Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: This is your first time to consecrate a bishop. Tell me how you prepare for that, and your sense of our bishop, if you even have that yet.

Katharine Jefferts Schori: I’ve met him twice at this point. I don’t really know him yet. I do know something about the diocese, because (outgoing bishop Larry Maze and I have worked together on things like Living Stones, which is bishops of small dioceses, meaning small numerically, or financially, or sometimes geographically. So I have some sense of the kinds of creative ministry that have gone on here.

ADG: What are some of those things in particular?

KJS: Developing ministry teams, which is something of a novelty within the Episcopal Church. It’s been going on for a long time, but in smaller rural places. And Bishop Maze has done a good, creative piece of work in fostering that here.

ADG: One of the things that bishop-elect Benfield is particularly concerned about is growing the church. [Both the diocese and the national church have steadily lost members in recent years.] And I’m going to refer to some things you’ve said in other interviews, because it seems in many interviews you have a way of saying things that startle people or surprise people.

KJS: Hmm.

ADG: One of them is in an interview with the New York Times, when you talked about Episcopalians being more educated and less –

KJS: The whole conversation was not reported.

ADG: I’m sure. I know how that happens. But since Episcopalians don’t have as many children as some other folks, what are some of your ideas for growing the church? One of his passions is reaching out to people in the 18 to 25 age range.

KJS: More power to him. That’s an essential piece of where our evangelism efforts need to be addressed. There are vast numbers of people in this country who are unchurched, who’ve been raised now without a faith tradition. That may be less so in this part of the country, but in the part of the country I come from, it’s normal. But many of those young people are asking spiritual questions. “Why am I here? What am I supposed to be about as a human being? How am I supposed to live in relationship with other people?” Those are questions that the Episcopal Church is well poised and well experienced in helping people to find answers. Not provide answers, but help people wrestle with the questions.

ADG: How so?

KJS: It’s a matter of openness more than anything else, and listening to the hunger that’s out there, offering a space and a community and a space in which to tell a person’s story and then beginning to connect that story with the larger story of our faith, if that makes sense.

ADG: Could you be a little more specific about some of the things the Episcopal Church offers to help people deal with those questions?

KJS: Well, we don’t come with a prescribed set of answers. We really do encourage people to wrestle with the question. To bring traditional sources to bear on it. Scripture, tradition and reason is how we talk about those sources. We insist that people use their minds in wrestling with questions. Faith is not meant to be unreasoned, or unreasonable. And I think that’s one of our gifts, that we’re willing to deal with a breadth of perspective, and encourage that breadth of perspective. It’s a mark of health.

ADG: Speaking of that interview, what did get left out?

KJS: Well, Episcopalians reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations for several reasons. There are clear connections between [reproductive] rates and educational level. It’s an inverse connection, as average education level goes up that group of people tends to reproduce at lower rates, and that’s certainly true in the Episcopal Church. It’s true of other mainline denominations as well. You don’t have a theological reason to reproduce at higher rates, unlike some other denominations and faith traditions. That’s the piece of complexity that got left out.

ADG: When you first became bishop of Nevada, you were interested in reaching out to Hispanic populations. Did you have some success doing that, and is that something you’d like to broaden? I ask that because we have a large Hispanic population here in Arkansas.

KJS: I think it’s absolutely essential. In addition to that younger adult demographic, people that come from other countries, other language traditions, are an essential piece of our evangelical focus. That is beginning to have some success. It has taken a long time. A new congregation is beginning in south Reno within the month. The focus of that congregation, which will probably be primarily Anglo, is starting missions to help start a Hispanic church. That is going to be its reason for existence. There is a great challenge in finding competent, trained, Spanish-speaking, bicultural, bilingual clergy. That’s one of the big challenges for this church. We can’t simply import such clergy from other countries. It’s unfair to those countries at some very important level of justice, and I think we’re going to have to continue to be creative about how we find and form such people and leadership from within communities. And that’s actually something that Arkansas has been effective at doing. Not specifically in the Hispanic community, but the leadership development team that Bishop Maze has promoted is a model for doing that kind of work.

ADG: And again, what might be attractive to Hispanics about the Episcopal Church in a way that you wouldn’t simply be sheep-stealing those who are already within the Roman Catholic tradition?

