Women and Provisional Bishops

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

The Episcopal Church needs many more women bishops, according to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and it has neglected available methods to accomplish that goal.

Bishop Jefferts Schori delivered that message October 3 at the Women’s Leadership Forum at Episcopal Divinity School, where about 80 people (11 of them men) gathered to mark the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia 11’s ordinations.

Dioceses might place more women in top bishop roles, she said, if they would alter their processes within existing canons to give women a better chance. The presiding bishop mentioned options at the disposal of dioceses, namely electing more than one bishop at a time, and appointing provisional bishops in consultation with her office.

“It’s a way to encourage change and greater openness when a diocese is in need of it,” Jefferts Schori said of provisional appointments, noting they are not subject to the usual balloting process for electing bishops. “Any diocese could call for a provisional bishop if they’re in transition.”

Of 13 provisional bishops serving the Episcopal Church in recent years, only one is a woman: the Rt. Rev. Bavi Edna Rivera of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon. Of those 13, all but two (Rivera and the Rt. Rev. Chester Talton) are white.

Before a luncheon honoring the Philadelphia 11 (five were present), Jefferts Schori spoke on a panel alongside school reform activist Wendy Puriefoy and Victoria Budson, executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Women and Public Policy Program. They discussed how women might overcome barriers, including lack of interest.

Rather than cheer how far women have come since the early 1970s, the forum focused on how far they have to go in claiming power positions, and what can be done about it.

Participants lamented a litany of statistics. Despite decades of increasing opportunities for women in professional spheres, they still hold just 20 percent of seats in the United States Senate, 18 percent in the House of Representatives, and 17 percent on U.S. corporate boards. Panelists agreed that the church should be a model of balanced leadership.

“I think of the church as a place where a prism is constructed where people can see what should be, what could be, what is fair, what is right, and what is just,” Puriefoy said.

But the Episcopal Church is not providing enough of a model, they said, and growing numbers of male bishops see the dearth of women in their ranks as a problem that needs to be addressed.

Among the observations at the forum: only two women have been elected as diocesan bishops in the past 14 years; that number has dropped from a peak of five to three now; and large, wealthy parishes are still reluctant to call women as rectors. Women are still elected to supporting roles, such as suffragan bishops and assistant rectors, but seldom receive top roles or top-level pay.

“We aren’t where we expected to be,” said the Rev. Winnie Varghese, rector of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in Manhattan and the forum’s moderator. “Not that we are so naïve that we think progress just rolls forward, but it is actually in some cases rolling backward.”

The church has theological reasons for needing more women in top ranks, according to forum participants. One is to reflect Creation as God intended it to be: “God created humankind; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27, NRSV). Another is to be structured for divine justice.

“Women are more than half the human race,” Jefferts Schori said. “Their exclusion from leadership has often meant that their concerns are ignored, including concerns of their children and others who don’t have access to public fora.”

Budson grounded the case for 51-percent female leadership in political philosophy. If everyone in a community is an equal member, she said, then election results should reflect the community’s demographic balance. Otherwise, she said, “you would have to be acknowledging that you do not believe everyone is equal in your community.”

She challenged, however, the commonly held notion that women should hold more leadership positions because they bring a more collaborative style than men. Collaboration is a mark of women’s leadership because they’ve been marginalized, she said, and marginalized groups tend to work collaboratively when they attain power, at least at first.

“When we reach a norm where many or most organizations have longstanding histories of female leadership, it’s very possible that we’ll see the collaborative benefit of female leadership begin to decline,” Budson said.

Feminizing the highest echelons of church leadership, meanwhile, might require some new twists on old processes. Electing one person at a time tends to perpetuate the status quo in any organization, Budson said. People are more likely to shift habits and elect women when several slots are considered or filled at once — or, as she put it, “in batches.”

When asked whether the Episcopal Church could elect bishops “in batches,” Jefferts Schori said such a process would largely depend on the unlikely collaboration among famously independent dioceses, but it could be done. The “bishops in batches” approach has worked at least once to advance the cause of gender balance in the House of Bishops. In 2009, the Diocese of Los Angeles arranged for two bishops suffragan to be elected at the same time.

“Arguably, it gave people permission to vote for a woman or perhaps a gay person, and they did both,” Varghese said. “That was done very intentionally. It was written about in the church, though, as being very manipulative, which was interesting. But there they are. They exist once they’re made.”

Jefferts Schori said that resistance to women in top leadership roles tends to come not from clergy, who are largely supportive. It comes instead from laity in an Episcopal Church she described as “too white, too old, too female” in comparison with the general population. When asked if laywomen are to blame for the scant number of female leaders, she said, “I don’t know that,” and instead placed the problem broadly at the feet of laypeople empowered to cast votes.

“Lay electors are not familiar or comfortable with women as potential leaders in those contexts,” Jefferts Schori said. “The Church of England is going to have far more, far better representation by women bishops very soon because they appoint their bishops.”

Installing provisional bishops would potentially blunt the clout of lay delegates who oppose women candidates. A diocesan standing committee can bypass the usual election and, in consultation with the presiding bishop, appoint a provisional bishop to serve a designated term anytime a vacancy arises. Though a provisional bishop would still need to be approved by a diocesan convention, a woman serving in the role would have an advantage over one running on a ballot against several men.

Other forum participants agreed with the panelists. “I have found in my own process that the laity, and in particular laywomen, seem to often favor the men,” said Suzanne Culhane, a student at Episcopal Divinity School and a candidate for ordination in the Diocese of New York. “That’s quite clear and obvious to me.”

“The presiding bishop addressed it when she said it’s the laypeople in the pews, and those who go to convention and vote, that tend to be older, much more traditional, and white,” said the Rev. Nancy Gossling, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was one of four nominees (all women) in the Diocese of Maryland’s recent election of a bishop suffragan. “Until the diversity in our congregations change, I don’t think the leadership is going to change.”

Image: Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori asperges a congregation during the Women’s Leadership Forum at Episcopal Divinity School. • Ken Kotch Photography • www.kenkotch.com

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