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Democracy, the church and the “long process of liberation.”

Democracy, the church and the “long process of liberation.”

The Church Times interviewed Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. She makes an observation that is interesting to ponder on this Independence Day.

She sets out her view of the Episcopal Church’s history and charism: ever-widening circles of inclusion into the full life of the Church. A path that parallels the struggles and tensions throughout our nation’s history.

“There is a long history of disagreement in the Episcopal Church. At heart, it’s about how people read scripture. Some people argue for the primacy of scripture, and won’t accept that there are other sources of authority.

“It’s a very old conflict, and we have always been forming minor splinter groups. We will always find something else to disagree about.” She puts conflict into a grand narrative of increasing inclusivity.

“The Episcopal Church has a widening understanding of what it is to be a human, an expanding anthropology, if you will. In the 1700s, a full member of the Church was a white man of majority who owned land; then we considered whether those who did not own land could be members. Next we wondered whether slaves could be members; then we questioned the whole issue of slavery.

“After that, we began to ask whether women could be full members. Then, here in the Episcopal Church, we’ve looked at the standing of children, baptised but not confirmed. Then gay and lesbian people, then disabled people. . . There will be other groups coming. I don’t know who they will be yet. It’s a long process of liberation.”

But earlier in the interview she answers a question about why it has taken so long for women to advance within the Episcopal Church–about why there are so few women Bishops and Cathedral Deans when there are so many women clergy.

She acknowledges that there is still ground to make up in the United States. “There is canonical equality,” she says, “but not equal access. The number of senior women – bishops, deans – does not represent the presence of women as priests.”

She thinks that the UK might eventually move faster than the Episcopal Church in the US, since priests and senior clergy are appointed to posts, not elected, as in the US. “I think you’re more fortunate in the UK, in that you don’t elect your bishops.”

The church’s 2011 report Called to Serve: A Study of Clergy Careers, Clergy Wellness, and Clergy Women shows the disparity between the canonical equality and equality of outcomes. See Stained glass ceiling still in place for women and Parish, family present predominant barriers to female clergy. The report found,

Thus the gender equality policies aimed at the formal structure of the Church have, it seems, largely succeeded, but the informal mechanisms that perpetuate inequality, those that occur in everyday interactions outside the arena of formal policy making, remain in place. … [I]t became clear that the world of the parish and the internal workings of the family still present barriers to the advancement of women clergy….

So what do you think? Is that “long process of liberation” helped or hindered by the councils of the church that elect bishops or choose rectors?


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Chris Epting

This is a very worrying comment by the PB indeed. Electing bishops (and rectors) is not only a feature of “democracy” but an expression of the Body of Christ where there is to be radical equality, power shared, and all voices are to be heard. We must be very careful about this gradual slippage of power “to the top” in this church.

Chris H.

Dennis, I think if you look at the PB’s tenure in terms of where organizational power lies you will see that increasing the role of the PB and centralizing control in the National Headquarters of TEC has been a general theme. From lawsuits and diocesan control of property to bylaws for the UTO and other groups to the delays if not refusal to obey the vote to sell 815, power has gone from the dioceses to the PB’s and National TEC offices.

I agree that it’s interesting that whenever liberals in the CoE complain about tradition and laws giving conservatives posts, or anytime a liberal is not appointed, the Americans all come out to say “You need elected bishops like ours to solve the problem”. Now that according to the articles mentioned the National TEC leaders are more liberal than the dioceses and parishes, well, now the PB says elections are bad. Guess it depends on who’s in charge of the National governing body whether top down decisions or bottom up elections are better.

Chris Harwood


I commented on this at Thinking Anglicans, but I will share my concern here, too. Her lack of support for the election of bishops worries me. With our recent history of the bishops willing to elbow aside lay leadership this is important. The election of bishops is a defining feature of the Episcopal Church. I’d like to hear her explain what she means by this.

Dennis Roberts

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