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Monday, February 05, 2007

USA Today: "Episcopal Church's New Dawn"

Episcopal Church’s New Dawn
By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Every time Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori dons her personalized vestments, there's a vision of sunrise.

Colors of the "new dawn," cited so often by the prophet Isaiah, are sewn into her personalized mantle and bishop's hat — an orange glow rises from a green hem to a dawn-blue band below purple heavens.

Jefferts Schori herself stands for a new day in her church:

• The first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
• The first and only female primate, head of one of the 38 national and regional churches, in the world's largest non-Catholic Christian denomination.
• The leader who faces a costly fracture among the faithful, a crack radiating across the Anglican world.

Since her election in June and installation in November, a tiny but influential number of churches from Virginia to California — "one-half of 1% of the 7,200 congregations," she says — have spurned her leadership and the liberal direction of the Episcopal Church to align with Southern Hemisphere traditionalists.

The long-simmering tensions between those who adhere to a strict interpretation of the Bible and those who read it less literally came to a boil in 2003. That's when the church's governing body approved the election of the church's first openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Jefferts Schori has been excoriated by conservatives for her theological views. Some primates say they won't sit in the same room with her at her first meeting of the primates in Tanzania next week.

Yet, despite "white-hot animosity thrown at her, she's unflappable," New York Bishop Mark Sisk says.

Confronted with seemingly intractable conflicts, Jefferts Schori smiles like someone well versed in Matthew 6:25's refrain: "Be not anxious." The world is all of God, she says, so go forward.

"I'm no Pollyanna. I just try to look at the world with the expectation that I will find signs of God. The burning bush is an invitation, if we are willing to engage it."

She's at ease answering questions, speaking in a low voice, slowly and precisely. She zeros in to make a point by leaning forward to fix her intent gaze on a visitor.

She has had little time to personalize her functional New York office with its view of the United Nations. But one thing she treasures rests on her desk: a slice of shale embedded with an ammonite, a fossil ancestor of the chambered nautilus.

It is circular, complex, ruggedly beautiful — and has been extinct for 65 million years. It was a gift from her parents 30 years ago, as she commenced her first career in biological oceanography.

Introverted but not afraid

Jefferts Schori is as conversant on squids as on Scripture. She's also an instrument-rated pilot with a Cessna 172 stashed in Nevada, where she was bishop before taking national office. Lean and fit at 52, she spent Christmas Day climbing a snowy peak near Death Valley.

For all her adventurous spirit, scientific curiosity and pastoral experience since becoming a priest in 1994, she calls herself an introvert in her new book, A Wing and a Prayer. Yet she says that "fear should not block faithfulness."

Or optimism. To hear her talk, the future of her denomination is brighter every day, with many "healthy, vital churches."

What of breakaway churches?

She's sad to see them go, but not so sad that she won't fight for their properties. "The institution cannot give away its birthright and the gifts that belong to future generations. Our desire to reconcile continues, but if (the seceding churches) would prefer to be part of another tradition, then they are welcome to go. They just can't take what doesn't belong to them," she says, leaning forward.

"The church's laws are broad but they are there, and beyond these lines you cannot go. Crossing boundaries has consequences."

Condemnations from Global South primates?

Jefferts Schori steers the discussion to the positive, focusing on the mission she shares with many of the African primates to address the terrible plagues of war, poverty, disease and hunger.

"We can work on these together. Human need is so overwhelming that it seems incredibly sinful to spend time" on church politics.

What she omits: The Anglican Church in Tanzania recently declared itself in "severely impaired communion" with the Episcopal Church. The Archbishop of Uganda said he wouldn't meet with her because of her stance on biblical faith and morality.

The head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who invited Jefferts Schori to Tanzania, also invited some dissident U.S. conservative leaders. But the Anglican Archbishop of Southern Africa has been quoted saying that to boycott a legitimately elected primate while "Africa is on fire … is like fiddling while Rome burns" and "goes against God's fundamental call for unity and reconciliation."

Jefferts Schori is unruffled.

"It's not about me. This is not a table that belongs to any one province. It's God's table," she says,

What about her denomination's declining numbers?

Statistics don't scare her, she says. Yes, membership is down from 3.2 million in 1960 to 2.2 million today, a downward trend similar to all the mainline churches.

A new Gallup survey shows that the number of Americans who say they "consider themselves part of a Christian tradition" fell 6 percentage points, from 80% to 74%, from 1999 to 2006, while the number of people who say they are not part of any religious tradition rose from 13% to 18% in the same period.
Reaching out with social action

"It's no longer the social norm to be a Christian," Jefferts Schori says. Her answer isn't to ramp up on orthodoxy but to reach out to all ages and cultures with Christlike social action.

Critics say she equivocates on essential doctrine — the necessity for atonement and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ. They cite interviews in which she has said living like Jesus in this world was a more urgent task than worrying about the next world.

"It's not my job to pick" who is saved. "It's God's job," she tells USA TODAY.

Yes, sin "is pervasive, part of human nature," but "it's not the centerpiece of the Christian message. If we spend our time talking about sin and depravity, it is all we see in the world," she says.

Here's where blood rushes into the blogs and critics pounce.

"Her theological statements are not orthodox Christian, not orthodox Anglican. Frankly, they're bizarre," says the Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council. He has aligned with a group of U.S. churches that now answer to the Archbishop of Nigeria.

