BB NOTE: Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, recently sat down with the American-Statesman for an interview. Pull up a chair and order a sandwich and let’s take a look:
American-Statesman: I realized on my way over here I didn’t prepare any questions about what it’s like to be the first woman to hold this job. I think part of that is maybe we’ve come to a place where we’re not as surprised.
Katharine Jefferts Schori: My sense, though, is, for women who grew up without female role models in the church, it’s a big deal. For children, who are growing up with more egalitarian models of leadership, it’s not likely to be such a big deal. I’m aware that I represent something because of who I am, my gender. That’s important to some people. It’s certainly not a focus of mine.
BB: While it may not be a big deal here either – it’s a big deal to many not only in The Episcopal Church but in the Anglican Communion. Where is the gracious understanding that she is a pioneer – and not only for women also for men? We are in community with each other – it’s not one or the other. How will men learn that women can lead in a relationship of mutual submission if she ignores the opportunity to make a difference – or just doesn’t care? By dismissing that as “it’s certainly not a focus of mine” leads here to do stuff like the unfortunate decision to wear shorts to meetings with the Primates in Dar Es Salaam. It’s possible she didn’t know or didn’t care – and, sadly, that is a good illustration of her leadership so far in The Episcopal Church.
American-Statesman: I want to ask about that transition from the Roman tradition (attending a Catholic school) to the Anglican. I know you were young, so your faith wasn’t fully formed, but how did the transition affect you?
Katharine Jefferts Schori: I had the gracious experience of going to a convent school directed by the Sacred Heart order, an order of French nuns. They were very structured but also willing to play. It was an experience of ordered freedom, which is something that Anglicanism takes quite seriously. So it’s a consistent theme in my life. On feast days, we went to school and put on our gym suits instead of our uniforms. And I have vivid memories of these nuns in their full black habits gathering up all their skirts to run down the field to play kickball with us. So there was some real grace in that.
The Episcopal Church for me was a very different kind of church experience (from the large-scale Roman Catholic Latin Masses). It was an intimate community where people knew each other, where we knew the priest. He became a friend of my parents, and it was a place where people were invited to question, to ask questions, to wrestle with their faith.
BB: Gotta love her description of the Episcopal Church (we can see the press officers wincing in the corner – please pass them a pitcher of Butterbeer) where she describes TEC as “an intimate community” that was small enough that everyone knew their names and the priest is a family friend (which can all only happen if the church is under 50 people) and the point of church was not to learn how to become disciples of Jesus Christ or hear the Good News of Great Joy, but rather “it was a place where people were invited to question, to ask questions, to wrestle with their faith.” No change, no transformation, no personal relationship with Jesus. It sounds like, well, Agnostics Anonymous.
American-Statesman: I want to talk about your commencement address. These people are about to go off into the world representing the Episcopal Church with all the knowledge they gathered from this seminary. What do you think is the most important thing they need to understand?
Katharine Jefferts Schori: I reminded them that they will give thanks for the things they have learned here, but they will soon discover they haven’t learned everything they need to know, that we only learn a lot of that by doing it. Much of that has to do with learning to love the people God puts around you. In all their diversity and challenge and blessing. I talked, as well, about my recent trip to Honduras and what leadership looks like there, leadership that’s willing to bless the seeds that are already planted, to see the possibility in people who have almost nothing, to identify that and name it and encourage it to grow. That people are competent once they’re challenged to be competent.
BB: Was this why the graduates were bouncing around the Giant Beachball during the speech? How can they “discover they haven’t learned everything the need to know” when the only place left is “a place where people are invited to question” but not get any answers. How will they learn what they don’t know if all we do is “wrestle” with faith – not actually introduce people to Jesus? And where does He fit into this anyway?
American-Statesman: Let’s talk about Bishop Akinola. You sent a letter to him asking him not to come to the U.S. and set up alternative episcopacies that would not recognize the Episcopal Church. He replied that it’s ironic that you would ask him to follow custom when in fact your province has violated scriptural teachings on issues like homosexuality. Is there possibility for dialogue beyond this?
Katharine Jefferts Schori: I think the possibility for dialogue with him in particular is a challenge. The reality is that we have changed our scriptural understandings about all sorts of things, including sexual ethics. We teach something different about contraception than we did 50 years ago. We permit remarriage after divorce, despite what Jesus said about it. Homosexuality is the most recent in a long series of challenges. Bishop Akinola is arguing that we’ve changed our understanding. Yes, we have, but not wholly. It’s a challenge to many people who don’t want to talk about sexuality in public. If you look at attitudes toward sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, what they were like in this country 50 years ago, and compare it to what they’re like in Nigeria today — pretty similar.
