Presiding Bishop engages in a live 'Conversation with the Church'

February 28, 2007

The recent Anglican Primates' Meeting and the Episcopal Church's mission in the world were the focus of a one-hour February 28 live webcast, in which Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori engaged in "A Conversation with the Church," from the studio facilities at New York's Trinity Church, Wall Street. The program, moderated by the Rev. Jan Nunley, deputy for communication, opened with the Presiding Bishop's introductory remarks centering on the Primates' February 15-19 meeting near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Following her comments, she answered questions from a live studio audience as well as phone and e-mail inquiries. Access to the program is available for on-demand viewing through both the Episcopal Church's website at and the Trinity Wall Street parish website. In her introductory remarks, which lasted approximately 18 minutes, Jefferts Schori quoted the psalmist: "This is the day that 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," she said, before offering a perspective on the current situation in the Church. She acknowledged the fluidity of the conversation among the Primates about current issues and the Communion's common life, especially since the recent meeting in Dar es Salaam welcomed 14 new members -- more than one third of the membership -- and that several long-serving Primates will retire in the next few years. The structure of the recent Primates' Meeting also represented a change, she said, noting that three Episcopal bishops were invited to speak to the meeting to offer a broader context of the life of the Episcopal Church. "[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," she said. "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 serving in all orders of ministry in this church." "That position, however, is a distinct minority within the Communion," she added. Jefferts Schori noted that the Primates represent a broad diversity of opinion. "A number of the primates represent provinces, especially in westernized or developed nations, where homosexuality is recognized and discussed," she said. "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." She acknowledged that there is another group of primates "whose provinces are not generally discussing these issues in any major way, and who are frustrated by the level of energy focused on them." Issues of poverty and disease, she noted, "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, she said, "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." "Whatever you may think of these actions it behooves us as Christians to believe that they acted in good faith, until we are confronted by evidence to the contrary" Jefferts Schori said. "[They] are seeking to offer pastoral care to the minority among us who disagree vehemently with the direction and decisions of recent General Conventions." Offering a synopsis of the Primates' communiqué, Jefferts Schori explained that the Episcopal Church is being encouraged "to find a way to work out our differences or at least find a way to manage them ... We have been asked to clarify our actions at General Convention and to find a way to provide pastoral care for our dissenting minority." She noted that the Church is also being asked to "pause" in its journey to consent to the election of partnered gay bishops or authorize the blessing of same-gender unions. Some Primates were dissatisfied with the response made at General Convention to the Windsor Report -- a document that recommends ways in which the Anglican Communion can maintain unity amid differing viewpoints -- despite the report from a subgroup which assessed the response and found it to be adequate, Jefferts Schori explained. In their communiqué, the Primates called for the formation of a "Pastoral Council" that would work in cooperation with the Episcopal Church to negotiate the necessary structures to facilitate and encourage healing and reconciliation for those who feel unable to accept the direct ministry of their bishop or of the presiding bishop. The Primates also "acknowledged and supported" Jefferts Schori's November 2006 proposal to name a primatial vicar who would assume some pastoral duties at the Presiding Bishop's direction. The primatial vicar would offer pastoral care to dissenting congregations and the pastoral council would help to see that intervening bishops in the Anglican Communion withdraw from those parishes, Jefferts Schori said during the February 28 webcast. A larger project is underway to develop and Anglican Covenant, she explained. The proposed text of the Covenant, intended to affirm the cooperative principles that bind the Anglican Communion, was also released at the end of the Primates' five-day meeting near Dar es Salaam. There is hope that a revised version will be available by the Lambeth Conference in 2008, at which time the Covenant would go to the various provinces of the Communion for consideration, including the Episcopal Church's 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," she said. "While the current controversy has much to do with varying understandings of scriptural authority, there is also an element that that has to do with a changing understanding of who may exercise authority." Jefferts Schori acknowledged questions about the polity of the Anglican Communion and whether the Primates or the Anglican Consultative Council have the authority to exercise the right to make binding decisions within the life of individual provinces as reflected in the Primates' communiqué. Historically, the Anglican Communion, made up of 38 autonomous provinces, has been united by common mission through an expression of mutual accountability or "bonds of affection." "The greatest challenge," Jefferts Schori said, "is the inability of many to live with the tension that these changes represent." Throughout history, Anglicans have been able to tolerate significant diversity of theology. "Part of our church is increasingly unable to live with that diversity," she said, calling for a broader understanding on both sides that looks to complementary rather than competitive Christian values. "We are being pushed toward a decision by impatient forces within and outside this church who hunger for clarity," she said. "That hunger for clarity at all costs is an anxious response to discomfort in the face of change which characterizes all of life." The Church is struggling over the direction of a journey, Jefferts Schori added. "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," she said. "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." Speaking about the listening process -- endorsed by the Primates to honor the process of mutual listening, particular to the experience of homosexual persons -- Jefferts Schori shared some good news. "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," she said, recognizing that 10 years ago many of them would have claimed that there were no gay or lesbian people in their communities. "That is no longer possible," she said. Jefferts Schori challenged the Church to, in a focused way, "pay attention to the grief and suffering" in the world. "If we gain nothing else from the coming months that would be a great gift," she said. "May we continue to work and pray for those who die daily from hunger, lack of medical care and oppression." "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," she added. "As we journey through this Lenten experience, I would encourage you to experience Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane -- to watch and wait with Him as He approaches his hour of judgment." In