By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Before this year, the Episcopal Church never had an episcopal election in which every candidate on the slate was a woman. But the emergence of four women-only slates in 2018 has shattered that norm, leaving observers to wonder: why now?
The trailblazing began in Kansas in August when a two-woman slate was introduced to a diocese that has never elected a woman as bishop. When the process was then opened to potential nominees by petition, the additional nominee was a third woman, the Rev. Cathleen Chittenden Bascom, whom delegates elected on Oct. 19.
In early September, the Diocese of Colorado reduced its slate to include only two names, both women, after the Standing Committee withdrew the only male nominee, the Rev. Canon Michael Pipkin, upon learning of issues in his background. Two weeks later, the Diocese of West Tennessee announced a slate consisting of three women and no men. Then in October, the Diocese of San Diego released an episcopal election slate with just one person on it: the Rev. Canon Susan Brown Snook.
“We weren’t trying to make a statement or to be bold or to make a proclamation,” said the Rev. Gayle McCarty, who led the bishop search committee for West Tennessee. “We were just trying to be faithful to the charge before us.”
As all-women slates are becoming more common, observers and participants see two main factors. One is the influence of activists who have long wanted to see more women in the overwhelmingly male House of Bishops and seem to be using slates as instruments.
The other is competition among more than two dozen dioceses that have, for the past two years, been vying to attract qualified candidates. That is making diverse slates harder to produce, especially in small and mid-sized dioceses.
“Having this number of opportunities has done a number of things,” said the Rev. Foster Mays, president of the Council of Trustees for the Diocese of Kansas, which includes the Standing Committee. “It’s diluted the pool of candidates. Not that the pool is any smaller, but [candidates] have so many options that they’re being more selective in what they’re applying to. Also, too, because there are so many opportunities, it gives a lot of opportunities for women to really make an impact.”
Standing Committee leaders say diversity was considered when assembling search committees to assure that men, women, and other groups were represented.
“We were delighted to see some diversity within the applicant pool — men, women, people of color, and people representing geographical diversity among other areas,” said the Rev. Gary Meade, president of the Standing Committee for the Diocese of West Tennessee. “But once that applicant pool was being considered, what fell to the side was: is this person a man or a woman? Is this person black or white? Those issues became non-issues.”
Some question whether search committees are blind to sex, even if they aspire to be, when the result is a women-only slate.
“I’m not sure, in American society, that anybody is entirely gender-blind,” said Robert Prichard, a church historian at Virginia Theological Seminary. “Particularly in this particular climate in America. Perhaps that’s the case, but I would think as well that somebody in the room is mindful of gender to get a slate like that.”
West Tennessee has never had a woman serve as bishop, and nearly all of the 31 congregations around the diocese have a man in the top clergy role. And even though the bishop search process did not consider sex, Meade said, raising up more women to serve across the diocese is a goal.
“We’ve been working to catch up in that regard in terms of women in leadership,” Meade said. “Our most recent class of ordinands was all women. Some of the others who are coming up through the process are not exclusively women, but include a great number of women. So we’re very inclusive in that respect. We may not be as representative in terms of women in leadership in the diocese, but we’re getting there.”
Some observers believe the quest for more diversity among churchwide leaders is resulting in less diversity (i.e., women only) in episcopal slates.
Interest groups have for centuries shaped elections in order to elect bishops from their own camps, whether they share a common race, ethnicity, or theology, Prichard said. For activists to stack slates in order to expand the ranks of women in the House of Bishops would be consistent with this election-shaping tradition, in his view.
“I would guess that what we’re seeing is a demonstration of increased leverage of females on those nominating committees,” Prichard said. “As part of the ladder up, the percentage of women and level of activism of women on those search committees is increasing. And we’re seeing the results of that.”
Search committees, however, are sometimes joining the all-women trend unwittingly. Colorado, for instance, chose a diverse slate that only later became exclusively female after Pipkin was withdrawn.
The search committee in Kansas was prepared to present a slate of four — two women and two men — until both men withdrew in the final 24 hours before the slate was presented, Mays said.
All-women slates are reportedly being well-received. Those involved in searches say they have heard only a smattering of discontent.
“A retired priest had expressed some concern about Shouldn’t there be some male representation in the mix?,” Mays said. “Besides that one individual, people have uniformly been enthusiastic. … A lot of folks are frankly delighted that we find ourselves in a position where we have a fully female slate.”
Mays estimated that more than two dozen dioceses have been seeking bishops in the past two years as baby boomers retire. He said the sheer number of diocesan searches likely had an effect in Kansas, where the applicant pool of 11 names was smaller than expected. So stiff is the competition that the Diocese of Nevada cited it as a factor in its October decision to suspend its bishop search until next year, even after nominating three priests.
“There were an unprecedented number of bishop searches in process, resulting in a limited applicant pool,” said Bonnie Polley, Nevada’s Standing Committee president, in a statement.
The Diocese of West Tennessee also received fewer applications than expected, Meade said. It was one of 17 dioceses seeking a bishop when the process began, he said.
Bob Morse, president of the Diocese of Colorado’s Standing Committee, declined to say how large its pool of applicants was or what percent of the applicants were women. “The Standing Committee rejoices in having two very qualified candidates on our slate for Bishop of Colorado,” he said in a written statement.
Those pressing ahead with all-women slates see a blessing in the quality of candidates and what these slates portend for the church’s future. Although the Diocese of Kansas did not set out to create an all-women slate, it inevitably points to more diversity ahead in the House of Bishops, said the Rev. Casey Rohleder, co-chair of the Kansas search committee.
“It will cast a broader vision of the kingdom of God among us,” Rohleder said. “More diversity, regardless of how it comes, that better reflects the Body of Christ is good for the church.”