NORWAY – Peter Bickford said he still gets chills thinking about the historic moment he witnessed as the first-ever woman was announced presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church.

Bickford, a lay deputy for the Episcopal Diocese of Maine who lives in Paris, and the Rev. Anne Stanley, minister of the Christ Episcopal Church in Norway, joined a small group of Mainers who attended the church’s general convention in Ohio from June 13-21.

There, Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected to the top position of the U.S. Episcopal Church, which is part of the Anglican Communion.

“Most of us were elated,” Bickford said Tuesday. “I still get goosebumps thinking about it. It was a very moving experience.”

Stanley said Tuesday, “I almost didn’t believe it, I said this is too good to be true. I was stunned, I was overjoyed, I didn’t have words, I threw my hands up in the air, and I couldn’t talk.”

Bishop Jefferts Schori, 52, was elected 30 years after the 2.3-million-member church ordained its first woman priest. Jefferts Schori is the first women to hold the top post of any denomination within the worldwide Anglican communion, which has about 77 million members and is the world’s third-largest church body.

In the United States, there are 311 bishops of dioceses, 12 of whom are women, including the Right Rev. Chilton Knudsen of the Maine diocese.

Knudsen was one of the bishops who voted for Jefferts Schori, saying she was persuaded by Jefferts Schori’s gifts of reconciliation, demonstrated during her five years as bishop in Nevada.

“She has in her own diocese a number of different cultures,” Knudsen said Wednesday. “Nevada is a real melting pot, and she has been wonderful at bringing them all to a sense of common purpose.”

Jefferts Schori’s election confirms the Episcopal Church’s philosophy of inclusion. And her appointment will also likely lead to controversy and possibly some changes within the church. Jefferts Schori has been vocal about supporting gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions – a divisive issue within the worldwide Anglican communion. Some of its provinces still do not ordain women.

In an interview with Stanley, the petite and animated minister described the convention center in Columbus, Ohio, where 800 church deputies – lay and clergy – and everyone else who was there – media and other visitors, waited for the announcement of the new presiding bishop, who is elected every nine years.

Out of seven nominees, Jefferts Schori was the only woman, and one of the more liberal ones.

“Many people were surprised and pleased that a woman made it to the final list, and the conversation around the halls of the convention were which one of the men would probably get it,” Stanley said. “Nobody I talked to really thought this would happen.”

So when Jefferts Schori’s name was announced at the convention hall in front of the huge crowd, there was a moment of shock.

“We were stunned, surprised,” Stanley said. “You could have heard a pin drop as the announcement was being made. We have a house rule, as it were, we don’t demonstrate or clap without permission, decorum at all times, but in spite of all that, there were involuntary gasps and people bursting into tears.”

Although neither Bickford nor Stanley got a chance to speak personally with Jefferts Schori, she made an impression on both.

“There are things I look for in people,” Bickford said. “I look for intelligence, and I look for spirituality, and I look for leadership characteristics, and I saw all three in her.”

Bickford, a former math teacher, was elected to represent the Maine Diocese two years ago. Stanley became a deputy clergy six years ago, and this was the second general convention she’s attended, and the first in which she observed an election of presiding bishop.

Stanley said she believed Jefferts Schori was the best candidate to lead the church, partly because she had shown the most support to the church’s aim to help eliminate poverty.

“She is passionate about that,” Stanley said. “It is one of the many things that made her stand out.”

Stanley, who shares a late career entrance to the ministry with Jefferts Schori – both were ordained in 1994 – also pointed to the former scientist’s ability to go places traditionally filled with more men than women, and really, out of reach for most people.

“She is both an oceanographer and a pilot,” Stanley said. “She deals with the depths of the sea and the heights of the air.”


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