Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The future of the Episcopal Church

By Eileen Flynn

American-Statesman Staff

Saturday, May 19, 2007

American-Statesman: I realized on my way over here I didn't prepare any questions about what it's like to be the first woman to hold this job. I think part of that is maybe we've come to a place where we're not as surprised.

Katharine Jefferts Schori: My sense, though, is, for women who grew up without female role models in the church, it's a big deal. For children, who are growing up with more egalitarian models of leadership, it's not likely to be such a big deal. I'm aware that I represent something because of who I am, my gender. That's important to some people. It's certainly not a focus of mine.

I want to ask about that transition from the Roman tradition (attending a Catholic school) to the Anglican. I know you were young, so your faith wasn't fully formed, but how did the transition affect you?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: I had the gracious experience of going to a convent school directed by the Sacred Heart order, an order of French nuns. They were very structured but also willing to play. It was an experience of ordered freedom, which is something that Anglicanism takes quite seriously. So it's a consistent theme in my life. On feast days, we went to school and put on our gym suits instead of our uniforms. And I have vivid memories of these nuns in their full black habits gathering up all their skirts to run down the field to play kickball with us. So there was some real grace in that.

The Episcopal Church for me was a very different kind of church experience (from the large-scale Roman Catholic Latin Masses). It was an intimate community where people knew each other, where we knew the priest. He became a friend of my parents, and it was a place where people were invited to question, to ask questions, to wrestle with their faith.

I want to talk about your commencement address. These people are about to go off into the world representing the Episcopal Church with all the knowledge they gathered from this seminary. What do you think is the most important thing they need to understand?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: I reminded them that they will give thanks for the things they have learned here, but they will soon discover they haven't learned everything they need to know, that we only learn a lot of that by doing it. Much of that has to do with learning to love the people God puts around you. In all their diversity and challenge and blessing. I talked, as well, about my recent trip to Honduras and what leadership looks like there, leadership that's willing to bless the seeds that are already planted, to see the possibility in people who have almost nothing, to identify that and name it and encourage it to grow. That people are competent once they're challenged to be competent.

Let's talk about Bishop Akinola. You sent a letter to him asking him not to come to the U.S. and set up alternative episcopacies that would not recognize the Episcopal Church. He replied that it's ironic that you would ask him to follow custom when in fact your province has violated scriptural teachings on issues like homosexuality. Is there possibility for dialogue beyond this?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: I think the possibility for dialogue with him in particular is a challenge. The reality is that we have changed our scriptural understandings about all sorts of things, including sexual ethics. We teach something different about contraception than we did 50 years ago. We permit remarriage after divorce, despite what Jesus said about it. Homosexuality is the most recent in a long series of challenges. Bishop Akinola is arguing that we've changed our understanding. Yes, we have, but not wholly. It's a challenge to many people who don't want to talk about sexuality in public. If you look at attitudes toward sexuality in general, and homosexuality in particular, what they were like in this country 50 years ago, and compare it to what they're like in Nigeria today — pretty similar.

You are leading a denomination that is aging. It's not growing overall here (in the U.S.). How can you invigorate the church and keep it vibrant and relevant?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: Part of our challenge is to see the people who are around us, who may not be Anglo, who may not be primarily English-speaking, and say: "Here is a field ripe for harvest, even though we might not have done work as a church there before." The most rapidly growing parts of this church as a church are in some of those overseas dioceses like Haiti and Honduras and Dominican Republic. More forward-thinking dioceses are looking at the demographics and focusing their efforts on people who are there, not the people they wish were there or the people they're used to being there.

There's a young priest in Virginia who's starting a congregation. He talked about his way of gathering people to begin that conversation. He said, "One of the things I do is go to Starbucks and I sit down at a table and I put out this little paper tent that says 'Tell me your stories about God.' " It speaks to the reality of spiritual hunger of folks who may not have any experience with church at all. It means going out and speaking good news or listening to people and then offering news that fits. News that addresses the bad news that they're talking about.

Are you meeting any resistance to this?

Katharine Jefferts Schori: I think some people expect that the church should look like the church did when they were 15. The reality is, the church doesn't live unless it continues to change. And it's struggled with who's in and who's out from the very beginning. The first great controversies were about whether or not gentiles could be followers of Jesus. Do they have to be circumcised? Do they have to follow the dietary laws? We have struggled over and over again in this country with the place of slaves, African Americans, the place of immigrants, the place of women in the church. Today it's about the place of gay and lesbian people. There will be another group next. I don't know who it will be, but it's our human nature to say (we want) people like us.

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