KJS: If you go to Latin America today, you discover that Roman Catholicism is alive and well, but there are many other traditions that are also booming. The Pentecostal religion; more open, in some sense, traditions. I think the Episcopal church provides a liturgically familiar kind of setting, but with an openness of perspective that insists that people have to come to their own conclusions. The answers of faith aren’t going to be provided for you.

ADG: I want to ask you about a couple of other things you’ve said in interviews. One of those was in the 10 questions in TIME magazine about the small box that people put God in. Could you elaborate a little bit on your take on “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life” [a paraphrase of John 14:16]?

KJS: I certainly don’t disagree with that statement that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. But the way it’s used is as a truth serum, or a touchstone: If you cannot repeat this statement, then you’re not a faithful Christian or person of faith. I think Jesus as way – that’s certainly what it means to be on a spiritual journey. It means to be in search of relationship with God. We understand Jesus as truth in the sense of being the wholeness of human expression. What does it mean to be wholly and fully and completely a human being? Jesus as life, again, an example of abundant life. We understand him as bringer of abundant life but also as exemplar. What does it mean to be both fully human and fully divine? Here we have the evidence in human form. So I’m impatient with the narrow understanding, but certainly welcoming of the broader understanding.

ADG: What about the rest of that statement –

KJS: The small box?

ADG: Well, the rest of the verse, that no one comes to the Father except by the son.

KJS: Again in its narrow construction, it tends to eliminate other possibilities. In its broader construction, yes, human beings come to relationship with God largely through their experience of holiness in other human beings. Through seeing God at work in other people’s lives. In that sense, yes, I will affirm that statement. But not in the narrow sense, that people can only come to relationship with God through consciously believing in Jesus.

ADG: I want to ask you about something you said [in a radio interview] with Steve Crittenden in Australia. You were talking about issues of sexuality, and you said you thought that [objection to homosexuality] was more of an issue for men than for women, and women were more interested in — you didn’t say the Millennium Development Goals, but that was the kind of thing you were talking about. And right after your election, [a foreign journalist] asked you kind of a snide question about.

KJS: What would the average Anglican?

ADG: Yeah, and Anglican women in Africa, think about your support for gays, and you said they’d be more concerned about food and education for their children. Do you have some evidence that the sexuality is more of an issue for men than for women?

KJS: Well, who’s most heated up about it? Gatherings around the Anglican Communion that are primarily male seem to get captured by this issue. Gatherings that are primarily female get captured by passion for a human world. For human people and educating children and providing health care. The UN Commission on the Status of Women and the accompanying gathering of Anglican women at the UN over the year is probably the best evidence. And they have different opinions about issues of human sexuality, but that’s not the focus of their work together. The focus is on humans.

ADG: You’ve also said that issues of sexuality tend to be of more concern in the Southeast than in other parts of the country. Could you talk about that a little bit? Of course, there are exceptions: congregations in California, the Diocese of Quincy (Ill.), Pittsburgh. But you talk about geographic concern. Is it a Bible Belt thing?

KJS: I don’t know. I notice it’s a concern culturally in parts of the country where race relations have been so present. I come from a part of the country where issues of racism aren’t black/white. They’re about immigration, either from Asia or from Spanish-speaking countries, so there’s not the same kind of clear issue in history about who’s in and who’s out. It’s a much more diffuse issue. And it’s a complex issue in that it’s not just one group. And it’s not just African-Americans; it’s Chinese and Japanese and Mexicans and people from Hong Kong and Taiwan and the South Pacific. I think the human condition, and original sin, if you will, has something to do with defining some other group as not fully human, not fully acceptable. And in this country it’s had to do mostly with slavery and African-Americans. The church has certainly wrestled with the place of women in the life of society. We’re beginning to wrestle with the place of people whose sexual orientation is different from the average. In some sense the church has wrestled with the place of children. They’re not normative human beings in many people’s view. I think it’s a result of that. It has some connection with that history.

ADG: Let’s talk about the church’s support of the Millennium Development Goals. And what are some of the initiatives down the road for enlisting Episcopalians in accomplishing some of those goals? That was originally a United Nations initiative, which would mean focusing on those issues elsewhere, but we have those issues in pockets of the U.S. too.

