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.”
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.”