walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: July 10, 2013
Two Fundamentalisms Clash in The Episcopal Church

On June 22, 2013, the New York Times (in a story by Mark Oppenheimer, one of its regular religion reporters), carried an account of yet another skirmish in the culture war within the Episcopal Church. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, preached a sermon in Curacao, the Caribbean island which belongs to the Netherlands. In the rather odd geography of the global Anglican Communion it is in the Diocese of Venezuela. I don’t know how many Anglicans there are in either Venezuela or the Dutch West Indies (it cannot be very many), nor do I know why this rather obscure event came to be widely enough noticed to create yet another storm of criticism against Bishop Schori, whose tenure has been a troubled one all along.

Schori preached about a text in the 16th chapter of the Book of Acts that deals with an episode during a visit by the Apostle Paul to a town in Macedonia. A slave girl who, as the text says, had “a spirit of divination” kept interrupting Paul’s preaching by crying out that he was proclaiming a way of salvation. After some days of this Paul was “annoyed” and proceeded to put an end to the disturbance. He commanded the spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ, to leave the woman, which happened instantly. The owners of the girl had made a profit from her supernatural gift (the text does not tell us how it was used) and were upset by being deprived of this income. They denounced Paul as a disturber of the peace and the Roman magistrate had him imprisoned.

I am not a New Testament scholar, but it seems to me that this is a straightforward story about exorcism, an exercise very common among early Christians. It shows Paul in a somewhat less than favorable light only because his exorcism was not motivated by compassion for the girl, but by irritation at having his preaching interrupted. Schori’s interpretation of the text is fanciful, to say the least: Paul was guilty of failing to value “diversity”. He resents the slave girl’s usurping his authority. And so, in Schori’s words, “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.”

Not surprisingly, once Schori’s Caribbean sermon became known outside its tropical locale, it triggered a storm of criticism in theologically conservative publications. As one critic put it, “Bishop Jefferts Schori simply ignores what the text says, in order to give a reading that portrays Paul as a patriarchal oppressor who fails to recognize the voice of God in a low-status young girl.” “Diversity” is a key concept here in what has become progressive dogma, an icon to be held up in (shall we say?) exorcism against the demons of racism, sexism and homophobia—the last two being particularly relevant in the current schism in the Anglican Communion (a charge of racism is a bit difficult if made against a party led by African bishops).

Schori has occupied her present position since 2006. Before that she was Bishop of Nevada. During her tenure as Presiding Bishop, a number of entire dioceses left the Episcopal Church, in addition to individual congregations. Her positions have been consistently on the progressive side. She is pro-choice, in favor of same-sex marriage and of the acceptance of “partnered” homosexual priests as well as bishops. She voted in favor of Gene Robinson becoming the first openly gay bishop (in New Hampshire). In an address to the 2009 General Convention of the Episcopal Church she said that “The great Western heresy is that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us can be in right relationship with God”—a sentence that I understand as a repudiation of Western individualism in favor of some sort of collective salvation (her endorsement of the United Nations Development Goals indicates what progressive sorts she has in mind). Despite her belief in “diversity” and her declared intention to work with conservatives within her denomination, she has been very hardnosed in dealing with Episcopalians setting up separate conservative dioceses and congregations: Thus far her Episcopal Church has spent about 20 million dollars on litigation over the properties of such dissident (should one say “diverse”?) entities.

I am not concerned here with the merits of these various contentions. (By way of examples, I see no reason why gays and lesbians should not be priests or bishops, but I have serious difficulties with an endorsement of abortion without any limitations.) My point here is simply to point out that two fundamentalisms are embattled here. I am not acquainted with Bishop Schori, but I am prepared to stipulate that as a person she may be amiable, even tolerant. But her public record impresses me as representing a dogmatic adherence to current progressive ideology. This fundamentalism is mirrored by fundamentalism on the conservative side. In the Anglican case this is a mix of Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical groupings, which are at odds with each other but (sort of) allied in opposition to the liberal theology and (less strongly) progressive politics dominant in mainline Protestantism. The two fundamentalisms are very visible in their respective approaches to the Bible. Anglo-Catholics are more concerned with fidelity to tradition than to the Bible, but for Evangelicals the Bible, Old as well as New Testament, has an absolute if not “inerrant” authority. It seems to me that there is a different “inerrancy” operative on the other side—that is, an unquestioning certitude of being “on the right side of history”. Both conservatives and progressives comb the Bible for “proof texts”, an exercise that often leads to very imaginative exegeses. Take, for example, the problem of excluding from imputed “inerrancy” some of the hair-raising penal texts in Leviticus. Schori’s exegesis of the text from Acts is a nice example of hermeneutic imagination on the other side.

