Thursday, March 13, 2008

Inwardly Digesting the Presiding Bishop's Easter Message

I'll admit my prejudice up front, so as to spare anyone the effort of accusing me of such in response to this post: I am not disposed to have a favorable opinion of the job performance of Bishop Jefferts Schori. I've only met her perfunctorily on a couple of occasions, so I can't really say that I know her personally. But we were both "hatched" by the Diocese of Oregon, so we have some common acquaintances, and as a priest in San Joaquin while she was Bishop of neighboring Nevada, I was an indirect party to some of her "official acts" that helped form an impression. Based on those experiences, when she was elected Presiding Bishop, I was more than a little bit disappointed.

Nonetheless, I do try to be optimistic. I really do. I keep telling myself that maybe I haven't read enough of her published works, or listened to enough of her interviews. Maybe there's a key somewhere that would help me "translate" her public pronouncements on the gospel of Christ, the theology of the Church, and the shared life of the Christian community into something that would strike a chord with my own understanding of those subjects. We're both Episcopalians, after all, both Anglicans. We're both members of "this Church." There must be some small measure of common ground we can stand on. Why does it feel like she's speaking a foreign language? Surely I must not be trying hard enough!

So when I saw that her 2008 Easter Message had been published, I was briefly hopeful. Maybe this would be it, I thought to myself. Maybe she will proclaim the Paschal Mystery in some way that will make me want to exclaim, "Amen!"

My hope was short-lived. Here is what she said:

Your Easter celebration undoubtedly has included lots of physical signs of new life -- eggs, flowers, new green growth. As the Easter season continues, consider how your daily living can be an act of greater life for other creatures. How can you enact the new life we know in Jesus the Christ? In other words, how can you be the sacrament, the outward and visible sign, of the grace that you know in the resurrected Christ? How can your living let others live more abundantly?

The Judaeo-Christian tradition has been famously blamed for much of the current environmental crisis, particularly for our misreading of Genesis 1:28 as a charge to "fill the earth and subdue it." Our forebears were so eager to distinguish their faith from the surrounding Canaanite religion and its concern for fertility that some of them worked overtime to separate us from an awareness of "the hand of God in the world about us," especially in a reverence for creation. How can we love God if we do not love what God has made?

We base much of our approach to loving God and our neighbors in this world on our baptismal covenant. Yet our latest prayer book was written just a bit too early to include caring for creation among those explicit baptismal promises. I would invite you to explore those promises a bit more deeply -- where and how do they imply caring for the rest of creation?

We are beginning to be aware of the ways in which our lack of concern for the rest of creation results in death and destruction for our neighbors. We cannot love our neighbors unless we care for the creation that supports all our earthly lives. We are not respecting the dignity of our fellow creatures if our sewage or garbage fouls their living space. When atmospheric warming, due in part to the methane output of the millions of cows we raise each year to produce hamburger, begins to slowly drown the island homes of our neighbors in the South Pacific, are we truly sharing good news?

The food we eat, the energy we use, the goods and foods we buy, the ways in which we travel, are all opportunities -- choices and decisions -- to be for others, both human and other. Our Christian commitment is for this -- that we might live that more abundant life, and that we might do it in a way that is for the whole world.

Abundant blessings this Easter, and may those blessings abound through the coming days and years.

What makes it so frustrating to read and digest and try to comment on this and others of her statements is that there's nothing particularly untrue about what she says. Who can argue that environmental pollution and human-induced (or human-enhanced, at any rate) global warming are good things? Who has any desire to drive Pacific Islanders out of their homes?! What's not to like about trying to become a better sacramental sign of new life in Christ?

So it isn't so much what she says that I find troublesome. It's what she fails to say. It's the apparent reduction of the good news of Easter to "let's eat less hamburger so we don't make our 'neighbors' who live on islands homeless"--or, for that matter, the reduction of the good news of Easter to any moral exhortation, no matter how good and worthy it may be.

The truth of the Paschal Mystery is infinitely more bracing, infinitely more penetrating, infinitely more challenging, and infinitely more satisfying to the universal hunger of the human heart than any hortatory moralizing. The truth of the Paschal Mystery is about blood and guts and sweat and tears and passion; it's about the death of the innocent bringing life to the guilty (and if you so much as ate a baby carrot with your lunchtime salad today, you participated in that reality). It's about ancient curses and ancient promises and waiting in a dark tomb for the New Fire to be lit. It's about getting naked and being reborn in the amniotic fluid of the font, the womb of the Church, and it's about eating flesh and drinking blood and taking possession of the life of the one whose flesh you eat and whose blood you drink.

This is strong medicine for the radical alienation and suffering that afflict the human race. What we have been offered by our Primate and Chief Pastor, on the other hand, is very thin gruel indeed for a world that is starving for meaning, purpose, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, community, and hope--hope in this world and hope in the world to come.

Many voices have shouted that Katharine Jefferts Schori is a heretic. I do not for a moment believe that. The pronouncements of heretics have substance. They have appeal. They have enough truth to be tantalizing--indeed, they very often embody almost the complete fullness of truth, save for one important detail (the proverbial iota). Nope, Katharine Jefferts Schori is no heretic.


trueanglican said...

