‘Engendering opposition is a sign of being effective.’
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, spending lots of time in the mountains and the islands in Puget Sound just fascinated with the wonders of creation. I was quite convinced that I wanted to be a scientist. Having a sense of the wonder of the world around us and the great diversity and the health that diversity signals translates into human communities as well. Being formed as a scientist prepared me in an unusual way to work in human community; being willing to have a hypothesis and test it and not assume that I know the answer going in has been very helpful.
The Bible says many things about women’s roles. And the reality is, everybody cherry-picks. We all look for the pieces that affirm what we already believe. If we’re faithful, we keep looking and hopefully we encounter things that confront us, that challenge us and that might transform our view of the role of every human being.
I read the narratives as saying that God has created human beings in God’s image, that we are meant to be partners in caring for the whole of creation, that each person has particular gifts that may or may not be linked to gender, and that we’re meant to exercise those gifts on behalf of the whole.
After I finished seminary, I received a call to go back to the congregation that I’d been a part of. And early on, a couple of older women came up to me and said, “We don’t believe in women priests, but you’re all right.” It’s the sense of seeing a real human being exercising a role you hadn’t imagined women being in before that really converts hearts.
The day I was elected presiding bishop, after all the hullabaloo in the house of deputies when the consents were given, a man said to me, “Now, don’t you wear dangly earrings.” It just confronted his image of what was proper and appropriate.
I was elected in 2006, and Bishop Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, had been elected in 2003. That was an excuse around the communion for deciding that the Episcopal Church was heretical, that it had done something so offensive that it no longer belonged to the community, and the parts of the Episcopal Church that supported that decision didn’t represent what other Episcopalians thought was appropriate.
So it was the lightning rod for conflict that was not just about gay and lesbian people but about leadership that didn’t look like a straight white male, which had been the tradition for a very long time. I think it opened a lot of doors, and it’s prompted a lot of creative conversation and some transformation.
Engendering opposition is a sign of being effective. If there’s opposition, it means they’re noticing that something has changed, that there’s a difference. That’s really the beginning of the conversation, if people are willing to engage.
I worked hard to expand the understanding of the average Episcopalian as to who we are as a body. We’re not just a church in the United States. We’re in 16 other countries. We come with many language traditions, many experiences of church and community, different cultural realities. I think we have a broader sense of the gift of diversity as a result, and a greater willingness to engage the different.
I know we’re not finished, but I think maybe the piece we’re wrestling with now is the full reality that every part of creation has a value and a purpose, and that we cannot simply treat other parts of creation as commodities as we have treated human beings in the past and still do in too many places.
I’m immensely hopeful about the coming generations of women in the church. They’re bold and courageous, and they’re willing to try new things and not take no for an answer. Those qualities are all very important.
Jefferts Schori studied biology at Stanford University and has a Ph.D. in oceanography from Oregon State University.