Friday, May 24, 2013

St Paul, A Slave Girl, the Holy Spirit, and the Presiding Bishop

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Katharine Jefferts Schori, delivered a sermon on May 12, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, at All Saints Church in Steenrijk, CuraƧao, which is in the Episcopal Church's Diocese of Venezuela. The first reading for that day was from Acts 16, which recounts the experience Paul and Silas had in Philippi, where they cast out a demon from a fortune-telling slave girl, and were then imprisoned at the behest of her traffickers on account of the economic harm the exorcism had caused them. 

This sermon has slowly become a bit of "a thing" in cyberspace over the nearly two weeks since it was delivered. Here's why:
Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God.  She is quite right.  She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness.  Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it.  It gets him thrown in prison.  That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so! 
Criticism has been fierce, beginning with all but one of the comments on the ENS website posting of the text.

This is awkward. Because of my position in the system, Bishop Jefferts Schori is not an abstraction to me. She is someone from whom I have sat across a table in several meetings of the House of Bishops. She is someone who sends me a hand-written note on my birthday and the anniversary of my consecration. She is someone who very kindly checked in on me by email while I was recovering from heart surgery, for which I was immensely grateful.

Yet, I feel constrained by the vows I took when I was ordained a bishop--vows that she herself formally required of me--to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church of God." These vows do not permit me to remain silent, even as I also remain respectful and charitable. And precisely because the Presiding Bishop is a real person to me, someone I will have to once again look in the eye several weeks from now, I'm not saying anything about her that I would not say to her; in fact, I will be sending her a link to this blog post as soon as it's up.

To call Bishop Jefferts Schori's exegesis of Acts 16 "strained" or "eccentric" is too mild. It is utterly bizarre. But others have done an adequate job fisking the sermon. I'm going to cut right to what seems to me a rather larger and more fundamental issue, which is the duty of all Christians, but particularly those in ordained leadership, to operate from within the tradition, as an insider looking out, and not from a critical distance, as an outsider looking in. The Christian tradition (a term I use in what I think is an Eastern Orthodox sense, inclusive of scripture, liturgy, ascesis, and the mainstream of theology) is certainly an appropriate object of critical inquiry by detached outsiders, whether sympathetic or hostile. But such critical inquiry is not in the remit of a bishop; in fact, bishops pretty much surrender the option of engaging in that sort of work the moment they are consecrated. A bishop is, by definition, by job description, thoroughly a conservative, operating as a custodian of the tradition and articulating an insider's point of view. Is there room on the margins for prophetic voices that challenge the establishment, speaking words of truth and justice? Yes, there certainly is room for those voices. But they are not the voices of bishops. It is, rather, the job of bishops, speaking as consummate insiders, to equip the baptized faithful to listen to the voices from the margins and discern between true prophets and false ones.

As an insider looking out, as an apologist and cheerleader for the establishment, a bishop sits under the authority of the tradition, particularly the authority of sacred scripture. There are interpretive roads that are open to others--outsiders looking in--that are properly closed to bishops (and, by extension, to priests and others who preach and teach). In Acts 16, the author (presumably Luke) portrays Paul and Silas as the good guys, the slave girl as the exploited victim, and her "owners," along with the demon that possessed her, as the bad guys. What Paul did, operating in the power of the Holy Spirit, was to liberate an oppressed person. There is a homiletical treasure trove available here without disturbing this essential dynamic. To stray outside it only tortures the text. And I suspect that Bishop Katharine's concern that we recognize the image of God in one another could have been well-supported by the readings for Easter VII without so straying.

One of the great temptations for either a theologian or a pastor is to be original. It's a tonic to the ego. Under the right circumstances, a theologian can get away with it. St Paul certainly did! A pastor, by contrast, eschews originality. A pastor, a bishop, is a relay runner, handing along (para-dosis, the root of "tradition") the baton to the next runner, the next generation. Originality is not compatible with that job description.


Jon said...