Over the centuries since Henry VIII, for not very theological reasons, separated the Church of England from Rome, Anglicanism has developed a tradition of moderation in doctrine and mellowness in piety. I don’t see much of this in evidence in the ongoing public conflict, though I would guess that it survives in many local parishes (as Anthony Trollope suggested by his novel Barchester Towers, written during some earlier conflicts in Anglican history).

[Photo of Katharine Jefferts Schori courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

show comments
  • Wayne Lusvardi

    In 1978 sociologist John Murray Cuddihy wrote a prescient book titled “No Offense: A Critique of American Civil Religion,” which propounded a thesis that Catholic elites gave up their claim to being the one true church and Jewish elites likewise relented being the one chosen people of God so as not to offend the Protestant majority. Thus, American Civil Religion became a religion of “civility” and Protestants took on the demeanor of what Berger calls “the Protestant smile.” Civil religion became a religion of conformity to upper Middle Class values and the cultural norm became inconspicuousness. Civil religion became “civility” itself instead of piety. Peter Berger described this tame sort of religion in his book “The Noise of Solemn Assemblies” published in 1961.

    If we had to re-write the culture of civil religion today at least for liberal Protestant elites Cuddihy’s book would have to be re-titled: “All is Offensive.” As depicted in Katharine Jefforts Schori, her aim is not only to offend theologically in sermons by propagating a gospel of offensiveness, but also to offend on the interactional level. Using Berger’s terms, the Protestant smile has been replaced with the conspicuous Protestant scowl. In his article “Reflections of an Ecclesiastical Expatriate” Berger described this new face of Protestantism as: “The face now has a set and a sour mien, an expression of permanent outrage.”

    The tolerance of the old Protestant “civility” has been replaced by intolerance in the name of “diversity” and hostile rejection of modern, American global commercial culture. If the social function of the older “civil religion” was to legitimate the “OK world” of modernity, the function of the new religion of “incivility” is to delegitimate modernity and deem nearly everything – including the weather and climate – as “not OK.”

    It is the scowl of an elite religious counterculture that rejects modernization and Capitalism as further described in Berger’s book “The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness.” What liberal Protestants want others to be conscious of is how everyone else’s cultural values offend them as cultural elites. This takes the form of religious and cultural “one-upmanship.”

    Berger points out that there are several forms of countermodernizing ideology and theology: nativism, traditionalism, nationalism, and socialism. The two fundamentalisms described by Berger in the Episcopal Church could be described as Episcopal traditionalism versus anti-nationalist socialism.

    To the traditionalist modernization and traditional symbols must be protected, including the “Biblical family” that is not very Biblical at all and as Berger points out has only been around since the invention of the steam engine. Like socialist, traditionalists are not content with relegation of religion to the private social sphere. The public sphere must reflect back their traditional values. That is why countercultural religious elites work so hard to offend. Gay marriage should be legalized not so much to institutionalize gay relationships but to deny religious traditionalists cultural hegemony over the public square and offend them. And liberal religious elites themselves must offend in every way including inverting gender roles.

    It is no wonder then that these two fundamentalisms should clash in the Episcopal Church, which was formed as a sort of hybrid of Catholicism and Protestantism. Underneath this clash of fundamentalisms as Berger reminds us is a clash of the old business class and the New Class of knowledge workers in education, social work, the media, environmental protection, and “Obamacare.”

    For those caught in the middle of this clash, there is not a spiritual home because financial resources for churches seem to coalesce around one pole or the other. It is more important to religious Traditionalists to oppose gay marriage and in so doing they give armamentarium to religious Counter-culturalists that they are bigoted. Most traditional Episcopal churches have lost their church buildings and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in fighting the liberal Episcopal hierarchy over who owns the buildings.

