A conversation with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

February 28, 2007

A February 28 live webcast originating from Trinity Church, Wall Street, opened with introductory remarks from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori centering on the recent Primates' Meeting in Tanzania. Following her comments, she answered questions from a live studio audience as well as phone and e-mail inquiries. Jefferts Schori's opening remarks follow: Good morning to all of you. And it is a good morning. As the psalmist says, "this is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it." Let us rejoice and be glad in the good and creative ministry going on in so many parts of this church and around the world. That is indeed an enormous blessing in a broken and hurting world. I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to and with you, and grateful to Trinity Church for making this format possible. I'm going to review what has happened at the recent meeting of the Primates, and offer a perspective that we might bring to the current situation. The recent meeting of the primates in Tanzania included 14 new primates, representing over one-third of the total membership. Several longer-serving primates are due to retire in the next couple of years, all of which is a reminder that change is a constant, including in the structures and leadership of the Anglican Communion. The very structure of that meeting represented a change, in that three other bishops of our church were invited to address a session early in the meeting. What the primates heard from those three, and from me, was intended to give a broader picture of the circumstances in this church which are being represented in some quarters as dire. The primates heard the pain and anger of those in the minority in this church, who feel that their understanding of biblical morality is undermined by recent developments around human sexuality. The primates also heard that the bulk of our church, and our ecumenical partners, do not see these issues as centrally important to our understanding of salvation and the gospel. The majority of this church is willing to live with where we are in regard to human sexuality, or to continue to move ahead in recognizing the full and equal dignity of gay and lesbian Christians, and the appropriateness of their serving in all orders of ministry in this church. That position, however, is a distinct minority within the Communion. The primates themselves represent a broad diversity of opinion. In all that follows, it is going to be helpful to remember that while a primate may be the leader of his province (and all the others are "he" at this point), that province also has a diversity of opinion. That diversity is becoming increasingly evident in this age of the internet. A number of the primates represent provinces, especially in westernized or developed nations, where homosexuality is recognized and discussed. Some of those provinces are, or are soon likely to be, faced with the issue of civil unions and the church's attitude toward them. Those primates may agree or disagree with our own church's recent actions, but they understand that those decisions are not sufficiently important to break communion. There is another group of primates whose provinces are generally not discussing these issues in any major way, and who are increasingly frustrated by the level of energy focused on them. Issues of poverty and disease, and the issues represented by the Millennium Development Goals, are far higher on their agendas. Generally, they do not see our church's actions as rising to the level of breaking communion, either. There is a final group of primates who are exceedingly exercised about our church's actions, and see them as anti-scriptural and incredibly difficult for them as they attempt to evangelize in their own contexts. It is those primates, or bishops in their provinces, who have entered congregations and dioceses here to offer oversight and episcopal ministry, generally uninvited by the local Episcopal bishop. Those primates and bishops who are crossing into this church report that their actions have been made out of a concern for the pastoral care and well-being of people in congregations here. Whatever you may think about the actions of those bishops and primates, it behooves us as Christians to assume that they acted in good faith until we are confronted by evidence to the contrary. Those bishops are seeking to offer pastoral care to the minority among us who disagree vehemently with the direction and decisions of recent General Conventions. That disagreement in some instances goes back many years, to the adoption of a new prayer book and the decision to ordain women to all orders of ministry, and those earlier disagreements in some cases seem to underlie the current difficulties. Those disagreements, and the way they are increasingly being played out on a global stage, are responsible for what you have seen in the communiqué from the recent meeting of the primates. We in the Episcopal Church are being encouraged to find a way to work out our differences, or at least find a way to manage them, through actions asked within our own church. We have been asked to clarify some of our actions at General Convention, and we have been asked to find a way to provide pastoral care for our dissenting minority. The details of those requests are in turn generating a significant amount of anxiety within our own church. The majority, as represented by General Convention's decisions, are being asked to pause in their journey toward the full recognition of same sex partnerships as an equally appropriate and holy manner of life for Christians, in the same way that marriage or celibacy have long been recognized to be. We are asked not to consent to the election of partnered gay or lesbian priests as bishops, and we are asked not to authorize public rites for the blessing of same-sex unions. Both issues are addressed in the Windsor report, and both were addressed by resolutions of the last General Convention. Some among the primates were dissatisfied with the responses we made last summer, despite the recognition of a group charged with assessing our responses, which indicated a belief that we had made a good faith response, to the degree that we were able. A further request of us is to establish an alternative mechanism for providing pastoral care to our dissenting minority. It is a variation on the proposal that a group of bishops and I made last fall. It would provide pastoral care to dissenting parishes or dioceses through bishops of our own church rather than through bishops from other provinces in the Anglican Communion. A Pastoral Council would oversee this proposal, both from the perspective of our own dissenting minority and to ensure that overseas bishops withdraw from interventions within our church. We are asked to indicate our response to these requests by the end of September. That time frame is not the only one with which we are contending. A larger project is underway to seek an Anglican Covenant, and the Primates' meeting received an initial draft of such a possible covenant. That draft is open to discussion and critique in the coming months. There is hope that a revised version will be available in time for the