With all due respect, I think you are profoundly mistaken to insist that bishops and (maybe) pastors can never be prophetic. What about Paul Jones, the bishop of Utah around WWI? And what about the Pope breaking with long tradition this past Maundy Thursday, and going to wash the feet of prisoners, including Muslims and women? If bishops and pastors can never in any way endorse new thoughts or claims how can new understanding penetrate into the church and become part of the tradition? Granted, some folks use being prophetic as an excuse to push their own agendas, and bishops and pastors do have to minister to their whole community, but that points us toward prayer and careful discernment of the proper balance to strike between bringing out new things as well as the old for the congregation's edification.

As for this particular sermon, while it makes for uninspiring reading for me, it's only faults seem to be in implying that the spirit of divination might be of God and using the positive phrase "gift of spiritual awareness" instead of a more neutral phrase like "awareness of spiritual truths." (After all, it was apparently by that spirit of divination that she accurately recognized and proclaimed that Paul and his companion were slaves of the Most High God who proclaimed the way to salvation.) If you insist on sticking with traditional answers, what is the traditional answer as to why Paul performed that exorcism in annoyance instead of compassion? It seems entirely plausible to me to claim that he was acting out of natural human annoyance without considering anything else. After all, if his goal was to free the slave girl from the spirit, he could have done so immediately instead of waiting many days. As for the rest of it, what's controversial about exhorting folks to see Christ in all people, even in folks and places that seem very strange to us, and recognize God's glory as it is reflected in his creation?

Anonymous said...

I didn't read Dan as saying that a bishop can never be prophetic, nor that they can never think or say new things. I read him as saying that the criticism must come from the inside position, not the outside, and that the novelty must be in the articulation of principles, or their application, not in their creation.

I daresay that Dan himself sometimes says things which are critical - even prophetically critical! - and that he thinks new things from time to time. And I imagine that he may be an admirer of Jackson Kemper or

And nobody could accuse William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, of lacking in novelty, or lacking willingness to criticize. Nor, in very different ways, could anyone accuse his successor, Michael Ramsay. And Pierre Whalon, current Suffragan for Europe, is known for his articulate and effective criticism of the Church and the world.

But their originality and Katherine's were different in kind, not merely in degree; their criticism was from the within, not without. Katherine's sermon could not have succeeded, where your might have, had you given that sermon, was that you are not at the pinnacle of the organization. (And, well, if there was a valid point there, you came a lot closer to expressing it than she did!)

Anonymous said...

I see I failed to finish my thought about Jackson Kemper. Oh well: leave it lie!

Tregonsee said...

More proof that my theory that monthly Kate and her closest advisers, Beers, Screwtape, and Wormwood, gather to plot the next outrage in a fruitless effort to provoke a response from the pew potatoes. The HoB is already lost.

williamp said...

Jon, You (and Bishop Schori) appear not to understand that St. Paul realized something--that the slave girl following him (and his company) was subject to a "status" of spiritual slavery and not merely legal slavery, and thus Paul was finally moved to act on his realization of the spiritual enslavement by relieving the spiritual problem which led to his resulting revenge imprisonment. It also doesn't take much "imagination" to think that Paul could well have understood the price he would pay for dealing with the spiritual problem. What this particular text involves isn't "implications" but comprehension, and I believe, regretfully, that isn't apparent in this sermon.

Jon said...

Tell me, Dcn Scott, what's new about the principles she expressed in her sermon? I far as I can tell she was preaching that we should try to see God in absolutely all people, and that God's glory can be seen in the created world. Those principles are straight up BCP, and they weren't even new when it was authorized. Even the suggestion that Paul could be a thoughtless jerk sometimes is very far from a new idea. The only problem is in how she used the reading from Acts to express her point, since, if one wants, it is possible get the impression that the PB is either describing the "spirit of divination" as partaking in God's nature, or suggesting that Paul was wrong to perform the exorcism. Both of sound like novel interpretations to me although a search of the academic literature might say otherwise, but neither amounts to pronouncing new principles for the church nor is either all that clearly expressed, especially considering the entire problematic extract is barely over 100 words while the sermon runs to over 1,200 words. If she'd wanted to preach about how horrible Paul was or about how "spirits" are really Ok, she should have spent more than a couple sentences on it and been clearer about her pronouns. Try reading the sermon with the offending paragraph about Acts removed, and I think you'll see what I mean.

williamp, where in this specific text from Acts does it say that Paul recognized that the slave girl was enslaved by a demon and that he was moved to free her? I can see why we might impose that reading onto the text, especially if we read all exorcism stories as being about freeing people from sin and evil, but where in the text does it talk about this epiphany you say Paul had? What I see written down is a barely sketched out exorcism, and the few details are somewhat inconsistent with Paul acting out of compassion for the girl. After all, it explicitly says Paul was acting out of annoyance, and it certainly seems to have been annoyance at the way the girl was carrying on since Luke makes a point of mentioning her behavior.

Anonymous said...

Interesting twisting of the Word. Prophecy is one of the charisms of the Holy Spirit as is discernment of spirits and mighty deeds (deliverance/exorcism) (1Cor 12:10). Paul had spiritual discernment . Satan has a counterfeit gift for every true gift of the Spirit. This slave girl had a counterfeit demonic gift at work similar to some psychics/diviners today (at least those who are not simply hoaxes). I don't know why Paul chose the exact time to deliver her from the demon, but I do know that all deliverance must be in God's timing. Paul certainly did not cast out the Holy Spirit from her nor deprive her of any true gifting of the Holy Spirit. He set the captive free!! We are called to do the same today and not fall for the deception of the counterfeit gifts/power available outside of the Holy Spirit.

Anonymous said...

Daniel Martins said:"As an insider looking out, as an apologist and cheerleader for the establishment, a bishop sits under the authority of the tradition..."

No doubt that Pope Paul IV said something similar to Thomas Cranmer and look how that worked out.

JimB said...


I think that poor old Paul did not get an entirely fair reading in the PB's homily. And yet, while I might argue with her reading of the encounter with the slave girl, and its probable consequences for both the good saint and they girl, I am equally unable to go where you direct in thinking about bishops.

It is my reading of Paul when he discusses different gifts, John Mark when he reports Peter's encounter with the boundaries of the holiness code, Paul in his (harsh) denunciation of James and Peter in the first council, and indeed Jesus and John that causes me to pause. All of them while having places they could claim within a tradition they chose to confront as and for outsiders.

I think a bishop should seek to lead the people, clergy and lay, to the hard work of evaluating that which challenges their understanding of the tradition, with both the courage to face error and the willingness to find themselves or the tradition itself in error.

There is certainly a core, very narrowly defined, that is untouchable. Part of what a bishop ought to do, I think is get us out in the pews to consider what it is, and what it is not. That may well define, "prophetic" or lead us into new paths. It is the spirit-filled (we confidently hope) walk through our lives to which we are called and upon which you are called to lead and dare I use a modern term, facilitate.

vestry of Emmanuel, diocese of Chicago

Anonymous said...

More evidence that the church's top leader is straying farther and farther away from adhering to the one true faith as revealed in Holy Scripture. We should all cringe at the apostasy.

Mariel said...

I agree that someone must pass on the Good News. Pass on the traditional views of the Scriptures, as stated in the Nicene Creed primarily, but of course given detail by the whole body of Scripture. I can appreciate it this better than some, because I came from an agnostic, liberal background, where the whole Scripture was thought to be a work of fiction which occasionally rose to poetry and drama. I was relieved when I searched as an adult to find that some things are the "fundamentals". Not everything is the fundamentals, so we might ask "is belief in demon possession" one of the fundamentals? Well, the Scriptures do quote Jesus directly in affirming the existence of demons. I think they exist and cause pain, and some of us do claw our way out of their grip with the aid of Jesus, but sometimes with more pain than might have been necessary.
Bishop Schori could be adding to the pain of those struggling with discernment, especially if those strugglers have no OTHER source of Biblical understanding. As Peter said, to whom else shall we go for the words of truth...

Dale Matson said...

Bishop Dan,
I believe a bishop can and may express a novel understanding of Scripture but they are not free to undermine tradition and faith with an agenda driven attack on the motives and actions of an apostle.