On Nov. 11, Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori of the United States Episcopal Church spoke in front of an audience of students and faculty. The event, which was the latest in the year-long Women at Kenyon celebration, took place in the Gund Gallery Community Foundation theater. Following an introduction by Priest-in-charge of Harcourt Parish and College Chaplain Rachel Kessler ’04, Jefferts Schori took the stage to deliver a speech about women, power, and the fight to be recognized.
Jefferts Schori had particular insight into the struggles women in positions of power face: when she was elected as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2006, she was the first woman ever to serve as primate in the worldwide Episcopal communion. During her tenure, she shepherded the Episcopal church through a number of changes, one of which was the acceptance of LGBTQ+ members into the church. Prior to her time as bishop, Jefferts Schori taught subjects such as fishery, religious studies and philosophy at Oregon State University, where she holds a Ph.D. in oceanography.
Jefferts Schori’s talk covered a range of subjects, but focused heavily on women’s leadership. She discussed the role women had played in history and Biblical scripture; the difficulties women face in the modern era as they fight for positions of respect; and the importance of female leadership in our conflicted modern era. She frequently referenced the idea of peaceful protest, and finding innovative ways to encourage change. One example she gave was of a group of women who, infuriated by an oil company’s pollution of the Niger Delta, stood in front of the corporate headquarters and removed their blouses. In the face of this, the oil company was compelled to negotiate.
“It’s easier to be creative when you don’t sit in the midst of the status quo,” Jefferts Schori said. “Without access to traditional seats of power, women and marginalized people have had to be creative. Creativity asserts that transformation is always possible, even if we haven’t yet figured out how.”
In the Q&A that followed the speech, one student, Sophie Mortensen ’20, wondered whether Jefferts Schori would advise someone to follow in her footsteps.
“What advice would you be able to give to someone—say, a young college student—who is discerning a vocation in religious leadership?” Mortensen asked.
“Keep discerning,” Jefferts Schori said. “[Religious leadership is] a place where you can be in a relationship with people in a way you can’t always in a more secular workplace. It’s a place where you can hold up those ancient dreams and point to where we can make a difference.”
Isak Davis ’20 brought up the idea of “cancel culture” in modern discourse, particularly at Kenyon. “Canceling” is the practice of ostracizing or shaming someone whose views or action are deemed offensive. Davis wondered if Jefferts Schori had any insight into the subject through her experience as bishop.
Jefferts Schori acknowledged that the Episcopal Church had faced similar problems. She blamed at least part of the issue on the anonymity provided by technology.
“The nastiness in the Anglican communion 10, 15 years ago started on the internet, when people could blindly put out information that was untrue,” Jefferts Schori said. “Perhaps [that’s] why I continue to say that face-to-face [communication] is really important … Face to face, we have to see a human being. In the Abrahamic tradition, it’s the image of God in our neighbor.”
The discussion’s end was met with a round of applause. As students and faculty filed out of the theater, several audience members expressed gratitude that Jefferts Schori had chosen to visit Kenyon.
“It was a lovely event. It gives so much hope,” Davis said. “Reverend Jefferts [Schori] exudes hope and goodness. I haven’t felt that for such a long time about someone coming to campus.”