RELIGION
06/18/2010 06:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Hats-Off To Female Bishop, And Not In A Good Way

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service

(RNS) Q: When is a hat more than a hat?

A: When the hat is a bishop's miter, and belongs to the female head of the Episcopal Church, symbolizing her rank in a church hierarchy dominated by men.

In a public snub that's being dubbed "mitergate," Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was told not to wear her miter--a tall, triangular hat--during services in London last Sunday (June 13).

Some observers say it's a stark sign of how relations have deteriorated between the Church of England, Anglicanism's mother church, and its headstrong American offshoot, the Episcopal Church. Others call it an attempt by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, to keep conservatives from seceding.

Jefferts Schori herself, in an interview with Episcopal News Service, called the whole affair "nonsense" and "beyond bizarre."

Lambeth Palace, Williams' London headquarters and home, told Jefferts Schori not to wear her miter when she presided at a service at nearby Southwark Cathedral, according to ENS. Pictures from the service show Jefferts Schori carrying the miter under her arm as she processed down the cathedral's nave.

She was also pressured to provide evidence of her ordination--the "ecclesiastical equivalent of a background check," quipped a church historian--before traveling to London, according to ENS.

Jefferts Schori told Episcopal leaders of Canterbury's demands during a private meeting on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church said Jefferts Schori has no further comment on the matter. Williams has not commented publicly, either.

Mitergate has enraged liberal Episcopalians, who were already upset that Williams booted their church from Anglican doctrinal and ecumenical committees in May. That dismissal came after Episcopalians rebuffed Williams' warnings and ordained a lesbian as an assistant bishop, the Episcopal Church's second openly gay bishop.

"It is particularly galling to American Episcopalians to have the Archbishop of Canterbury direct their Presiding Bishop not to display any signs of her spiritual authority," said church historian Diana Butler Bass in a Beliefnet.com column. Williams is treating the head of the Episcopal church, Butler Bass said, "as if she is a visiting ecclesiastical serf from some colonial outback."

The insult digs deeper, Butler Bass writes, because Jefferts Schori is the first and only woman in the 500-year history of Anglicanism elected to lead a national church, a point of pride for Episcopalians.

In 2008, two years after she was elected presiding bishop, Jefferts Schori wore a miter at a service in England before a meeting of Anglican bishops from around the world, according to pictures from ENS.

But since then, reactions to her gender and her liberal church have escalated tensions in the already fractious Anglican Communion. Earlier this month, Jefferts Schori accused Williams of distorting Anglicanism's legacy of local autonomy by trying to centralize power and police uniformity in the communion's 38 regional provinces.

Many Anglican leaders in those provinces consider homosexuality a sin, and the vast majority do not ordain women as bishops. The Church of England itself has been wracked by a contentious debate about allowing female bishops, with a number of men threatening to convert to Roman Catholicism.

Williams likely had those men in mind when he asked Jefferts Schori to leave her miter at home, said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a conservative theologian in South Carolina.

Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit England in September, and earlier this year the Vatican created a special process to welcome disaffected Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church.

Mitergate, Harmon said, was an attempt to "not have anyone prematurely focused on that option."

During her sermon at Southwark, Jefferts Schori preached about women who followed Jesus: one who shocked the apostles by barging into a dinner party with her head uncovered, and three others who bankrolled the spread of the gospel.

"Hmmm. Strong healthy women," Jefferts Schori said. " Together with many others they supported and fed the community--they became hosts of the banquet."