Despite turmoil, Episcopal presiding bishop believes Anglican Communion is stronger than ever

Written by Ann Rodgers on .

   We've got a story in today's paper about the visit of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. As is usual, there was quite a bit that I couldn't get into the paper, and even what did get in lost some nuance. So here's an expanded version, with a bit about the Anglican Communion Covenant and more on the Archbishop of Canterbury for all of the ecclesiology wonks out there:

   The morning's service for the renewal of vows at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Wilkinsburg was serene, with quite a few laity in attendance. Both Bishop Jefferts Schori and Bishop Kenneth Price Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh renewed their vows along with the priests and deacons.


   In her sermon, the presiding bishop recounted the night she had accidentally wandered into an immense crowd of tourists who were trying to see the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York last year. She compared it to the crowds that sought to see Jesus on his entrance into Jerusalem, and spoke of the many people who are desperate to see Jesus.

   Bishop Jefferts Schori, 57, is married with a daughter in the Air Force, and one of her stories about people desperate to see Jesus concerned a parish filled with military families. Some were facing imminent deployment. Others were in desperate financial straights. Several young men bore very visible war wounds on their faces.

   In that church, "I think I saw Jesus showing his wounds. . . I saw many reaching out to touch him and others still looking," she said.

   "The world is hungry for the light of Christ and aching to see the love of Christ in human flesh. . . . The anger of the society around us is a sign of that hunger, even when it is hidden and expressed in less than fully honest ways. . . .It can be painful and difficult work on the road to Calvary and carrying bodies to the tomb. But it is the way of Resurrection."

  In an interview before the service, she answered questions about the property litigation and negotiations between the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and the rival Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh. The rivalry stems from a split in 2008, when the majority at the Episcopal diocesan convention voted to follow Bishop Robert Duncan out of the Episcopal Church. A backgrounder, with many links to the history of the split, ran in Faithburgh last week.

   Judging by some of the e-mail I get, many members of the Anglican diocese believe that she is orchestrating the legal battle, and running the negotiations from New York. That's not true, she said.

   "It's not being run from New York. I would remind you that this legal business happened before Bob Duncan and some others decided to leave the Episcopal Church. It was led by Episcopalians in this diocese. The wider church wasn't part of it at that point. We didn't join it until later."

   The Episcopal diocese has won every round of the continuing litigation, which began five years before the split. A parish that opposed the looming schism filed a preemptive suit to prevent any clergy or parishioners who left the denomination from taking their buildings or bank accounts with them. Under terms agreed to in court, the Episcopal diocese has recently begun negotiations with parishes that can allow them to keep some of their property.

   Those negotiations are directed by Pittsburghers, and an agreement reached in civil court "is governing the way the negotiations are happening in this diocese," she said.

   She does have two principles that she would like to see followed.

   "Our task is to see that the value of those gifts [to the Episcopal Church] not be inappropriately disposed of. We have to recover some approximation of fair market value for properties," she said.

  The second principle "is that we shouldn't be in the business of setting up competing ecclesiastical interests with Episcopal Church resources."

   She can't simply give the property to the people who want to leave the Episcopal Church, because that would violate her responsibility to guard the inheritance of the denomination that she leads, she said.

   "The buildings and the bank accounts are the legacy of generations before us. I don't have the right to give those away for other purposes. My fiduciary responsibility, my moral responsibility, is to see that those gifts are used for the ministry to which God calls us in the Episcopal Church. I can't give it away to the Methodists or the Orthodox Church or a Jewish synagogue," she said.

   Since her election as presiding bishop in 2006, Bishop Jefferts Schori has walked her own painful path, filled with ecclesiastical battles and some direct insults. The leadership of several dioceses -- including the original diocese of Pittsburgh -- refused to recognize her. For some it was because she was a woman, though for Pittsburgh is was because she had supported the consecration of a partnered gay bishop three years earlier.

  She believes that rejection reflected the views of a few bishops and activists, not the people of those dioceses. "There were some bishops who were annoyed that I was elected," she said, shrugging it off.

   The former Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh is now Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh and primate of the 100,000-member Anglican Church in North America. The ACNA hopes to be recognized as a new province of the 77 million-member  Anglican Communion. To date it is recognized by some provinces, but not by the communion as a whole.

  But because of that split, the rifts in her province are felt -- and some say fomented -- in other parts of the global communion. She is the only woman among 38 primates, and some provinces don't allow women's ordination. But her support for gay ordination and same-sex partnerships caused problems in many areas of the church where biblical passages condemning same-sex relations as sin are considered a test of faithfulness to biblical authority. She believes that biblical condemnations of same-sex relations are cultural relics of ancient societies, and that the church can change its teaching on this, as it did on slavery and divorce.

