A Fearless Woman of Firsts: The 26th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Is an Expert in Forging Relationships-Even with Those Who Disagree

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KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI, 26th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States and 15 other countries, is determined to build far-reaching relationships.

A woman of firsts, she was the first female oceanographer to join the crew of an expedition ship in the North Pacific back in the 1980s. In 2000, she was elected the first bishop of Nevada never to have served as the rector of a parish. In 2006, she became the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal church in the U.S. and chief pastor to its 2.4 million members in 16 countries. In addition, she is the first female leader of any church in the worldwide Anglican Communion. In 2008, she became the first woman ever to preach a sermon in the venerable Cathedral of St. George in Jerusalem.

The bishop is noted for her quick intellect, composure and sang-froid, traits that serve her well in an era when opposition to the investiture of women bishops runs high in some quarters. In May 2010, she pushed the envelope again, co-consecrating as suffragan bishop of Los Angeles Canon Mary Glasspool, a lesbian in a committed same-sex relationship. "She is a breath of fresh air for the Episcopal church and Anglicanism. She is exactly the kind of leader the church needs at this time in its history," says the Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi, the American-born rector of St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont., and a former Episcopal priest and church growth consultant in the U.S. and Canada.

But the bishop is a tough interview. She does not care for biographical questions. Her answers are short, and her tone says, "Don't go there." Still, her past offers up irresistible glimpses into what the future might hold.

Born in Florida in 1954 to a scientific family (her father was a physicist, her mother a virologist), Jefferts Schori was raised as a Roman Catholic until the age of eight, at which time her parents joined the Episcopal church. And while, as a young girl, she felt a strong vocation for Christian ministry, there was no call to the ordained ministry. "That was not a possibility in any sphere that I knew about then," she says.

Before her ordination as a priest in 1994, the bishop was a marine biologist and taught at the college level, having earned a doctorate in oceanography from Oregon State University in 1983. Her field was taxonomy, the branch of zoology that describes various species and their interrelationships. "I specialized in zoogeography, which tracks the distribution of species. I was studying cephalopods--squid and octopus--in the North Pacific." In the 1980s, the bishop, whom her husband, Richard, a retired mathematics professor, calls "fearless," joined the crew of a scientific expedition as the only woman aboard. The captain gave her the cold shoulder at first, but she persevered in talking to him and "he soon got over it," recalls Jefferts Schori, who stresses that she goes to great lengths to forge relationships with those who disagree with her.

Science and faith come together in her pastoral life; the analytic skills necessary for scientific excellence have influenced her approach to mission. "Science invites you to look at the world carefully and without prejudgment. It requires you to gather data objectively and to listen well and then alter your hypothesis based on the data," she says. In other words, a scientist must not only look but also critically observe and understand complex connections. It's tempting to speculate that her early study of biodiversity in the oceans has shaped her dedication to building relationships between Christian denominations and other religions.

During her years as an oceanographer, the bishop was approached several times by members of her congregation to consider becoming a priest. "It took me five years to say 'yes,'" recalls Jefferts Schori, who was ordained by the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif. …