Bishop Jefferts Schori has issued a number of public statements that I quite admired. However, on this one I'm with you, Father Martins. The Resurrection is indeed about blood and guts and sweat and tears and passion, not flowers and ecological exhortation. I wish she'd done better, either in her own words or in quotes from some Anglican worthy like George Herbert. Or perhaps Dorothy L. Sayers.

Malcolm+ said...

Thank you for conceding that "there's nothing particularly untrue about what she says." Many "conservative" bloggers have been less kind.

I agree that the problem with the thing is what is left unsaid. Unlike some, I don't deduce from that that she does not believe in the resurrection or in the sacrificial significance of Jesus's death.

As a moral observation on our obligations as stewards of creation, it is fine - if arguably a trifle vacuous.

As an Easter message, it is a missed opportunity.

Of course, when she does talk about Jesus she's often criticized, and more than once unfairly. Perhaps she's gun shy.

But an Easter message might be better focussing on the Easter event.

Daniel Martins said...

Off-topic to Malcolm--

Do I infer correctly from your profile that you serve in the Diocese of Q'Appelle? Your bishop is a friend of mine. We were classmates at Nashotah House. We regularly trade internet humor!


Anonymous said...

All I can say Fr. Dan is "I beg to differ!"

Anonymous said...

Didn't some individuals from the Diocese of San Joaquin have a 'prayer group' praying night and day when there was going to be an election of a new Presisding Bishop at the last General Convention? Maybe their prayers were answered!

Didn't some of the self so-called
'conservative' bishops get together and throw their vote in for our Presiding Bishop (even though it was against their grain) when she was elected? It causes me to think of the verse from Holy Scripture: "YOU MEANT IT FOR EVIL, BUT GOD MEANT IT FOR GOOD."

Possibly, God the Holy Spirit worked through those who tried to disrupt things through their illicit voting.

Doesn't the Holy Scriptures say to respect those in authority over us, for GOD HAS PLACED THEM THERE?

God does work in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform!

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree that her message comes up fairly empty. But to be honest, I was prepared for much worse after reading your introduction. She rarely talks about Jesus in a way that resonates with me, so I'm usually okay with it when she avoids Him as a topic altogether.

Malcolm+ said...

On topic to Scott and Anna - like I said, maybe she's gun shy ;-)

Off topic to Dan - Indeed, you have the rights of it. He was impressed with the way we used a blog to manage the confirmation class in my parish. I've suggested to him that, once we sort out our diocesan website, it should include a Bishop's Blog.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who has attended college know for a fact that the professor usually speaks 'on a different level' than the student's jargon amongst themselves. Many 'intellectuals' speak about the same things as the regular 'man in the street,' but in a different way.

Is this the ?? 'problem' ?? some individuals have in trying to understand the Presiding Bishop, and what she is saying?

As the Scriptures state: What good is it to say God bless you, or I'll pray for you......when that person who has asked for food, goes away hungry?

We all like to hear everything from our own viewpoint, and in our own specific way.....but we don't always get what we want, God gives us what we need.

Rather than mouthing pious phrases that are the 'pop religion' of the day....isn't it better to see our faith in Jesus Christ put into action...such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.

The grap for 'spiritual superiority' in a utopian group of the elect has never been part of the has been the aim of schismatics, and groups that have gone off the main path while saying they strive for the historic Faith, yet act it out in secular protestantism in seeking for property, money, and power (and blame it on theological differencs)....rather than accepting the authority God has put in place.

Self-seeking, and pointing the finger seems to always have been one of the characteristics of those who claim the 'one-upmanship' of being the ones that are pure and holy. Is that Christian?

Anonymous said...

RE: "Didn't some individuals from the Diocese of San Joaquin have a 'prayer group' praying night and day when there was going to be an election of a new Presisding Bishop at the last General Convention? Maybe their prayers were answered!"

I wholeheartedly agree.

The moment I heard the news I was ecstatic -- and thankful that it wasn't Parsley as well. The fact that it was someone as grossly heretical as Schori, *and* that she wouldn't pull her punches and would say what she beleived [unlike Griswold who worked hard at obscuring what he believed] was a true blessing.

Every day she is PB is a blessing on this church, as the startling clarity that she brings to the two different gospels at work and in conflict in our church are a special help to former and current moderates.


Malcolm+ said...

Off Topic to Dan:

Speaking of common acquaintances, there were two San Joaquin clergy whom I knew previously. Andy Watson had previously been a priest of this diocese, and Carlos Raines had been a contemporary of mine at Trinity.

On a somewhat less off-topic point and fyi, I have linked to this thread in my blog at

Malcolm+ said...

Sorry. Not this thread. The "Perceiving Reality" thread.

Anonymous said...

I find this posting a little difficult to reconcile with the post of 3/9. It seems that Father Dan is criticizing the Bishop for being not writing what he would have written. Admittedly, it was not particularly inspiring to some, but some of us do believe that environmental responsibility is a Christian responsibility. Dumping toxic waste in your neighbors well is not a Christian act, and we need to consider what our coorporate resonsibility is when we eat at McDonald's. A great Easter message? Maybe not so much. But also not a cause for criticism.

I do feel, however, that the last comments regarding the Bishop not rising to the level of a heresy is simply damning with faint praise. It picks off the scab on a wound that TEC needs to heal. Those of us who identify with neither the liberals nor the conservatives are hoping that this kind of dialogue will stop. Both sides need to stop throwing stones if our institution to survive and find the via media.