SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The Episcopal Church plans to elect a new presiding bishop Saturday at a conference in Salt Lake City.
The new national leader will succeed Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who will complete her nine-year term on Nov. 1. She was the first female Episcopal presiding bishop and the first woman to lead an Anglican national church. The 80-million-member Anglican Communion is a worldwide body of churches, including the U.S. Episcopal Church, with roots in the Church of England.
Among the nominees is Bishop Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina, who would become the first African-American presiding bishop in church history. The other candidates are Bishop Ian Douglas of the Diocese of Connecticut, Bishop Dabney Smith of the Diocese of Southwest Florida and Bishop Thomas Breidenthal of the Diocese of Southern Ohio.
The Episcopal Church, with headquarters in New York City, has about 1.9 million members and is known for its history as the faith home of many of the Founding Fathers and U.S. presidents.
The election is part of the Episcopal General Convention, which has drawn about 9,000 people and runs through Friday. The assembly, held once every three years, is the top legislative body of the church. Bishops, priests and lay people vote on measures that will set the course for the denomination.
Earlier this week, committees began reviewing church policies on alcohol and addiction as part of a churchwide soul-searching over a Maryland assistant bishop charged in the drunken-driving death of a bicyclist.
Next week, the convention will decide whether they should eliminate gender-specific language from church laws on marriage so religious weddings can also be performed for same-sex couples. Clergy would be allowed to decline to perform the ceremonies. Right now, each bishop is allowed to decide whether his or her priests can conduct gay marriages.
The new presiding bishop will take charge at a time when fewer Americans are formally affiliating with a particular religious group, contributing to steady membership declines in the Episcopal Church and other liberal Protestant groups, as well as some conservative churches.
Membership in the Episcopal Church has dropped by 18 percent over the last decade. Next week, the General Convention will consider restructuring church bodies and redirecting spending to more effectively reach out to the public.
The denomination has emerged from a period of turmoil after the 2003 election of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. Many Episcopal conservatives left or distanced themselves from the national church after his election.
For the election, the House of Bishops will meet privately in the city's Episcopal cathedral to vote, and the results will be presented for approval to the House of Deputies, the convention body comprising clergy and lay people.
Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll reported from New York.