By Alexandra Poolos
Sunday, February 25, 2007
As the Episcopal Church's first female presiding bishop faces pressure on same-sex unions, female priests say the schism threat places intensified scrutiny on their own leadership. First in a series on women changing religious institutions and practices.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The current rift between the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church, its U.S. body, leaves female priests at a turning point, says the Rev. Margaret Rose, head of the women's ministries at the Episcopal Church.
"We are either headed for annihilation or a conversation that is more healing if we can find a way for women and men to work together," she said in an interview last week.
After a heated five-day meeting in Tanzania that ended on Monday, the global Anglican Communion delivered an ultimatum to the Episcopal Church.
Leaders of Anglican provinces around the world told the Episcopal Church to bar gay men and lesbians from becoming bishops and halt official blessings of same-sex unions if it wants to remain part of the Anglican Communion, a world-wide affiliation of Anglican churches. A decision must be made by Sept. 30.
With the outspoken Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at the helm, the U.S. branch of the church is not expected to budge.
Schori released a statement just after the meeting that said the struggle for equality for gay men and lesbians would eventually prevail, drawing an analogy with the end of slavery.
Many Protestant churches, including the Episcopal Church, ordain women, but the Southern Baptist Church does not, nor do the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox denominations.
"There is more conservative pressure," said Rose, who is based in New York. "But we're seeing that the way Schori is responding is a model for us: her insistence in the belief that all people should be at the table and that the dialogue should continue."
The crisis comes at a still vulnerable time for female leaders in the Episcopal Church, where women's overall numbers have been rising rapidly but where fewer than 10 percent of rectors--priests that oversee parishes--are female, according to a 2003 study on pastoral leadership sponsored by the Duke University Divinity School.
Rose says many female priests are on edge about what's going to happen to the church but many agree with Schori, who, since taking her office and through the current divide, has expressed confidence that the church will not split and that only a handful of churches express dissatisfaction with the church's overall mission.
The Episcopal Church has been under pressure from traditionalists at home and abroad since the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Schori, 52, became the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church since it began ordaining women 30 years ago after she was elected in June 2006 and took over the post in November.
While criticism of Schori is now focused on her support of an openly gay bishop and church blessings for same-sex couples, some think that Schori herself is part of the uproar.
"This is a delayed response to the election of women," said Richard Valantasis, director of Anglican studies at Emory University in Atlanta, explaining that the decision to ordain women still rankles. "That is where the real global resistance is."
"The issue at its base is a gender issue," Rose said. "Part of the conversation that has not happened has to do with sexuality in general, which has to do with the nature of marriage as it is seen and lived out across the globe. It has to do with sexuality as it relates to men and women together. It has to do with inclusion and exclusion of the body. It certainly has to do with women's leadership."
The Rev. Astrid Storm, a 31-year-old vicar of St. Nicholas-On-The-Hudson, a small Episcopal parish in New York, speaks and writes in online journals about sexuality and often counsels women on issues related to reproduction.
"I think that women can raise awareness about political issues, like gay marriage," Storm said in an interview in a Manhattan coffee shop before the Tanzania meeting.
Although she is pro-choice, Storm says her pastoral duty is to listen to women struggling with sexuality and childbearing decisions. "It's hurtful when we don't talk about these issues. It's hurtful that they can't bring to church a part of their lives," she said. "I've had women admit to me that they've had abortions, and there's a lot of pain around that."
But institutional tensions within the church make Storm worry that her progressive practices would put her under new scrutiny.
"I've had people say if I talk too openly about pre-marital sex, the fewer jobs I'll be able to get because it's so provocative," Storm said. One church leader, she said, has recommended she focus on less controversial issues, such as poverty.
While female priests such as Schori, Rose and Storm have publicly embraced progressive positions, many others have not. The Rev. Carol Anderson, rector of the All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills, Calif., for instance, has fought for female priesthood since the 1970s, but has publicly expressed disinterest in using her pulpit for women's causes.
Since she became pastor in the late 1980s, attendance at Sunday services has nearly doubled to 3,000 and she has said that her example proves that women can get ahead in the priesthood.
Storm, for her part, says she knows that political and social activism could be a career risk.
But she says being a modern female priest means bringing spirituality down to earth and she is sure that plenty of congregants appreciate her efforts.
"A lot of people are very affirmative of what we're doing," she says. "People come in and say 'when I saw you there, I knew there was a place for me.'"
Alexandra Poolos is a Frontline/World fellow. A former managing editor for Women's eNews, she has reported for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, National Public Radio and abcnews.com.
This series is supported by The Sister Fund.
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