Third Anglican female bishop offers hope to women


January 05, 1993|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Jane Holmes Dixon, rector of St. Philip's Episcopal Parish in Laurel since 1986, gained a wider congregation Nov. 19 when she was consecrated the third female bishop of the worldwide Anglican church.

In imposing ceremonies under the Gothic arches of Washington's National Cathedral -- attended by the other two trailblazers, Bishop Barbara Harris of Massachusetts and Bishop Penelope Jamieson of New Zealand -- Jane Dixon became suffragan (assistant) to the Right Rev. Ronald H. Haines.

She now assists Bishop Haines in governing the Washington Episcopal Diocese that includes the District of Columbia and the Maryland counties of Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles and Mary's.

The soft-spoken, Mississippi-born mother of three, wife of a Justice Department lawyer, was educated at Vanderbilt and Virginia Theological Seminary. She was an active lay woman before her ordination to the priesthood in 1982. Bishop Dixon is 54.

QUESTION: What is the importance of your elevation to the rank of bishop?

ANSWER: It is important because it signifies, and it makes real, that we are created in the image of God, male and female.

In the Anglican tradition, we believe in the apostolic succession -- an unbroken line of bishops beginning with Christ's Apostles. For 2,000 years women had not been able to be a part of the episcopate, of that part of the ministry of our church.

So, for me to be a bishop really says that women and men are co-equal, as we were created.

Q.: You were consecrated a bishop in a week when the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, with varying degrees of certainty, reaffirmed its opposition to the ordination of women. Have you had contact with Catholics favoring female priests and bishops?

A.: Oh, absolutely. There are any number of women, religious and lay women, from the Roman church who were at my consecration, who have written to me, who have expressed support for my episcopate, and who have prayed for the day when this will happen in their own tradition.

Q.: Your experience has encouraged them?

A.: Yes, given them hope. One woman wrote me and said, "I had written to Bishop Barbara Harris in Massachusetts, and now I have two bishops."

Q.: Will the Catholic Church eventually ordain women?

A.: I can't imagine that someday they won't.

I don't recall thinking in the early 1970s that I was ever going to live to see it happen in my own tradition, and the fact that in less than 20 years we moved from ordaining women priests to women bishops is fairly phenomenal.

If it can happen in our tradition, it can happen in the Roman tradition. When? I don't know.

Q.: What is your response to the argument that ordaining women is hurting ecumenism, the movement toward worldwide Christian unity?

A.: Women have been ordained in other traditions. Some of the Presbyterians started ordaining women as far back as the '50s, and ecumenism still seems to be moving along.

I'm certain that there will be troubles -- in the effort to bring unity with churches opposed to women's ordination. I mean, I'm not so foolish as to think that it's not going to be difficult, but women have now been ordained in many traditions for some years and the discussions have continued.

There are some, of course, who will leave the Episcopal Church.

Q.: Is ecumenism important to you?

A.: Extremely important, as is interfaith dialogue -- not just with traditions within the Christian church but with other faith traditions.

I believe that we worship one God, and that someday, whenever that someday is, certainly within the Christian tradition, we will find some commonality, that we will find that one God is our common starting point, that we will find some resolution.

Q.: When did you first think of becoming a priest, a rector, a bishop?

A.: I was in my late 30s when I was confronted with the possibility of ordination, and decided to see if that might be what I was called to do, and couldn't believe really that that could be real for me. I had grown up thinking I could be a wife and a mother -- which I am -- and that ordination wasn't even a possibility for me. And then it became a possibility, it became a reality.

When I was being asked the questions for ordination, I was confronted, I remember, with what I expected to be doing in five years. And I looked around and said, "A priest," and then someone said, "You know full well you mean to be a rector." And in five years, I was a rector.

Q.: What do you say to people who sincerely believe that if Christ wanted women to be priests or bishops, he would have included women among the Apostles?

A.: That's the most usual argument.

The way I understand Scripture is that many were in the following, were with Our Lord, and Scripture tells us that some of them were women. Jesus never ordained anybody, male or female.

I'm sure Our Lord has problems with the institutional church, that many of the things we do -- that many of the things I have participated in -- have not been totally pleasing to God.

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