Alaskans welcome new head of church

Episcopalians say first female leader is 'good news' for state

Posted: Monday, November 13, 2006

FAIRBANKS - Leaders of Alaska's Episcopalians are among those welcoming the first female bishop to head the Episcopal Church.

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Church leaders say they believe Katharine Jefferts Schori, who is responsible for churches across the country after taking office last week, will be a help to the faithful in Alaska.

"She is very good news for us," said the Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald, bishop of the Alaska Episcopal Diocese. MacDonald has known Jefferts Schori for 20 years and considers her a good friend.

"She has already shown a tremendous amount of interest in Alaska as a diocese and place," MacDonald said. "She's supportive of Native ministries and how churches in small places with little resources can move ahead."

The 52-year-old Jefferts Schori was bishop of Nevada when she was the surprise winner of the election for presiding bishop at the Episcopal General Convention in June. A former oceanographer who was ordained in 1994, she had served only about five years as a diocesan leader. However, she defeated six other candidates to become the first woman priest to lead a national province in the nearly 500 years of Anglicanism.

Her election was celebrated as a victory for female clergy and for Episcopalians who support full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. It was decried by U.S. traditionalists and many Anglicans overseas who do not want to recognize Jefferts Schori's leadership.

"I realize the problems and issues she creates for others," MacDonald said. "It doesn't mean I agree with everything, but we've always worked very well with each other."

Seven U.S. conservative dioceses have already rejected Jefferts Schori and have asked Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, to assign them another national leader. Three of the dioceses do not support ordaining women.

Although many are still uncomfortable with the notion, Alaska Episcopalians have already seen woman take leading roles in the church. Slightly more than a third of Alaska Episcopal deacons and ordained priests are women - six deacons and 12 priests to be exact.

MacDonald recognizes that the new bishop's progressive views will not make her tenure easy.

"She has one of the most demanding and challenging situations of any presiding bishop in the history of the Episcopal Church," he said. "What is appropriate is for everybody to pray for her. It is going to be difficult to satisfy anybody in all of this."

The Rev. Anna Frank, an Athabascan Episcopal priest, said the prejudice against women still holds true today in many places.

"Even in our villages. They are so used to male priests, it is hard for them to make that transition," said Frank, who was the first indigenous woman worldwide in the Anglican Communion to be ordained.

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