Sunday, December 7, 2008

Katharine The Calming

I met the boss on Friday -- the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the first woman to hold the position and the first to serve as an Anglican primate (the head of a national or regional church). Raised in Pensacola, Florida, Katharine was trained as an oceanographer before she became a priest and, eventually, bishop of Nevada. She was elected presiding bishop in 2006.

As Episcopalians prepare to come to Anaheim from all over the country next summer for our next general convention, she spent this weekend in Riverside at the annual convention of the Diocese of Los Angeles. Katharine celebrated Holy Eucharist, preached, lectured about women's empowerment, and answered questions from the floor about Sunday School and social justice.

The location of next year's national convention notwithstanding, the church she leads, troubled by a fresh schism, isn't exactly the happiest place on earth. An entity calling itself "the Anglican Church in North America," which believes women can't be bishops and gays and lesbians should also have limited access to the church's sacramental work, was launched the week before our Riverside convention began. The 1,000 churches forming the wannabe new province include tiny congregations which left years ago over one ancient beef or another, such as the Episcopal Church ordaining women to the priesthood or adopting a new version of The Book Of Common Prayer.

The group hopes to achieve official recognition in the worldwide Anglican Communion through the support of similarly inclined Anglicans in South America, Africa, and elsewhere. Not likely, Katharine says:
"The Anglican Communion has never formed a province based upon theological perspectives," she said. "It's always on the basis of geography, and the need to present the Gospel in another part of the world."...

Jefferts Schori said there was no need to form the breakaway province. The Anglican Communion has always embraced vigorous debate, she said.

"We think it's important to have a diversity of opinion within one body," she said. "God gives us people who disagree with each other for a reason. As long as they're willing to be at the table together, worshiping, being in dialogue together, being in mission together, then we have something very important to give each other. But when some decide to leave, that process is broken down."

Regrettably, when it comes to church schisms, broken processes usually stay broken. Today most Episcopalians are proud that our outpost of catholicism with a small "c" ordains women, taking to heart St. Paul's dictum that in Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3:28). The new prayer book is now the familiar, beloved 30-year-old prayer book. It's hard to imagine that it ever gave offense. Yet while a few who left the church over those issues may have drifted back from schismatic parishes, most didn't. Most of those leaving today over homosexuality may also be gone forever.

In a way, schismatics solve a problem for a mother church by marginalizing themselves. But there is no victory, there are no winners, and there is nothing but sadness in God's heart when people of faith turn away from one another.

Amid all this turmoil, during her two days among members of the six-county Los Angeles diocese Katharine made friends and inspired confidence with her quiet eloquence and non-anxious (dare one say Obamian?) temperament. To some of her fellow Anglican primates, including those who refused even to kneel next to her to take Holy Eucharist, her election was an abomination, an affront to Jesus Christ because of her gender. These are Christians who believe God and the Bible prescribe a hierarchy among human beings. While keeping her heart open to them as well as TEC's domestic critics, Katharine also reminds us that there is much work to do building the realm of God -- empowering women, combating poverty, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, the widow, the orphan, and bringing people to Christ in mission and service.

Reflecting in a homily on the Advent call to make straight in the desert a highway for God, Katherine counseled laypeople, deacons, priests, and her fellow bishops to tend the stretches of road we may find closest to us. It was a blessing to get to know our chief highway superintendent. Our church is in good hands indeed.

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