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Jane H. Dixon, groundbreaking Episcopal bishop, dies

WASHINGTON -- 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.

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 tempore of the Washington Diocese in 2001 and 2002 was dominated by a standoff with a Maryland parish, whose rector, the Rev. Samuel Edwards, refused to recognize female authority.

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

The court ruled in 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, 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.

Dixon 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.

Even though female bishops still make up a small percentage of the total -- 18 of 300 living bishops -- Dixon had a major impact.

"A lot of women who started in Washington because of her then moved on to become rectors and deans" at large parishes and cathedrals across the country, Bishop John Bryson Chane said. "She really cracked that door open."

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