the meantime, she said, "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 ... Seek Christ in the stranger and ask God to quiet your fears." Before taking questions from a combination of a studio audience, emails and telephone calls, Jefferts Schori noted that "in Christ we are all a minority. Give thanks to God who has created us in all that variety. As frustrating and annoying as that variety may be, it is in the image of God." Asked whether the Episcopal Church could "go it alone," Jefferts Schori said: "I don't think this church is ever alone. We have many partners around the church and partners in mission. The body of Christ is never intended to be divided in pieces." A caller from San Francisco explained that she and her partner are actively involved in ministry in their diocese and wished that Episcopal gay clergy could be listened to more. "That is a piece of what I am challenging the church to be about -- to listen more specifically about the fruits of what this church is about," Jefferts Schori said. "The realities of the listening process around the Anglican Communion is that it is moving." Jefferts Schori cited Tanzania Bishop Mdimi Mhogolo's Epiphany letter in which he said "he may not agree with our position in the Episcopal Church but is far more focused on mission and is willing to continue in partnership. It is those partnerships through which a conversation of understanding may emerge." In responding to a question about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Jefferts Schori said, "He is very interested in a catholic communion -- one that does include the broad diversity but with some common practices." She acknowledged the challenges he faces, especially as he deals "with far more division in the Church of England than we have in our own church." Asked whether the primatial vicar would cause further division, Jefferts Schori encouraged the Church "to see this proposal in its most gracious container. The expectation is that the interventions will cease once the processes are functioning." One advantage from having overseers from overseas, she said, is to alleviate the sense of captivity to the situation locally. Responding to a question about obedience, sin, and repentance, Jefferts Schori said: "Obedience comes from a word that means to listen and is about hearing the voice of God and responding to the way that voice is calling us; sin is something that may turn us away from God and actions that violate the dignity of our neighbor; repentance is turning back towards God." "The struggle we are in is an expression of the many ways we hear the voice of God," she said, referring to Richard Hooker's three principles of Anglican listening based on scripture, tradition and reason. Jefferts Schori said that she believes "we are called to pause and not to go backward. I think we have been clear about affirming the equal dignity of all human beings. I see no desire of any in our church to retreat from that position." She upheld the Millennium Development Goals as a top priority for the Church. "We are passionate about the need for mission and to heal the world within which we live," she said. Asked to explain previous statements in which Jefferts Schori suggests that Jesus is only one way to God, she said: "We understand that Jesus is our way ... For us to assume that God may not act in other ways is to put him in a very small box. Christians believe this but not all other human beings understand that Jesus is our salvation. We should be in conversation and perhaps see a larger vision of God in all of that." In addressing a question about the Episcopal Church's polity, Jefferts Schori said: "We are understood to be episcopally led and synodically governed, in that a diversity of voices affect the governance of our church. There are certainly parts of the Communion where the Archbishop speaks and there are expectations about that speech that would seem more like the Pope. We are a radical and anti-colonial expression of Christianity and we have trouble with assumptions that are purely hierarchical." One caller said that the communiqué feels "like the sanctions are already specified and we don't feel like there is much space or graciousness." Jefferts Schori acknowledged that Americans don't like anyone telling them what to do, but that "to live together in Christian community means that each member takes seriously the other," she said. "It is a response that has asked for a season until the Covenant is completed. If this church decides it will remain a partner at the process table, we have some expectations before us." She further noted that the Anglican Communion is alive and well in parish-to-parish and diocese-to-diocese relationships. "I am a Christian and I live in hope and I don't think we can live anywhere else," she said. "We need to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves in this process." Asked about the proposed study on hermeneutics that was introduced at the Primates' Meeting, Jefferts Schori upheld the importance of theological education in the Anglican Communion and noted that it will play an integral part of revolutionizing the way Anglicans think. She also agreed to respond to one caller's suggestion to explore a churchwide initiative on the interpretation of scripture. Jefferts Schori referred to the Primates' visit to Zanzibar -- where the cathedral was built on land that was once a slave market -- as "a powerful experience." "To sit there and recognize that people have been praying for deliverance from human mistreatment for centuries is incredibly profound," she said. "We are praying now for deliverance from prejudice, indignity and there are vast parallels with human slavery." Addressing a question about those who have left the Episcopal Church, Jefferts Schori said: "Loving people doesn't mean liking them. It means treating them with dignity. When we're able to do that, God is able to work in ways we might not have expected. When people have departed, we have to bless their journey and hope that they will find peace and a stronger relationship with God in a different place." Jefferts Schori acknowledged that the Primates are assuming authority in the Anglican Communion. "There is a sense that bishops have a teaching ministry and Primates exercise authority over that teaching ministry," she said. "They are asserting their rights to pronounce on the teaching of the Communion and that Lambeth 1.10 ... is the majority view." How they continue that authority, Jefferts Schori explained, is largely dependent on how the Communion now receives their recommendations as set forth in the communiqué. "The Anglican Communion provides us with opportunities for mission, companion, fellowship, and conversation in theological terms that we don't necessarily have in other places," she said. "Our long process of development over 500 years gives us a sense of our bonds of affection. It is a gift that God gives us and like in families some contexts provide more challenges than others. It is abundantly clear that we can do mission more effectively because we exist as a Communion ... because of our presence in so many parts of the world." Asked what individuals can we do to help the Church move forward together, Jefferts Schori said: "Join ONE Episcopalian, contribute to Episcopal Relief and Development, learn what you can about MDGS and encourage your diocese to; build relationships across the world, they are of incredible importance. "When people from Nevada travel to Kenya and people from Kenya visit Nevada, for example, we began to understand one another's context like we could not on the internet," she added. "There's no better place to find God."