KJS: It actually goes back to the early ’60s, when some economists sat down and said, “What would it take to solve global poverty?” It grew into something in the late ’90s that the bishops of the Anglican Communion said, “We need to participate in this.” In 2000 the UN adopted a set of eight goals. ... Dioceses in this country since the late ’90s have said, we want to be part of this. It originally started by saying, we’re going to contribute a percentage of our annual budget to international development work. People are aware more clearly today that it’s not just a matter of giving money, but it’s about empowering people in the pew to lobby their legislators. We’re not going to solve global poverty unless the industrialized nations of the world take it seriously and contribute a significant chunk of funds, resources, human capital, to making it possible. This is the first time in human history when we’ve really been able to say we can feed everybody. We can provide primary education for girls and boys across the world. We can do something about maternal health care and childhood disease and preventable disease like AIDS and tuberculosis and malaria. It’s a matter of having the will to do it, first of all, and then committing the resources to make it happen. The Episcopal Church is involved at the diocesan level, at the parish level, at the level of individual members of the tradition. But we’re also involved in lobbying Congress, through our Office of Government Relations, to participate in this program. We’re involved through an arm of the church called Episcopal Relief and Development that’s doing things like Nets for Life, insecticide-treated nets to sleep under and prevent malaria – a great number of other projects across the world to achieve those goals. I’ve heard in the time I’ve been here about places in Arkansas that are ripe for similar kinds of development. The Delta. So it’s not just international. There are domestic applications as well. It’s about achieving a world where human beings live with dignity, and have what they need to live with dignity.

ADG: That reminds me of something else you said. This was a CNN interview when Kyra Phillips asked you what happens when we die. You had an interesting answer that got some Southern Baptists riled up.

KJS: OK. I didn’t hear their reaction.

ADG: Al Mohler – I don’t know whether you’re familiar with him –

KJS: I’m not.

ADG: He’s a seminary president [at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville] and has a blog and a radio show. [Mohler posted the exchange on his Web site]. It seemed to some people that you were saying there isn’t an afterlife.

KJS: I don’t think Jesus was focused on that. I think Jesus was focused on heaven in this life, primarily. The Judeo-Christian tradition has always said yes, there is resurrection. There is life after death. But I think Jesus was not so worried about that. I think he’s worried about what we’re doing to treat our fellow human beings as children of God. He says the kingdom of heaven is among you, and within you, and around you.

ADG: So does that mean that in your view there is no afterlife?

KJS: That’s not what I said. I said what I think Jesus is more concerned about is heavenly existence, eternal life, in this life.

ADG: So there again, that’s partly why the Millennium Development Goals are important to you? To improve people’s lives now?

KJS: Absolutely. The Anglican tradition of Christianity is world-affirming, it is focused on incarnation, and it insists that we’re not meant to shut ourselves off from the world in a pietistic sense or in a sectarian sense. That we’re meant to be in the world, and transforming the world into something that looks more like the reign of God.

ADG: Do you think there’s any part of us that lives on somewhere after we die?

KJS: Absolutely. But that’s not a question that concerns me day in and day out. I think I’m meant to use the gifts I have to transform the world in this life.

ADG: [Brown asked whether Jefferts Schori’s views on the afterlife are more informed by the Old Testament than the New.] I know you’re a fan of the book of Isaiah.

KJS: Jesus was clearly in the prophetic tradition. The prophets are concerned about human beings in this life, how governmental structures have oppressed them; they’re concerned with liberation from that oppression. They’re not patient with the idea that one suffers in this life so you can live in glory after you die. Not patient with that idea at all.

ADG: Let’s talk about some of the struggles in the church right now, what’s happening in the church in Virginia [where members of several congregations have recently voted to leave the denomination]. I’m especially curious to know what you think about property issues. That’s going to be different based on individual laws in different states.

KJS: Actually, not so much. The reality is that this is a very tiny percentage of the Episcopal Church. This is a handful of congregations out of 1,700. They’re getting a lot of press; they’re quite noisy. The reality is that there have always been people who decide that they have to follow another path. That they can’t find what they’re looking for or believe they need within a faith tradition. And our attitude has to be to bless their going, to pray that they find the source that they’re looking for in another community. But the reality also is that congregations and dioceses are structures of the institutional church known as the Episcopal Church. They can’t leave. Individuals can leave. We’ve also been very clear that property in this church, all kinds of property, real property, legacy, memorials in a congregation, are held in trust, because they come from generations before us and they are for generations that come after us. That can’t be alienated. The issue you raised about law – the federal Constitution is clear about the separation of church and state, that the church has the right to make decisions, if it’s a hierarchical church, and that the courts will only interfere in very specific circumstances. The property issues have been decided in favor of the denomination in almost every case.

