Episcopalians Choose First Female Presiding Bishop in Anglican History

The Episcopal Church on Sunday elected Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first female chief pastor of the denomination and the first female leader in the history of the world Anglican Communion.

The choice of Schori as presiding bishop complicates the already difficult relations between the American denomination and its fellow Anglicans.

Only two other Anglican provinces — New Zealand and Canada — have female bishops, although a handful of other provinces allow women to serve in the post. Still, there are many Anglican leaders who believe women should not be priests.

Schori was elected during the Episcopal General Convention, where delegates have been debating whether to appease Anglican leaders by agreeing to stop ordaining gay bishops — for now. In 2003, the Americans angered the Anglican world by electing the first openly gay bishop — V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Episcopal bishops elected Schori on the fifth ballot in a 95-93 vote then presented her to delegates for confirmation. That consent is nearly always given, however some delegates may voice objections.

The presiding bishop represents the Episcopal Church in meetings with other Anglican leaders and with leaders of other religious groups. But the presiding bishop's power is limited because of the democratic nature of the church. The General Convention is the top Episcopal policy-making body and dioceses elect their own bishops.

Schori will inherit a fractured church. The Pittsburgh-based Anglican Communion Network, which represents 10 U.S. conservative dioceses and more than 900 parishes within the Episcopal Church, is deciding whether to break from the denomination. The House of Bishops recently started a defense fund that will help fight legal battles against parishes that want to leave and take their property with them.

Membership in the Episcopal Church, as in other mainline Protestant groups, has been declining for years and has remained overwhelmingly white. More than a quarter of the 2.3 million parishioners are age 65 or older.