The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori came to Dallas this month to spend a weekend at St. Michael and All Angels, where I am a member. During her three years as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of America, she has ridden a whirlwind of acrimony with a steady, determined drive to bring calm to chaos and to dispatch those who would rather be elsewhere anyway, or so they say.
This includes Jack Iker, the former bishop of Fort Worth. By elsewhere, he and the others mean a religious body that does not elect gay bishops, as Episcopalians did in New Hampshire six years ago or again, in early December, in Los Angeles, when they chose Mary Glasspool, a double-affront since some of the dissidents are not so high on women as priests either, much less as bishops.
Bishop Katharine, as she is called, has written a stream of letters to those who threaten her church, among them Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. She urged him to stay out of Virginia and refrain from installing a breakaway bishop of that state as head of a breakaway group called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. He came nonetheless. He may also think he saw and conquered, but I’m not convinced of that.
More recently Bishop Katharine issued a warning about legislation pending in Uganda that could punish by death those who violate certain laws against homosexuality. Clearly, they play for keeps in that country, but in her statement Bishop Katharine noted with regret that “antagonism toward gay and lesbian persons in African nations has been stirred by members and former members of our own church.” As for Anglicans in Uganda, they, she told me, have taken no stand whatsoever on this law, but, due perhaps, to her reaction and that of other religious leaders in the U.S., Uganda may drop the death penalty and life imprisonment from the bill.
Another intruder in the United States was Bishop Gregory Venables of the Southern Cone, based in Buenos Aires. Despite entreaties from Bishop Katharine not to meddle in affairs not his own, he came to Fort Worth even so, and lured Bishop Jack Iker and his diocese to renounce the Episcopal Church of America and instead join the group in Argentina. Bishop Katharine took it to mean and Jack Iker also had renounced his orders, and that was that. As she put it to me, “He is no longer a bishop in the Episcopal Church.”
Now Fort Worth has a re-created diocese with a new bishop, Wallis Ohl, who quickly ordained two women priests, something Jack Iker never would have countenanced. Currently Bishop Iker, whose dissident congregations are under the aegis of Argentina after all, is loathe to give up his buildings in Fort Worth, which the newly reconstituted diocese claims as its own, historically and legally. All that will be settled in court, but however it goes, I suspect that those who take own Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori will discover at some that they have misread her qualities.
At. St. Michael’s she showed herself to be reserved and modest, but also impressively strong and imperturbable, willing to withstand whatever comes, without flinching. While she seeks conciliation, if that proves impossible she does not hesitate to say goodbye. Moreover, she has a powerful presence and firm convictions. Here in Dallas she made the most compelling case for social justice I have ever heard. That’s because she gave it a fresh context — joy. If anybody can save the Episcopal Church of America, it is Katharine Jefferts Schori, the improbable bishop who now is indispensable.