Sisk disagrees sharply.

"She's profoundly faithful to the central claims of the church and the Scriptures. People who say she's not are making that up. They just don't agree with her. And the fact that she stays calm in the face of a lot of pumped-up hype, that she just doesn't buy it, irritates them."

Indeed, asked about her critics, Jefferts Schori doesn't blink. She leans in, drops her voice even lower and cuts to the chase.

She sees two strands of faith: One is "most concerned with atonement, that Jesus died for our sins and our most important task is to repent." But the other is "the more gracious strand," says the bishop who dresses like a sunrise.

It "is to talk about life, to claim the joy and the blessings for good that it offers, to look forward."

"God became human in order that we may become divine. That's our task."


Grace said...

I think there are just different aspects to the atonement of Christ. I don't know that one is more significant than the other. In Jesus, our lives are hidden with Christ in God. Jesus is living His life in us, and through us. We're in Him. This all involves joy, and blessing, and brings radical transformation of life and repentance of sin at the same time.

And, the church can be concerned with personal evangelical outreach, and for peace and justice issues at the sametime. Both are very much related.

revsusan said...

I tell you, it was a fabulous thing to be standing in line to board my Southwest flight from Las Vegas to Raleigh and see three-in-a-row waiting passengers sitting with open newspapers and +Katharine's smiling face looking at me across the boarding area! And me with my camera buried in my carry-on as they called for the "A line" to get moving. (Can you say "moo," boys and girls?)

Anyway, it was a GREAT moment and a great profile. And I think +Sisk was right on that the thing that's getting to them the most is that they're not getting to HER!

Jim said...

In the generally not very good book, "The Cardinal," one of the members of the curia is quoted as saying that a thick skin is the ultimate gift of the Holy Spirit for clerics. It appears our new PB has it in abundance. Which suggests that the Titus 1:9 neo Pharisees to the contrary, the electors got it right.


Eileen said...

I agree with Jim - God Blessed +Katherine with that awesome thick skin. I'd be cowering!

And for the times she might feel the sting of those unfriendly words, may she know that the majority of TEC holds her up to our Creator in his glorious beam of sunlight.

Hiram said...

The article says of Bp Schori, "'It's not my job to pick' who is saved. 'It's God's job,' she tells USA TODAY."

There are no "reasserters" who say that they have the responsibility to pick who is "saved." We do say, however, that Jesus gave us both a message to proclaim and work to do that represents his character and presents a "preview" of the fullness of his Kingdom.

And that message includes both the sinfulness of humanity and the mercy of a loving Lord who, through the cross of Christ, offers forgiveness to all. Bp Schori contrasts two "strands" of the Christian message, a strand concerned with atonement, and "a more gracious strand." Someone once said that "mercy is not getting what we do deserve, and grace is receiving what we do not deserve." God offers us both mercy and grace. If sin does not exist or is not important, it is impossible to have mercy or grace, for they only exist against the backdrop of human sinfulness. If God is just, his justice must be whole, occurring not only in larger society but also in individuals.

(As an aside, I have found no real "theology of sin" in the blogs of "reappraisers." The idea of sin seems to be either the violation of some arbitrary list of rules, whose origins are more likely to be in a particular culture than from God, or, the violation of "social justice" in some way. There does not seem to be the idea, the biblical idea, that sin is an attitude of the heart, an inner rebellion against God and against the precepts and principles he has given in the writings of the prophets and apostles, that results in the breaking of God's commandments. Of course, no one person breaks all the commandments, and no one keeps all the commands.)

We reasserters are not “picking who is saved.” We are seeking to pass on a message given by the Lord Jesus to the whole world, so that people everywhere may know the living God, find acceptance in his mercy and grace (through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross), and live lives transformed by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and so that people may be changed inwardly, their characters producing ever more fully the Fruit of the Spirit, and their actions working ever more fully to change human relationships. Are we perfect? Not at all; we are works in progress – but that progress comes as we know Jesus ever more fully and submit ourselves to his teachings and to his Spirit, who enables us to receive his teachings as he gave them through the prophets and apostles.

It is individuals who respond to the message they hear – and perhaps they come to trust the Lord Jesus, or perhaps they try to remain “in charge” themselves, keeping God at a distance. And perhaps there are those who, conscious of their lack of relationship to God and of their doing what is wrong, appeal to whatever god they have heard of, or to an unknown god, and find acceptance as they humbly admit their need – an acceptance through Jesus, although they may have never heard his name. (If this be so, it does not absolve of us the responsibility to tell others of the reason for the hope that we have in the Lord Jesus.)

As I read the various things that Bp Schori has said since last summer, I have the impression that she regards Scripture and the theologies and the traditions of the various branches of Christianity as, to use an analogy, a flower shop where she may gather ideas that she finds attractive into an arrangement that she enjoys. We reasserters seek to see and to appreciate the garden God has designed and planted (the whole Gospel as presented in the whole of Scripture), and to help others to come and to appreciate its beauty as well.

I will be praying for Bp Schori as she travels to Africa next week. She is a very intelligent woman, blessed with many gifts and abilities (and I envy her her Cessna). But she will be going among more than three dozen others who are also very intelligent and blessed with gifts and abilities, and among whom are quite a few who have an entirely different idea of the nature of the Christian faith than she does. They will hear her out, and I hope that she will listen to them.