When the Rev. Carrie Schofield-Broadbent is consecrated and ordained a bishop of the Episcopal Church in a ceremony Saturday in Washington, D.C., she’ll make history in one of America’s oldest Protestant denominations.
Schofield-Broadbent, 48, a native of New York state, was chosen in March to succeed the 14th bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, the Most Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton. The service at the National Cathedral will elevate her from priest to “bishop coadjutor.” And when Sutton, 69, retires next year, she’ll become the first woman to serve as spiritual leader of a jurisdiction with roots in the 1600s.
What Schofield-Broadbent will inherit is a diocese with about 40,000 members in 117 congregations in Central, Northern, Western and Southern Maryland. During Sutton’s tenure, the diocese has helped spearhead a churchwide movement to come to terms with Episcopalians’ legacy of white supremacy, faced declines in overall attendance and membership numbers, weathered a crisis when assistant bishop Heather Cook killed a Baltimore cyclist while driving drunk, and improvised its way through a pandemic.
A married mother of two with a reputation for collaborative leadership and growing congregations, the bishop-elect sat down in late August for a conversation with The Baltimore Sun.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You said in March that Marylanders seemed determined and willing to embrace tough conversations. Having lived here since July 1, what do you think?
Those impressions have only been confirmed. I’ve already taken part in a couple of difficult conversations, and we’ve had to hold space for differences of opinion. I just think that there are fewer and fewer opportunities and spaces for Americans to have civil conversations around their differences today. But that’s what we really need, so I rejoice when we can have those conversations and be in relationship.
What do you think the diocese does well and how would you build on that?
For many years, the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland has been doing wonderful reckoning and research around their ties to racism and racial justice and what they can do about those. I’m hoping we can apply this same strength to conversations about our church’s history with Indigenous people here. I hope we can use some of that bravery to look at environmental issues. I’m hoping we can apply the skills we’ve built toward continuing to seek justice, even when it’s hard.
Do you see that kind of truth-telling as unusual among Episcopalians?
I do think part of the culture in our church is to not make waves, to have everybody feel good and safe. As we now know, though, those are some of the tools of white privilege that we need to dismantle. What I love about the people of this diocese is that they have the bravery to explore the things that are difficult to explore, because they know that the bottom holds, that someone is not going to just get offended and skulk out of the room. Those are skills we develop as part of the culture in this diocese.
Questions around LGBTQ+ issues have divided a number of Christian denominations, including the Episcopal Church. What are your thoughts on that?
I’m for full inclusion, for God’s people to be warmly received and welcomed for exactly who God created them to be. I think people in our parishes are very welcoming, but I’m not sure everyone knows about pronoun use. And while a parish might be OK with “L” and “G,” they might not know what to do with “T” or “A.” I want to make sure we’re nuancing this, that our parishes are equipped to welcome whoever God is sending our way.
Have the Maryland diocese and the church learned the right lessons from the Heather Cook debacle?
That was a crime and a tragedy, but I think the diocese and the church both learned a lot through that, and we’re continuing to heal. Healing is not a linear process; I think that experience will always be part of all our lives. But we’ve emerged more careful about our processes and due diligence. We’ve rethought our policies, procedures and culture around alcohol use.
How did the pandemic affect your former diocese?
It felt like the world was shaken and thrown in the air. Our first thought was, “How can we do church without our buildings?” “How can we do church through a computer?” But that’s when the Holy Spirit said, “Hold my chalice.”
It was a tough time for clergy, but among lay people, I’d hear things like, “You wouldn’t believe what our priest did. He got us on Zoom, and we got to see Helen, who hasn’t come in years, and now she’s connected.” I hope we’ll never lose this ability to connect through to technology. A lot of people have access to our churches who didn’t before.
Attendance has been declining for years in the Episcopal Church and other faith traditions. How big a crisis is that?
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We’ve seen church attendance rise and fall across U.S. history. Sometimes it’s fashionable; sometimes it’s needed. Sometimes people are finding God in other places. I do think when people look at the Church today, too many look back to the way things were in the 1950s and ‘60s and say, “We were so much bigger then; we had to set up chairs in the aisles.” I also know those churches didn’t always do the justice work we needed. They didn’t always form disciples. Some people showed up because it was weird not to.
Having a nimble church, a faithful church, churches where people are committed to being there — I’m excited to see what that can look like.
Do you foresee any church mergers or closures?
We want parishes to stay open as long as they’re vital and healthy and have the energy to be that way. But the Episcopal Church is “right-sizing” in a sense. A lot of our churches were built so long ago that people were saddling up their horses and buggies to get there, so having a church every few miles was handy. Now that people can get in their Prius or their RAV4 or whatever they drive, they can be at church in no time. I think we might be “right-sizing” a bit in some of those areas.
You’re a historic figure in the Diocese of Maryland. How important is that?
I don’t think much about “firsts,” but I’m aware that as a member of a historically underrepresented group, I need to make decisions not just on behalf of what Carrie would want, but what would be good for the whole. For example, the Diocese of Maryland has a tradition of having very large oil paintings done of their bishops. If it were just up to me, I’d think, “No, please just take a picture and put it in a little frame.” But I know that in the arc of history what we don’t need to see is all the male bishops really large and then, like, a Polaroid of the first woman diocesan. So I try to see things in the big picture as well. And I’ll stand in the authority that the church is giving me.
The Rev. Carrie Schofield-Broadbent will be ordained and consecrated an Episcopal bishop, and bishop coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, at the Washington National Cathedral at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 16. The service will be open to the public.