BB: Once again the press officers are wincing in the corner. She admits that TEC has “changed our scriptural understandings about all sorts of things, including sexual ethics.” So where Scripture doesn’t match the latest American cultural innovations, well – let’s toss those “questionable” Scriptures out the wahoo and by the way, let’s make a list of all things we’ve gone off the rails over, only let’s call it all blessed! Divorce is rampant among the clergy and now the bishops (TEC now has a thrice married bishop in Northern California) and let’s just celebrate that great success. She admits that “we’ve changed our understanding” of Scripture and then seems to think that Nigeria is fifty years behind America in theological understanding – the arrogance in this statement, the presumption is just staggering. Please, would someone pass the pitcher of Butterbeer over to the TEC press officers at the corner table?
American-Statesman: You are leading a denomination that is aging. It’s not growing overall here (in the U.S.). How can you invigorate the church and keep it vibrant and relevant?
Katharine Jefferts Schori: Part of our challenge is to see the people who are around us, who may not be Anglo, who may not be primarily English-speaking, and say: “Here is a field ripe for harvest, even though we might not have done work as a church there before.” The most rapidly growing parts of this church as a church are in some of those overseas dioceses like Haiti and Honduras and Dominican Republic. More forward-thinking dioceses are looking at the demographics and focusing their efforts on people who are there, not the people they wish were there or the people they’re used to being there.
There’s a young priest in Virginia who’s starting a congregation. He talked about his way of gathering people to begin that conversation. He said, “One of the things I do is go to Starbucks and I sit down at a table and I put out this little paper tent that says ‘Tell me your stories about God.’ ” It speaks to the reality of spiritual hunger of folks who may not have any experience with church at all. It means going out and speaking good news or listening to people and then offering news that fits. News that addresses the bad news that they’re talking about.
BB: Oh dear, pass me the pitcher of Butterbeer (haven’t yet seen this guy at any Starbucks in Virginia – but we’ll be on the lookout). The irony is staggering. Forget about the Global South, friends. Forget about Archbishop Orombi (pictured) who obviously doesn’t count. “More forward-thinking dioceses are looking at the demographics and focusing their efforts on people who are there, not the people they wish were there or the people they’re used to being there.” I can’t even begin to unpack this one – I don’t know whether to laugh or scream. “Forward-thinking dioceses” are looking at “demographics” and are “focusing their efforts on people who are there” – meaning the handful still in the pews, never mind the thousands and millions outside the doors who are in spiritual wilderness with little hope of finding their way through? Is she really saying forget about them and only care about those “who are there” and forget about evangelism? This is “forward-thinking?” Which means Nigeria and Uganda and other countries that are bringing millions to Jesus are “backward?”
Actually, the more we read this response, the more we are not sure what she’s saying when she says that the “forward thinkers” are “focusing their efforts on people who are there, not the people they wish were there or the people they’re used to being there” or “listening to people and then offering news that fits.” If the teaching of the church is changing and it’s not based on scripture anymore, but in making the gospel fit the culture which may or may not find Episcopalians sitting in the pews this week or next week, exactly what does the church stand for? She sounds like she’s recruiting for the local Country Club, only it’s not about golf anymore, it’s about hopscotch.
American-Statesman: Are you meeting any resistance to this?
Katharine Jefferts Schori: I think some people expect that the church should look like the church did when they were 15. The reality is, the church doesn’t live unless it continues to change. And it’s struggled with who’s in and who’s out from the very beginning. The first great controversies were about whether or not gentiles could be followers of Jesus. Do they have to be circumcised? Do they have to follow the dietary laws? We have struggled over and over again in this country with the place of slaves, African Americans, the place of immigrants, the place of women in the church. Today it’s about the place of gay and lesbian people. There will be another group next. I don’t know who it will be, but it’s our human nature to say (we want) people like us.
She must assuming her audience is very old and very old Episcopalians at that – that it’s full of Country Clubbers with Trust Funds. And by the way, this is not a good answer if – on one hand – she’s saying that “forward thinking” dioceses are focusing on “people who are there” while at the same time smashing those same people as being “people like us.” What she’s laying out here is a huge guilt trip on the remnant in the pews – it’s not about transformation through a personal relationship with Jesus, it’s about demographics and charts and forward thinking. She says its all about a struggle “with who’s in and who’s out.” She makes TEC sound like a Country Club with restricted membership. Once again, it’s not clear if she just doesn’t know – or she just doesn’t care. We can change the drapes and bring a guitar or a pipe organ (or even have church on a beach) – but what doesn’t change is more important than what does. I heard the Gospel preached on that beach when I was fifteen and I saw lives transformed, often radically. It’s ironic that she wants all the historic properties with their unchanging facades – but what all goes on inside them, well, anything goes.
The greatest irony is that she’s not listening to the very people she says are not in the pews – people of color who are in dioceses and provinces that are growing, even under persecution. She stands there with emptying pews and agnostic sentiments and calls it forwarding thinking and those that are on fire for the Gospel of Jesus Christ are, well, still living in the 1950’s – the last time the Episcopal Church grew.