Diocese of Chicago Elects First Black Female Bishop

Screen capture from Diocese of Chicago video

By Kirk Petersen

Since October, there has never been any doubt that the XIII Bishop of Chicago would be a person of color. The slate of four candidates included three Black priests and an Indian American, and was believed to be the first all-minority slate in an American diocese.

At a Zoom-enabled election convention on December 12, the deputies to convention selected the Rev. Canon Paula E. Clark, currently the canon to the ordinary and chief of staff in the Diocese of Washington. There was no doubt about that outcome after the third ballot, but diocesan canons require a two-thirds majority vote in both the lay and clerical orders. Bishop-Elect Clark reached that threshold in the clerical order on the third ballot, but fell short in the lay order, with 63 percent of the vote.

Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee, who is retiring at the end of the month, announced that the other candidates had withdrawn from contention. “We however do not have the required two-thirds majority in the lay order, and so to fulfill all righteousness we will have one more ballot, instead of going to lunch,” he said, as a smile tugged at his beard. This paved the way for a unanimous fourth ballot.

Half an hour later, Clark appeared on the screen with a radiant smile of her own. After thanking the convention, the other candidates, and all the people who have held her in prayer, she said “I have been in love with the Episcopal Church since it opened its doors to me and my family in the 1960s. We were a Black family in a predominantly white neighborhood, and yet, the Episcopal Church not only welcomed us, but formed me, and for that I am forever grateful. We Episcopalians are strong people who can model for the rest of this country and the world what it looks like to walk the way of love.”

Bishop Jeffrey Lee

Lee, who has served since 2008, originally was scheduled to retire in August after an election held in June, but both dates were moved back because of the pandemic. Ten days before the election, the Diocese of Milwaukee announced that on April 1, 2021, Lee will begin serving on a half-time basis as the provisional bishop of Milwaukee.

Clark was baptized into the Episcopal Church at age 10 by Bishop John Walker, the first Black dean of Washington National Cathedral and first Black bishop of the Diocese of Washington. In turn, Clark will be the first Black person and the first woman to lead the Diocese of Chicago.

She received her undergraduate education at Brown University and earned a master of public policy degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Before entering the seminary, Clark served as public information officer for the office of the mayor and the District of Columbia’s Board of Parole for nine years and spent five years as director of human resources and administration for an engineering and consulting firm in the District.

In 2004, she received a master of divinity degree from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and served at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D. C. and St. John’s Episcopal Church in Beltsville, Maryland, before joining the staff of Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde.  Her work for the diocese focused initially on clergy development and multicultural and justice issues.

The bishop-elect is married to Andrew McLean and describes herself as “the proud matriarch of our blended family of five adult children and seven grandchildren.”

From left: Paula E. Clark, Edwin Daniel Johnson, Fulton L. Porter III, Winnie Varghese

The other candidates were:

    • The Rev. Edwin Daniel Johnson, Rector, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Boston
    • The Rev. Dr. Fulton L. Porter III, Rector, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Chicago
    • The Rev. Winnie Varghese, Priest for Ministry and Program Coordination, Trinity Church Wall Street, New York City

Johnson withdrew from consideration after the second ballot, and Porter and Varghese after the third ballot.

Clark is scheduled to be consecrated April 24, and will become the spiritual and administrative leader of 31,000 baptised members at 122 parishes and missions. In the meantime, the Standing Committee will serve as the ecclesiastical authority of the diocese. The diocese includes 22 counties in the northern half of Illinois, with the Diocese of Springfield incorporating the remainder of the state.


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