. Global poverty and hunger are disproportionately experienced by women throughout the world. The voices and leadership of women are desperately needed in our institutions and communities. Not because women bear responsibility for addressing this human crisis, but because, together, the voices of women and men inform and shape decisions in significant ways.

Bishop Jefferts Schori's election may be difficult for many, in part because her presence on the global religious stage will invite and compel discussion of how we are invited to be human together. While we do not have much choice about being human, we do make choices about whose humanity will be fully acknowledged. Institutions are indeed changed when women and men share in leadership. The Episcopal Church has certainly been changed and enriched by honoring the ordained ministry of both women and men.

Is it possible that this election of a woman as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church may result in more urgency in our actions around gender? Is it possible that women's voices at the highest level of religious leadership may result in all of us moving to action on the issues that affect life or death in the daily lives of people in most of the world? That would seem like movement toward discovering the face of God in every human being. It should make our hearts leap with hope.

The Very Rev. Robert V. Taylor is the dean of Saint Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle and a native of Cape Town, South Africa.

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