Episcopal Church consecrates first indigenous woman to episcopate

April 10, 2002

The Episcopal Church set another place at its table of inclusivity April 6 when it ordained Carol Joy Gallagher as suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Southern Virginia---the first indigenous woman to join the episcopate in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The consecration service was held on a brisk spring day at St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville, Virginia, one of the three historically black colleges supported by the Episcopal Church.

A procession of nearly 200 participants moved across campus and up the hill and into the gymnasium, welcomed by drums played by representatives of Virginia's tribes and with a 'smudging' of smoke from sweet grass used in Native American ceremonies for blessing and purification. The congregation of about 1,400 greeted the procession with a roof-raising rendition of 'Lift every voice and sing.'

The liturgy of nearly three hours was a blend of traditional Anglican liturgy mixed with soul music and Native American elements--especially from Gallagher's Cherokee heritage that comes from her mother, Betty WalkingStick Theobald. The new bishop's great-great-great-grandmother walked the Trail of Tears from North Carolina to Oklahoma in the 1830s. Her father, a Presbyterian minister, is dead.

Honoring differences

In his sermon, former presiding bishop Edmond L. Browning said that the 'divine pairing of love for the great and the small, for everything and for one thing, is strongly felt in the traditional spirituality of the Cherokee people.' But he added that, even though it is family-centered, 'Cherokee spirituality does not suspect diversity.' He quoted from a recent interview in The Witness magazine where Gallagher said that Cherokee spirituality 'assumes that difference is a gift, not a threat.'

Browning, who is credited with giving Native American ministry a much higher visibility during his tenure, continued, 'It's not just unjust to refuse to honor those who differ from us. It's not just rude. It's not just un-Christian. It's fatal. People are dying from it, right now, even as I speak.'

As evidence he pointed out that 'the settlement of Israel by European Jews was not conducted with full participation of the Palestinian people.' And he said that we know 'from the witness and struggle of our own native population, almost destroyed by our westward expansion,' that 'there was little heroism in seizing land and breaking treaties… As in the Holy Land today, the struggle was between unequally matched opponents.' He called for an end to the endless cycle of violence that is destroying the lives of people all over the world.

'Carol knows how to preach reconciliation without sweeping things under the rug. She knows that the choice between justice and peace is a false choice. There can be no real peace without justice--and that is the kind of leadership needed by the nation,' Browning said. 'I see no reason why the church cannot point to it by speaking eloquently of God's love and justice to the world.' In his direct charge to Gallagher, Browning implored her to 'never let go' of her passion for the truth.

Cherokee symbols

After an examination in which she was asked to affirm her call to the office of bishop and her role as 'a chief priest and pastor,' the 22 participating bishops gathered around to lay their hands on her head. In that solemn moment she joined other bishops in the historic succession stretching back to the earliest days of the church--and became the 977th bishop in the American succession.

Bishop Robert D. Rowley, Jr. of Northwestern Pennsylvania and president of Province III was chief consecrator, representing Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold. He was joined by Bishops David Bane, Barbara Harris, Edmond Browning, Donald Hart, Mark MacDonald and Wayne Wright.

During the vesting and presentation of gifts, Gallagher's mother presented her daughter with a bishop's cope or cloak, beaded with traditional Cherokee designs. Gallagher's uncle, Charles M. WalkingStick of Oklahoma, presented the crozier or staff, carved from a single piece of wood and embedded with turquoise and emblazoned with Cherokee symbols. Her cross is Celtic in design, inscribed with the seal of the Cherokee Nation. The miter was made of bleached doeskin and beaded by Cree artists from Canada.

Gallagher's duties in the diocese will include working with small congregations from an office in Petersburg and assisting Bishop David Bane in serving the people of the 120 parishes in a diocese reflecting a wide diversity of racial, ethnic and theological diversity. 'One of the things that Bishop Bane has done here is to encourage people to be who they are--conservative and liberal, yet all part of one family,' she said in an interview after her election.

Gallagher is a graduate of Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts and working on a doctorate in urban affairs and public policy at the University of Delaware. She was rector of St. Anne's in Middletown, Delaware, at the time of her election. She and her husband Mark are parents to three girls.

Equal partners

Although she recognizes the historical nature of her election, Gallagher doesn't want the symbolism to interfere with who she is and what she has been called to do as a bishop of the church--a bishop who happens to be a woman and a Cherokee. She told the New York Times in an interview that she does see her election as a reminder of the enduring presence of Native people. She said in an interview that her election was about encouraging and challenging people to do ministry together--and 'provide a place at the table for everybody.'

Gallagher has been active on the national level, as a member of the Episcopal Council on Indigenous Ministry and the Anti-Racism Committee. She was also instrumental in creating a ceremony in 1997 to commemorate the 390th anniversary of the first agreement between the colonists in Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, and the local tribes. That service of 'remembrance and reconciliation,' honoring the tradition of Anglicanism's roots in America, also declared that the church must regard its Indian members as 'equal partners' in its work.

Bishop Frank Vest, who was bishop of the Diocese of Southern Virginia at the time of the Jamestown service, said that the election of Gallagher was 'highly symbolic,' demonstrating that 'after 400 years the church has come full circle' by honoring its own traditions as well as the traditions of the original inhabitants.