   But because of the dispute, the ACNA has been recognized by several provinces, including two in Africa whose 27 million members dwarf the Episcopal Church's 2 million. Some of the same primates who recognize the new church have also boycotted important meetings of the Anglican Communion.

   Last year, after the Episcopal Church consecrated a second gay bishop against the advice of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the global Anglican Communion, representatives of the Episcopal Church were removed from the worldwide communion's committees that deal with doctrine and ecumenism.

   Shortly afterward, when Bishop Jefferts Schori visited England, the archbishop's office asked her not to wear her miter -- the tall hat that symbolizes her office -- when she preached in a London cathedral. At the time she called the request "beyond bizarre." Two years earlier she had worn the miter at a church service in England for bishops from around the world.

    In the end she walked up the aisle of the cathedral, carrying her miter.

    "The anxiety about women bishops in England right now is stunning in some parts, despite the fact that they've ordained women as priests for some time. There is no real theological difference between ordaining women as priests and ordaining them as bishops," she said

   "There is a great deal of anxiety in some parts of the hierarchy there. My attitude on that occasion was, 'How can I be who I am and not put the dean of the cathedral in an awkward position?' So I chose to carry my miter rather than wear it."

   Asked if she thought Archbishop Williams had been fair to the Episcopal Church, she said, "I don't know. Again, I think he is in a very awkward position himself."

  Archbishop Williams is said to personally accept same-sex partnerships, but he has set that cause aside in an effort to keep the communion from fracturing. Bishop Jefferts Schori said she doesn't believe they've chosen opposing paths, only that they have different roles.

   "His position as archbishop of Canterbury, I gather, encourages him to consider the positions of the least comfortable members of the body, and to pay more attention to that rather than to the attitudes in his own church or his own theological conviction. I'm in a different context. My responsibility is to the Episcopal Church, first and foremost," she said.

   One of the proposals for addressing severe conflict and encourating unity in the Anglican Communion, which has no central authority, is the Anglican Communion Covenant. The current draft recognizes the autonomy of each province, while calling each to be mindful of the others in its decisions. It calls for mediated conversations when conflict arises. If there is wide agreement that a province has broken the covenant, a series of discussions is called for.      Ultimately one of several "instruments" of the church, including the archbishop of Canterbury or a worldwide assembly of all the bishops, can call for "relational consequences" for the offending province.

   Asked her opinion of the proposed covenant, she said, "I think the process has been helpful because it has encouraged people into dialogue who probably wouldn't have wrestled with some of these issues otherwise."

   As to how the Episcopal bishops as a whole have responded to it, she said "There is a great variety of opinion as to whether the covenant itself . . . could be helpful. It is clear that some of the people who wanted a very strong structure have already said it is not strong enough, and therefore they aren't interested. There are others in another place in the spectrum who have said it is too restrictive and removes the traditional autonomy from the provinces of the Anglican Communion, and are therefore concerned about it. And there are a lot of people in the middle who are still talking, still wrestling. And I think that will be true for a long time."

  Asked if she worried that the Episcopal Church would be demoted within the communion, she replied, "Our job is to be in partnership for God's mission. The only demotion in that comes when people decide not to participate."

  She believes that the Anglican Communion will hold together, primarily due international mission partnerships between parishes and dioceses on a grassroots level. She believes that if the archbishop in Uganda or Nigeria doesn't recognize the Episcopal Church, Anglicans in far flung Ugandan and Nigerian villages appreciate the assistance they receive from Episcopal parishes and volunteers, and the opportunities to visit Episcopalians in the United States.

  The Anglican Communion "is stronger than it was 10 years ago," because of those relationships, she said. "There are more missional partnerships and more relationships and they are deeper than they were 15 years ago. People go back and forth between different parts of the communion to serve God's mission, and they are learning more about each other's contexts."

   She also sees new strength ahead for the Episcopal Church which, like other mainline Protestant churches, has been losing members for decades. It had 3.4 million members in 1960, and has 2 million today. But new research shows three significant groups of people who are attracted to the Episcopal Church, Bishop Jefferts Schori said.

   The first are hispanic women, who like the fact that the Episcopal Church doesn't impose a lot of rules, that it welcomes questions and values women in leadership. Young adults in general value the church for similar reasons, she said.

   "We invite people into conversations about the reality of what Christianity means and what it means in different contexts," she said.

   The final group is women in major transition, whether that means having children or going back to work after a divorce.

  "The websites where the Episcopal Church gets talked about the most aren't the ones you might expect. They are places like ivillage and UrbanBaby, where people in the wider community are talking about the church they've discovered . . . and the way in which it is helping them to be more effective human beings," she said.

   "We have a very ripe mission field around us, if we can pay attention to it."

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