Lambeth conference in the summer of 2008, and a further revision following Lambeth will be made, at which time the Covenant will go to the various provinces for consideration, in particular to our General Convention in 2009. The expectation of a larger framework like the proposed Covenant, within which Anglicans can wrestle with difference, gives us a more reasonable time frame for clarifying how and where we want to stand as a church, and would permit General Convention to speak on the current issues. While the current controversy has much to do with varying understandings of scriptural authority, there is also an element that has to do with a changing understanding of who may exercise authority. Our polity and our liturgy as a church insist that the voices of all the baptized are essential, and that all have equal dignity in the deliberations of this church. Recent actions of our General Convention have said that gender and sexual orientation are immaterial to the exercise of ordained ministry, and all of that is a challenge to some in this Communion. Actions by the primates at their last two meetings and the actions of some of those primates in our province also represent a challenge to the polity of the Anglican Communion, particularly over whether primates or the Anglican Consultative Council have the right and responsibility to exercise the kind of authority reflected in the current communiqué. The requests of the two most recent communiqués from Primates' meetings flow out of an understanding that bishops in general, and primates in particular, exercise a ministry to oversee and administer the teaching of our faith. The current controversy is understood by many to represent a challenge to the generally accepted teaching of the Communion, particularly as reflected in Lambeth 1.10. The greatest challenge in all of this is the inability of many to live with the tension that these changes represent. Anglicanism has traditionally been comfortable, or at least willing to put up with, a significant diversity of theological opinion and of practice. The system we call the Anglican Communion is at present seemingly unable or unwilling to live with that kind of diversity. Parts of our own church are in a similar situation. Some see our current situation as rooted in competing values – either a justice that seeks the full inclusion of all, particularly sexual minorities, or an appeal to a traditional understanding of sexual ethics. Yet there are aspects of the current situation that cry out for a broader understanding on all sides, that call us to see those not as competing but as complementary Christian values. An ethic of justice and inclusion would seemingly also urge us to include the dissenter. A traditional understanding of sexual ethics has a great deal to say about fidelity and monogamy and relatively little to say about the gender or reproductive status of the partners. We are being pushed toward a decision by impatient forces within and outside this church who hunger for clarity. That hunger for clarity at all costs is an anxious response to discomfort in the face of change which characterizes all of life. On the Sunday before Lent began, we heard an account of Jesus' transfiguration. Jesus goes up the mountain with a few disciples, and they see him revealed in all his glory. The disciples try to fix that experience by building structures, structures that will permit them to remain where they are. Then a cloud comes over them, and they hear the voice of God saying this is my beloved, listen to him. They don't stay in their little structures, and they don't remain in the cloud. Because Jesus urges them back onto the road, to follow where he leads. As a church and as a Communion, we are struggling over the direction of that journey. The impatience we are now experiencing is an idol, a false hope that is unwilling to wait on God for clarity, an idol that fails to hope and expect that the Spirit will lead us into all truth. The biblical response to that kind of anxiety is always the message of the angel who says, "fear not. Be not afraid, for God is with you." God is with us, and will continue to be with us, whatever this church decides. God will continue to be God, and God will continue to be worshiped in our churches, and God will continue to be served in our mission and ministry in this church and abroad. Much has been said about the listening process urged by the last three Lambeth conferences. There is some good news in that department. Conversations and listening have begun in many places across the Communion, even in some of the places where primates are most neuralgic about these issues. Ten years ago, many of them were able to say with impunity that there were no gay or lesbian people in their dioceses or provinces. That is no longer possible. I would like to encourage us as a church to consider how we ourselves might listen more carefully to those with whom we most vehemently disagree. Can we, in a focused way, pay attention to the grief and suffering, and the love for God and neighbor, in those in other places on the theological and rhetorical spectrum? If we gain nothing else from the coming months, that would be a great gift. I have been in conversation already with the President of the House of Deputies about ways in which we can call the whole church to the kind of faithful listening that will be necessary before we make any decision. I expect initiatives to come from both the Executive Council and from the House of Bishops that will invite us into deeper discussion of the possibilities this challenge represents. You will hear more from your bishop and from your deputies to General Convention in the coming weeks, and I hope you will participate when the opportunity comes. If we can lower the emotional reactivity in the midst of this current controversy we just might be able to find a way to live together. That was the genius behind the Elizabethan Settlement. A non-violent response to this situation will need space and time to operate, and perhaps an unexpected or even humorous response. While these issues are of major importance, it is our very intensity about them that is preventing a life-giving resolution. As we journey through this Lenten experience, I would encourage you to reflect on Jesus' own experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asks the disciples to watch and wait with him as he approaches his hour of judgment. We, too, are asked to watch and wait in this hour. Judgment will come in God's time, not ours. In the meantime, we can stay awake and be aware, and we can pray. Our task is not to run from this trial, but to continue to do God's work and to listen for the still small voice saying, "Fear not. You are my beloved." Finally, as Lent continues, I ask you to continue to fast from ascribing motives to others, to seek Christ in the stranger, and to ask God to quiet your fears. May we continue to work and pray for those who die daily from hunger, lack of medical care, war, and oppression. Pray especially for those who suffer because of their minority status, whether sexual or theological, for in Christ we are all a minority. And, finally, give thanks to God who has created us in all our variety. As frustrating and annoying as that variety may be, it is the image of God.