April 25, 2013

Katharine Jefferts Schori’s Cosmic Earth Day

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori spoke recently at a Washington National Cathedral service themed around Earth Day. (Photo: The Living Church)

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori spoke recently at a Washington National Cathedral service themed around Earth Day. (Photo: The Living Church)

By Jeff Walton (@JeffreyHWalton)

Salvation is a cosmic act about all creation “not simply a few human beings,” according to the Episcopal Church’s top bishop. Speaking April 21 at the Washington National Cathedral, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori gave an Earth Day sermon on becoming “effective shepherds and pasture tenders for the whole creation” but seemed to downplay mankind’s preeminent position in creation, placing humanity on equal footing with microbes.

The Presiding Bishop’s sermon illustrated the interconnectedness of all life with an examination of how humans coexist with bacteria.

“Microbes are part of us, in a very real sense our intimate neighbors or members, and the task is to learn how to manage the system for better health as a whole and in all its parts,” Jefferts Schori proposed.

“This work is about consciousness of our connection to the whole, and tender care of the other parts of that whole,” Jefferts Schori intoned. “It is simply another form of loving our neighbor as ourselves, for the neighbor is actually part of each one of us.”

During the processional hymn “God the sculptor of the mountains” congregants sang of “God the potter of the land: you are womb of all creation.”

The service recalls two of Jefferts Schori’s previous sermons. As Presiding Bishop-elect in 2006, Jefferts Schori stated “Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation — and you and I are His children.” At Episcopal General Convention in 2009 the Presiding Bishop denounced “the great Western heresy: that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.”

Addressing Violence

Jefferts Schori sat down with Cathedral Dean Gary Hall the same morning for an hour-long discussion in which she responded to church controversies, environmental stewardship and openly speculated about women’s ordination in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Asked by Hall to respond at the end of a week of difficult news, the Presiding Bishop reported that the church could assist in building a network of relationships “that provide balance and encourage resilience in the face of challenge.”

“Violence is a response to challenge, loneliness, loss, lack of meaning in life,” Jefferts Schori said. “I think that is a creative place for us to be engaged.”

Jefferts Schori also called Christians to consider their use of language in responding to violence, but was not just referring to intemperate words.

“Is the language we use intrinsically violent, or does it lead towards peace?” the Episcopal Church official asked.

“Think of all the martial hymns we have in the church,” Hall added.

On the Environment

Asked how her background in oceanography informed her understanding of humanity’s interconnectedness with the planet, the Presiding Bishop replied that oceanographers are trained to think systemically and “You can’t study anything in isolation.”

Affirming that the Gospel changed the relationship between human beings and God, Jefferts Schori added “it changed something about the relationship between all of creation and God.”

“We tend to focus very parochially on our own interests” Jefferts Schori observed, asserting it is part of the “eternal human challenge to widen our perspective over who is part of this community.”

On climate change, Jefferts Schori encouraged individuals to make daily decisions about the use of fuel, food, and water to “grow a consciousness” in addressing a “disconnect between daily life and the reality of climate change.”

Recalling his time as Rector of an Episcopal parish in Malibu, California, Hall cited beach erosion as evidence of a changing climate, pegging it to what he asserted were rising sea levels.

Asked about the church’s role in evangelism, Jefferts Schori praised bishops’ gun control advocacy and the Cathedral “being bold and forward in proclaiming what your vision of a healthy society looks like, what the kingdom of God needs to look like in this place.”

The Presiding Bishop also pointed to “movement outside the walls of the church” and “engagement where people spend their lives.”

“We are leaning how to do that, because it’s been so long since we have,” Jefferts Schori revealed.

Addressing Church Controversies

Asked to respond to a statistic that the Episcopal Church is significantly more white than the U.S. population, Jefferts Schori replied that there are places in the Episcopal Church that have been more intentional about embracing diversity but “we’ve got a long way to go.”

Asked to respond to claims that the Episcopal Church is declining due to its embrace of social issues such as same-sex marriage, Jefferts Schori did not contest the claim, instead noting that all mainline traditions are facing numerical decline over the past 30-40 years. The growth of conservative denominations was not mentioned.

“The reality is that any time you take a clear position on something, some people decide that they don’t want anything to do with it,” Jefferts Schori determined. “At the same time, a clear position is also an invitation to those who do want something to do with it.”

Asked about how to match the national church’s emphasis on climate change at the congregational level, Jefferts Schori suggested “you have to be intentional” and that local clergy were concerned about getting burned “preaching about something that is supposedly controversial”.

“I think it is a basic challenge to our understanding of sin,” Jefferts Schori claimed. “We are being self-centered in the way we live on this Earth and it is impacting other people. Sin has consequences. We are dumping our garbage in places that make it more difficult for other people to live.”

The forum concluded with a question about the Presiding Bishop’s legacy and the role of women in the church, Jefferts Schori noted that Mary Magdalene, the first to proclaim the resurrection, is still called by the Eastern Orthodox Church “Apostle to the Apostles”.

“The Orthodox haven’t yet ordained women, although it would appear they are at least theologically more open to it than the Roman Catholic tradition. Women have been essential to the leadership of the church since the very beginning, even though the roles they have been permitted to fulfill have changed.”

