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Fort Worth elects Sarasota priest as its next bishop

A Sarasota Episcopal priest who opposes female ordination is in line to become bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, one of only five U.S. Episcopal dioceses where female priests still are excluded.

"I'm elated and rejoice in the election, but at the same time it's an awfully humbling and intimidating kind of experience," said the Rev. Jack L. Iker, rector of Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota.

Iker, 43, was elected bishop coadjutor of the 23-county Fort Worth diocese. A bishop coadjutor assists a diocesan bishop and succeeds him. The current Fort Worth bishop, the Right Rev. Clarence C. Pope Jr., 62, has not announced a retirement date.

Pope also is president of the Episcopal Synod of America (ESA), a national group of "traditionalists" who, among other things, oppose ordination of female priests. The group was formed in Fort Worth in 1989 by church leaders who rejected the consecration of Bishop Barbara Harris of Boston as the first female bishop in world Anglicanism. Iker said he is a member of the ESA.

Before Iker can become bishop coadjutor, more than 50 percent of the bishops and standing committees of the church's 121 U.S. and foreign dioceses must consent to his election. The vote is not expected for three to five months.

Some Episcopalians view Iker's election as a setback on the gender issue, but Iker said, "It's not a setback for anybody.

"It's a positive statement for the Episcopal Church because it shows the church still does welcome and have room at all levels for those who do not accept the ordination of women to the priesthood. I'd say it's a further demonstration of the inclusive nature of the Episcopal Church. The House of Bishops has clearly stated that opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood is a recognized theological position in this church and those who hold this position are loyal members. "

The church officially sanctioned female ordination in 1976, and more than 1,000 women have been ordained as priests. But in the dioceses of Fort Worth, San Joaquin, Calif., Eau Claire and Fond du Lac, Wis., and Quincy, Ill., female priests are effectively banned because bishops hold sway over appointments to parishes in their areas.

There are three female priests serving in the St. Petersburg-based Diocese of Southwest Florida, which includes Sarasota, said diocesan spokesperson Jeanette Crane. One serves at Holy Innocence Episcopal Church in Valrico and is a former deacon who was ordained by Bishop Rogers S. Harris. The others, who entered the diocese after being ordained elsewhere, are at St. John's Episcopal Church in Clearwater and St. Boniface Episcopal Church, Sarasota.

Iker said he bases his opposition to female ordination on "the biblical teaching and practice of the church for 2,000 years, which we take to be obedience to the example of Jesus and the apostles."

He said he expects "minimal" opposition in the ratification vote.

"I affirm and value the place of women in the church," Iker said. "I'm the father of three daughters, (and) I do not see this issue as one of women's equality or women's rights. Unfortunately, that's the only way others on the other side have viewed it _ as a question of the feminist movement."

In his new role, he added, "I will do everything I possibly can to reach out and include in the life of the diocese those who disagree with me, not only (on) this issue but any issue in the life of the church. I want to be a listener and reconciler and unifier in my ministry as a bishop. I would want to involve women at all levels of the church's life and decision-making. "

While acknowledging that "a differing point of view" exists on the gender issue in the Fort Worth diocese, he said, "I think the issue is not the ordination of women, the issue is loving one another and accepting one another and working with one another in spite of our differences.

"There are many differences within the Episcopal Church, and I consider ordination of women only one of them and certainly not the most important one. The biggest issue is how you work and live and worship with people with whom you hold a different opinion."

Iker has been rector of the Sarasota church since 1978 and served as assistant from 1976 to 1978. He has been president of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Southwest Florida, a member of the diocesan council, dean of the Sarasota Deanery and deputy to the church's last three general conventions.

Iker finished a strong second behind Harris in 1989 in the election for bishop of the Diocese of Southwest Florida.

Iker's replacement in Sarasota has not yet been named.

Iker was elected Oct. 2 on the sixth ballot at the Fort Worth diocese's annual convention. On the final ballot, he received 48 clergy and 81 lay votes out of a total of 86 clergy and 139 laity.

Iker was chosen over four other candidates, including the Rev. John Payne, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Wichita Falls, Texas. Payne was nominated from the floor. The other candidates were submitted by a special diocesan committee opposed to female ordination.

Payne, who has been viewed as favoring ordination of women, said in a telephone interview, "I recognize the authority of the Episcopal Church to open the ministry to women and I think how that would happen in Fort Worth would have to be a tactical decision. But as far as my feeling about the thing (female ordination), it would already be there. It would just be a question about how that could be implemented at some point."

After the election, some priests and lay people at the convention said the divided vote reflected substantial disagreement in the diocese, according to a Religious News Service report.

"This election shows there is a definite split in the diocese," said Floyd McKneely, chairperson of a local lay group formed to demonstrate support for positions of the national church, including ordination of women.

The Rev. John Stanley of Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth said votes cast for Payne indicate substantial sentiment for female priests.

Pope praised Iker and denied there was substantial disunity in the diocese.

_ Information from Religious News Service was used in this story.

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