Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Episcopal church's new dawn

By Cathy Lynn Grossman

USA Today

February 5, 2007

Every time Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori dons her personalized vestments, there's a vision of sunrise.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wears new vestments, which depict a "new dawn" for the church.

Colors of the "new dawn," cited so often by the prophet Isaiah, are sewn into her personalized mantle and bishop's hat — an orange glow rises from a green hem to a dawn-blue band below purple heavens.

Jefferts Schori herself stands for a new day in her church:

• The first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

• The first and only female primate, head of one of the 38 national and regional churches, in the world's largest non-Catholic Christian denomination.

• The leader who faces a costly fracture among the faithful, a crack radiating across the Anglican world.

Since her election in June and installation in November, a tiny but influential number of churches from Virginia to California — "one-half of 1 percent of the 7,200 congregations," she says — have spurned her leadership and the liberal direction of the Episcopal Church to align with Southern Hemisphere traditionalists.

The long-simmering tensions between those who adhere to a strict interpretation of the Bible and those who read it less literally came to a boil in 2003. That's when the church's governing body approved the election of the church's first openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Jefferts Schori has been excoriated by conservatives for her theological views. Some primates say they won't sit in the same room with her at her first meeting of the primates in Tanzania next week.

Yet, despite "white-hot animosity thrown at her, she's unflappable," New York Bishop Mark Sisk says.

Confronted with seemingly intractable conflicts, Jefferts Schori smiles like someone well versed in Matthew 6:25's refrain: "Be not anxious." The world is all of God, she says, so go forward.

"I'm no Pollyanna. I just try to look at the world with the expectation that I will find signs of God. The burning bush is an invitation, if we are willing to engage it."

She's at ease answering questions, speaking in a low voice, slowly and precisely. She zeros in to make a point by leaning forward to fix her intent gaze on a visitor.

She has had little time to personalize her functional New York office with its view of the United Nations. But one thing she treasures rests on her desk: a slice of shale embedded with an ammonite, a fossil ancestor of the chambered nautilus.

It is circular, complex, ruggedly beautiful — and has been extinct for 65 million years. It was a gift from her parents 30 years ago, as she commenced her first career in biological oceanography.

Jefferts Schori is as conversant on squids as on Scripture. She's also an instrument-rated pilot with a Cessna 172 stashed in Nevada, where she was bishop before taking national office. Lean and fit at 52, she spent Christmas Day climbing a snowy peak near Death Valley.

For all her adventurous spirit, scientific curiosity and pastoral experience since becoming a priest in 1994, she calls herself an introvert in her new book, "A Wing and a Prayer." Yet she says that "fear should not block faithfulness."

Or optimism. To hear her talk, the future of her denomination is brighter every day, with many "healthy, vital churches."

What of breakaway churches?

She's sad to see them go but not so sad that she won't fight for their properties. "The institution cannot give away its birthright and the gifts that belong to future generations. Our desire to reconcile continues, but if (the seceding churches) would prefer to be part of another tradition, then they are welcome to go. They just can't take what doesn't belong to them," she says, leaning forward.

"The church's laws are broad but they are there, and beyond these lines you cannot go. Crossing boundaries has consequences."

Condemnations from Global South primates?

Jefferts Schori steers the discussion to the positive, focusing on the mission she shares with many of the African primates to address the terrible plagues of war, poverty, disease and hunger.

"We can work on these together. Human need is so overwhelming that it seems incredibly sinful to spend time" on church politics.

What she omits: The Anglican Church in Tanzania recently declared itself in "severely impaired communion" with the Episcopal Church. The Archbishop of Uganda said he wouldn't meet with her because of her stance on biblical faith and morality.

The head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who invited Jefferts Schori to Tanzania, also invited some dissident U.S. conservative leaders. But the Anglican Archbishop of Southern Africa has been quoted saying that to boycott a legitimately elected primate while "Africa is on fire ... is like fiddling while Rome burns" and "goes against God's fundamental call for unity and reconciliation."

Jefferts Schori is unruffled.

"It's not about me. This is not a table that belongs to any one province. It's God's table," she says.

What about her denomination's declining numbers?

Statistics don't scare her, she says. Yes, membership is down from 3.2 million in 1960 to 2.2 million today, a downward trend similar to all the mainline churches.

A new Gallup survey shows that the number of Americans who say they "consider themselves part of a Christian tradition" fell 6 percentage points, from 80 percent to 74 percent, from 1999 to 2006, while the number of people who say they are not part of any religious tradition rose from 13 percent to 18 percent in the same period.

"It's no longer the social norm to be a Christian," Jefferts Schori says. Her answer isn't to ramp up on orthodoxy but to reach out to all ages and cultures with Christlike social action.

Critics say she equivocates on essential doctrine — the necessity for atonement and the exclusivity of salvation through Christ. They cite interviews in which she has said living like Jesus in this world was a more urgent task than worrying about the next world.

"It's not my job to pick" who is saved. "It's God's job," she tells USA TODAY.

Yes, sin "is pervasive, part of human nature," but "it's not the centerpiece of the Christian message. If we spend our time talking about sin and depravity, it is all we see in the world," she says.

Here's where blood rushes into the blogs and critics pounce.

"Her theological statements are not orthodox Christian, not orthodox Anglican. Frankly, they're bizarre," says the Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council. He has aligned with a group of U.S. churches that now answer to the Archbishop of Nigeria.

Sisk disagrees sharply.

"She's profoundly faithful to the central claims of the church and the scriptures. People who say she's not are making that up. They just don't agree with her. And the fact that she stays calm in the face of a lot of pumped-up hype, that she just doesn't buy it, irritates them."

Indeed, asked about her critics, Jefferts Schori doesn't blink. She leans in, drops her voice even lower and cuts to the chase.

She sees two strands of faith: One is "most concerned with atonement, that Jesus died for our sins and our most important task is to repent." But the other is "the more gracious strand," says the bishop who dresses like a sunrise.

It "is to talk about life, to claim the joy and the blessings for good that it offers, to look forward.

"God became human in order that we may become divine. That's our task."

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