ADG: What about in Georgia, where there’s a church where it’s not so much people wanting to leave as having cut off their funding to the national church.

KJS: That’s nothing new. There are congregations and even dioceses in this church that, because they’re peeved with particular decisions — and they’re decisions across the map; all sides are going to withhold funding from the national church. It’s a sad commentary on an understanding on both denominational polity and a sense of stewardship. Money that’s given is meant to be given as an expression of gratitude, not as a tax, although people sometimes see it that way. And the other sad part is that often when those monies are withheld, it prevents good creative mission from going on. It hamstrings feeding programs. It prevents new congregations from being started. It slows down aid work overseas. We are often in this country still highly individualistic. What’s mine is mine, and don’t touch it. That’s not a Christian virtue. There’s a rather surprising story in the book of Acts, in a Christian community that was clearly holding goods in common, and a couple in the congregation, in the gathering, said they were going to sell their property and give the money to their community, and it didn’t happen that way, and the way the story is told is actually quite humorous.

ADG: Let’s broaden the focus a little to the Anglican Communion. Next month you’re going to be traveling –

KJS: To Tanzania –

ADG: To visit with [the other primates of the Anglican Communion], some of whom don’t actually accept you in the job that you have. And the position you have as presiding bishop is a little different than the primates in some other churches. Could you explain that a little bit?

KJS: Sure. In the Episcopal Church, the church in Canada, the church in a number of other western places, the primate has much less authority than in some of the African churches, for example, where the bishop rules. We come out of a democratic tradition; our church is structured politically in a democratic way. In order to make decisions in this church of policy, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, which includes laypeople and clergy, have to agree to do it. The bishop in a diocese doesn’t have the ability to walk into a parish and say, “Hmm, you have to change this, this, this and this.” The bishop does have some clear authority in particular circumstances, but not over every decision. That’s not true in other parts of the church. And I think there’s a lack of understanding of our polity here that contributes to the frustration. I know that before Bishop Robinson [Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the first openly gay partnered bishop] was consecrated, some of the other primates were just flummoxed that Bishop Griswold couldn’t simply say, “Well, you can’t do it.” That just didn’t make sense to them.

ADG: So what’s your game plan for Tanzania?

KJS: To go and meet the human beings who will gather. I’m sure there are a couple, at least, who don’t welcome the presence of a woman in their midst, and others whom I claim as friends. It’s a mixed group. And in some sense it’s curious to me that opinions that were held by each of my predecessors are somehow more offensive when they’re held by a woman.

ADG: We talked about that interview being taken out of context. What do you think the media doesn’t get about the Episcopal Church? The Virginia churches have gotten an awful lot of press. Are there other things you think that are more important that are overlooked?

KJS: The church in most places is healthy and vital and doing good and creative ministry. And that’s not the kind of story that sells newspapers. But it’s real. The church is thriving in so many places. And yes, there’s some conflict, but it’s a very tiny piece of the whole.

ADG: What do you wish people like me would ask you that we don’t?

KJS: Hmm. Hmm. Well, stories of great success and vitality. And I think this congregation [Christ Episcopal Church in Little Rock] is probably one of them.

ADG: There’s been talk of having both houses elect a presiding bishop. Could that be a reality [at the next General Convention] for 2015?

KJS: I don’t know. We’d have to change our canons, our rules. The church in Canada does it in a very different way, and they come out of the same democratic ethos that we do. The House of Bishops in Canada produces a slate of acceptable nominees, and then they send that slate to the General Senate, which would be equivalent to our House of Deputies, and they elect. So it’s simply another model. But in many other parts of the Communion it’s simply the bishops who elect. The others have no say in the matter at all.

ADG: What’s happening at Camp Allen this week? [A group of self-described “Windsor bishops” met at Camp Allen in Texas.] Do you know and do you care?

KJS: I gather that Bishop [of Texas, the Right Rev. Don] Wimberley has called a meeting. I was not invited. I’ve not seen their agenda; I don’t know who’s there; but I think they’re talking. And I think that can only be good.

ADG: We’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

KJS: I’m delighted to be in Arkansas.

No comments: