The first woman to hold the title of presiding bishop within the Episcopal Church in America was in Boulder this week. She came to talk about religion of course, but also her first love – science – and it’s role in our culture. Katharine Jefferts Schori has appeared on the cover TIME magazine but as KGNU’s Roz Brown tells us, she is not a household name unless you’re a member of the Episcopal Church.
In 2006, Jefferts Schori was the first woman to be elected presiding bishop, a post she held until 2015. If you go online to read about Bishop Jefferts Schori you won’t get far before the word “controversial” pops up.
“I think I’m controversial because when I was elected, one of the bishops in the church stood up a the general convention the next day and said, ‘I want a different primate’, said Jefferts Schori. “He doesn’t believe in the ordination of women and was offended by that. And he had some brothers in the house that agreed with him. We come out of a very patriarchal tradition – the men were in charge until very recently. You look at the colonial church in the British colonies, in North America. And my shorthand version is that the men governed the church and women funded it; they raised the money to pay for the roof or to pay the priest’s salary. And that’s been true until very late in the 20th century in the Episcopal Church. The first women deputies to the general convention weren’t ceded officially until the 1970s, and the first women weren’t ordained as priests until the 1970s, so it’s a fairly recent part of history for that to shift in our tradition.”
The ‘not my primate’ outburst received a lot of attention at the time. Another man told her, “Now don’t wear dangly earrings,” – projecting a deep-seated belief about what was proper and appropriate for the only female head of an Anglican national church. A religion columnist wrote in the Washington Post that Jefferts Schori was made to endure innumerable indignities as many made it clear that although she might bear the title of presiding bishop, she was not a ‘real bishop’ and they worked to undermine her authority. But Jefferts Schori says the negative reaction by some to a woman finally rising to the highest position in the church was not unexpected.
As presiding bishop, Jefferts Schori also ruffled feathers when she placed the Episcopal Church in the crosshairs of another theological issue by going to bat for LGBTQ community.
“I’m also controversial because I have supported inclusion rather than exclusion in our approaches to dealing with all sorts of human conditions.”
During her visit to Boulder, Bishop Jefferts Schori conducted a traditional Episcopalian church service at St. Aidan’s, but she also spoke at CU’s Center for Western Civilization. Topics included the intersection between science, religion and land; and Cosmic Faith in the Anthropocene Age. Before Jefferts Schori was called to the church she was more of a scientist, earning degrees in biology and oceanography.
“We’re stewards of everything God has created and too often we just limit that to money – but money is an expression of how we earn our living. A few hundred years ago we would have talked about the produce from the land – how we harvested food and how we shared that food in the community. Today most of us do that exchange with cash. How we steward the land has an enormous impact on how we steward other parts of creation and we’re seeing that in spades today. The hurricanes we’ve suffered in the southeast part of the U.S. and in the Caribbean – their intensity is a result of the heating of the atmosphere and the heating of the oceans due to carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions. There’s really no doubt about it. The wildfires in the West that we continue to suffer and that have gotten worse and worse are a result of warming of the atmosphere and in the way we’ve managed forests over the last century. We’re learning about both of those issues and if we don’t attend to that, both from a moral perspective and from a scientific perspective we’re failing our human vocation.”
The 63-year old Jefferts Schori believes our culture is moving through a difficult transition but our educational system, institutions and corporations are improving the way people function in mixed communities.
“I grew up in an educational system as did most of my contemporaries where individual achievement was the be-all and end-all. You rarely did group work or collaborative work. The educational system has shifted enormously in that respect. Collaborative work in the old days was more common among women but I think it’s more commonly taught as a way of functioning more creatively and effectively in today’s society. And if you look at business, business has led in this. We can’t do it in solitary ways – I’m the boss and your opinion doesn’t count – that just doesn’t cut it. It’s not effective, efficient or constructive and creative.”
Jefferts Schori says she would be concerned that our culture is moving backwards if it happened before.
“It has been ever thus. We take two steps forward and then two steps back. Many leaders in the Episcopal Church read the work of Rabbi Edwin Friedman who writes about the family system theory and he says nations and churches have the same way of operating as families do. One of his favorite lines was, ‘When the resistance is strongest, you know you’re being effective.’ So it will turn around at some point and we’ll go in directions that are again healing for the community as a whole, that don’t decide that some people don’t count. This nation has historically been a nation that welcomed people with new gifts and skills. Yes, we have also persecuted the Irish and the Italians and the Polish and we’re doing the same thing to people from Mexico today and eventually we’ll learn that they’re human beings just like people who’ve been here for a few years longer. We’re all immigrants.”
In the 21st century the number of people who identify as part of a mainline religion like Episcopalian has dropped significantly but Jefferts Schori believes the church is addressing that.
“We’re shifting our ways of ‘being’ church – we’re not operating so much like we’re a club like we did in the times of social expectation in the 1960s, when you had to be a member of the church in order to be valid in the community. We’re going out into the community and listening to what people are hungry for. You can’t offer good news unless who know what the bad news is that people already have. It’s much more like the first century when Jesus was walking around and talking to anybody and eating with anybody and sitting down and saying, ‘What is it that you need?’ He didn’t walk around healing people, laying hands on people, until he was invited to do that. That’s the kind of work we need to be doing in the world. People of faith, people who are concerned about the welfare of others have an ability to make a real difference. Churches like St. Aidan’s help people figure out how to do that; to find critical mass and advocate, to feed people, to ask people why they’re hungry or un-housed in this community and do something about it. As well as the moral underpinning to offer others who resist. We are our brothers and sisters keepers and we are stewards of the Earth, which we all share. We don’t have another chance at living together on Earth. This is the only one we’ve got. We have to take care of it and the people and creatures that live on this planet.”