13 Responses to Katharine Jefferts Schori’s Cosmic Earth Day

  1. Adrian Croft says:

    Some liberal churches now hold “climate revivals,” having given up the traditional “revivals” in which congregations hosted guest preachers who would (it was hoped) rekindle the faith of the lukewarm attenders and perhaps make new converts too. I find myself thinking back to C. S. Lewis’s observation that the duty of the church is to address the issues that the secular world does not address, specifically, how is your soul, and where is it headed? The mainliners have no clue what those questions mean, since they apparently gave themselves the task of “saving the planet” (pardon my skepticism) and advancing the cause of gay marriage. I think Lewis had the deeper understanding of what “love of neighbor” really means, but “saving Bob” just doesn’t sound as pompous as “saving the planet’?

    Incidentally, what business is it of the Episcopalians’ head bishop what the Eastern Orthodox churches do? For someone obsessed with “diversity,” she ought to mind her own business and let other churches do as they please. Some of them are benefitting from her policies, serving as spiritual homes for ex-Episcopalians who don’t think her godless gospel is very appealing.

  2. eMatters says:

    Sounds like typical New Age thought. Oh, wait, she’s wearing a clerical collar, so she must be right. (Why is it that wolves like her and Spong are never seen without a collar? It is almost as if they are afraid you’ll think they aren’t Christians otherwise.)

  3. sandytnaylor says:

    Instead of fretting over membership loss, she gets all weepy over microbes. I call that majoring in the minors, literally. Honestly, every time I read her public statements I’m embarrassed on behalf of all women, or at least the ones of us who think. Everything she says is like some parody of liberalism, yet I think she really means it.

  4. A couple of clarifications. There is no title “Apostle to the Apostles” in Orthodox Christianity. There is the title “Equal to the Apostles” but this does not indicate apostolic authority. It only means that some persons furthered the Gospel among populations in ways similar to the apostles. The reason Mary Magdalene was granted the title because she first announced the resurrection to the disciples who would of course become the Apostles.

    I’m not sure why Jefferts Schori would speculate about women’s ordination in Orthodox Christianity but the chances of that happening are even more remote than Roman Catholicism despite some lone Orthodox voices claiming the contrary.

    Finally, the phrase “God the potter of the land: you are womb of all creation” is troubling. Frankly, it’s neo-pagan. A womb implies birth, and if God gave birth to the creation then the ontological distinction between Creator and created collapses. The brilliance of Genesis is that in speaking the world into existence, creation could not be collapsed into the Creator. If it were (as it was in pagan religions), death, disease and all the other maladies of the fallen world would be seen as belonging to the stuff and substance of the god/gods.

    In fact, paganism was a prison because death was unconquerable. Only the God of Abraham, because he was ontologically distinct from His creation, could defeat which He did in the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. Jefferts Schori, in her indiscriminate and promiscuous use of language, implicitly undermines that.

    • Rachel Evans’ book Year of Biblical Womanhood claims that Mary Magdalene is known as Apostle to the Apostles. I doubt Evans invented this “fact,” she probably picked it up from some feminist blog, and it gets endlessly repeated. Feminists aren’t exactly known for their exacting academic research, so this Apostle to the Apostles factoid is going to make the rounds just like the old “data” about wife abuse increasing during Super Bowl games.

  5. Ah, makes we want to launch into several verses of “Onward Christian Soldiers!”

  6. lwaddell123 says:

    I have such a difficult time telling the difference between the liberal mainline churches and the emergent church. Could someone please explain the difference to me again (sarcasm). Which part of progressive secular agenda and the desire to be “relevant” does the mainline embrace that is different from the emergent church? And if there really isn’t any difference then aren’t they redundant? Maybe they should merge and create the Emergent Mainline Church of the Secular Progressives.

    • lwaddell123, the difference between mainline Protestant Christianity and forms of post-Evangelical Christianity like the Emergent Church movement is vibrancy. I’ve often puzzled over why post-Evangelicals start their own churches rather than join mainline traditions that already make room for their theological innovations. A possible answer is that post-Evangelicals grew up in vibrant faith communities and they wish to replicate those communities (but tolerant of their progressive theology). A swiftly declining church devoid of families does not appeal to this crowd from a membership standpoint, even though emergents would happily partner with mainliners in advocacy or hosting an event. “Mainline” and “Emergent” have a lot in common from a theological standpoint but their histories are different, and so are their expectations.

      • gregpaley says:

        That’s as good an explanation as I’ve read. I would ad that the Emergents definitely share the Mainlines’ contempt for Evangelicals, typified in Brian McLaren’s books, and aren’t too shy about expressing it. Putting it another way, both Mainlines and Emergents seem to identify Evangelicals – not sin, not secularism, not “the world” – as the primary opponent. I sense that the “vibrancy” that Jeffrey Walton refers to among the Emergents may be on the wane, but stay tuned.

    • Climate change, just like its progenitors like Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” Paul Erlich’s (neo-Malthusian) “Population Bomb,” and all the other alarms rung every decade or so is nothing more than secular apocalypticism.

      It borrows the motifs of the Christian narrative but rejects the transcendent deliverance to which the Christian imagery always points. That way it assumes the patina of moral authority by drawing on the deeper structures of the cultural memory shaped by Christianity, while ignoring the deeper wisdom the narrative reveals.

  7. Sorry about putting the comment in the wrong place. Also, Ray, thanks for the info about Rachel Evans. I did not know about the book. I’d be glad to answer any questions Schori might have in the future though. 🙂

  8. skotiad says:

    If Katherine Schori is any example of what women do as leaders, the RCs and Orthodox won’t be ordaining women for another hundred years. Taking a declining church and pushing it even further left (as in “off the cliff”) is hardly a star in any leader’s crown. Want to bet that Christians in the next century won’t even know the name of this woman who doesn’t believe in salvation but does believe that landfills and carbon footprints are core concerns of the faith?

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