Obituary: Jane Holmes Dixon / Second female Episcopalian bishop in the United States

July 24, 1937 - Dec. 25, 2012

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Jane Holmes Dixon, a stay-at-home Bethesda, Md., mom who became a priest in her 40s and later became the second female bishop in the Episcopal Church, died in her sleep early Christmas morning at her home in Washington. She was 75 and died of heart disease, her family said.

Bishop Dixon was seen as a warm, empathetic mentor, particularly to female lay leaders and clergy in the Episcopal Church, which has wrestled in recent decades with rifts over gender roles, sexuality and Biblical literacy.

Her 17-month term as bishop pro tem of the Washington Diocese in 2001 and 2002 was dominated by a standoff with a rural Maryland parish in Prince George's County whose rector, the Rev. Samuel Edwards, refused to recognize female authority.

The issue wound up in the headlines, including a scene of Bishop Dixon preaching on the church basketball court after church members refused to admit her to the sanctuary. Bishop Dixon filed a federal lawsuit, charging that Rev. Edwards had been improperly hired by the church, without her approval and in violation of canonical law.

The court ruled in Bishop Dixon's favor, but the dispute scarred her standing with conservative Episcopalians, and she retired after the diocese elected a new leader in June 2002.

Throughout her clerical career, Bishop Dixon was largely seen as an unassuming Southerner whose early familiarity with racial discrimination in her native Mississippi fueled deep faith-based activism. She entered the priesthood, her family explained, to build on her dedication to education and social justice, which became a focus of her attention while attending St. Patrick's Episcopal Church in Washington.

Bishop Dixon wasn't someone who set out to knock down gender barriers, her family and colleagues said, and she didn't have the long list of accomplishments of other church leaders. She became an accidental pioneer whose rise in the church hierarchy was unexpected, even by herself.

She had been a priest for only 10 years when she was elected suffragan bishop, the second-highest rank among bishops, in Washington in 1992. She once told a meeting of Episcopal women that she "stepped out of the kitchen into a new and different world" when she became a priest in 1982.

At St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Laurel, Md., where she was pastor, she held a squirming piglet in her arms during a sermon to promote support for farmers in Central America. She often told a humility-generating story about a national reporter interviewing her in 1992 after her election as Washington's suffragan bishop. Bishop Dixon had her hair and nails done for the interview, during which she realized that the reporter had confused her with the psychic Jeane Dixon.

Bishop John Bryson Chane, who became head of the diocese in 2002, said in an interview that Bishop Dixon was a trailblazer when elected -- at the time one of three female bishops in the entire Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. wing. She was the second female bishop in the United States.

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