    Oddly, there isn’t hardly any reconciliation between the two social classes that clash in these church battles. But who would underwrite a middle ground theology or church?

  • Jim__L

    If the spiritual act calling on the power of God (like an exorcism) were against the will of God, wouldn’t it have failed? (This once again raises the question, Whose side is Schori on?)

    As for being on the Right Side of History, no one I’ve ever heard that uses that argument actually seems to have consulted History as to its ruling on any given issue.

    I’d also recommend Berger go back to the Bible, and the writings of Luther, Melanchthon, et al, for a bit of refreshment (or perhaps even renaissance) of his religious outlook. There are also some early American theologians whose work on “the sternness of the Law and the sweetness of the Gospel” can illuminate the core tensions of Christianity, tensions that it seems too many Protestants dismiss with a “smile” now.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    I might add that Katherine Jefferts Schori obtained a B.S. degree in biology from Stanford, a masters and PhD in oceanography from Oregon State University, a Masters in Divinity from the Divinity School of the Pacific, honorary Doctor’s degrees from three schools, is an instrument rated pilot, is married to a mathematics professor at Oregon State University, and her daughter is a pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

    • Palamas

      And with all that she has been an unmitigated disaster as an ecclesiastical leader.

  • Gary Novak

    Does Katharine Schori think of herself as a fundamentalist? Does her car have a bumper sticker that reads, “Extremism in the defense of diversity is no vice”? Not likely. How can the historically inevitable triumph of progressive ideology be extreme? How can enlightenment be extreme? Surely Schori thinks the battle is between fundamentalism and enlightenment. Two fundamentalisms? Me? A fundamentalist? I don’t understand.

    And, of course, once you are on the “right
    side of history,” self-doubt becomes a sin against the Holy Ghost. We are the people we have been waiting for; to doubt our mission is to doubt God herself. In praise of doubt? Get thee behind me, Satan.

    So, her hardnosed opposition to separatist congregations on the wrong side of history is not surprising. But I was a bit surprised by the absence of any nuance in her rejection of Western individualism: “The Great Western heresy is that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us can be in a right relationship with God.” She could have cited even the patriarchal sexist oppressor Paul in support of her position: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Christian unity could be seen as obliterating individual differences. But Paul’s
    mystic Christian unity transcends tribal collectivism and need not await manumission, affirmative action, gay marriage, and the implementation of Obamacare. From Schori’s perspective that makes it the opium of the masses.

    And that makes her position similar to the one criticized by Josiah Royce in a century-old essay, “Individual Experience and Social Experience as Sources of Religious Insight”: “As for salvation, many of our most influential leaders [religious included] now teach us that the problem of our
    day is the problem of saving, not the individual as an individual, but the social order as a whole” (“Basic Writings,” Vol. II, p. 1026). “Have not the gods often been conceived as tribal deities, and so simply as representatives of the welfare and of the will of the community over against the waywardness and the capriciousness of the individual?” Durkheim’s “The Elementary
    Forms of the Religious Life,” which conceived of the gods in precisely that way, was published in the same year as Royce’s essay. When the sociology of religion ceases to respect the boundary between the empirical and the supernatural, it may believe it has discovered the essence of religion: God = Society. Within that framework, Royce writes, “salvation accrues to the individual so far as he gives himself over to the service of man, and to mankind in so far as men can only be saved together and not separately.”

    But that leaves unanswered the question, “If Paul’s Christ mysticism is not socialism, what is it?” This is not the place to try to answer that
    question. I will simply say that, for Royce, the answer is a work in progress. The Church’s command to us is: “Create me!” But that creation will not simply be a “social construction.” (Royce would appreciate Berger’s point that socially constructed religion can be both projection and
    reflection.) Pauline Christ mysticism has a social dimension that is not, itself, socially constructed. The social dimension of the kingdom of heaven
    is metaphysical, not “after the flesh.” And that is what our smirking, politically-correct bishops miss.
    (Berger always seems to find the right photo for his posts.)

    • Wayne Lusvardi

      It is not so much that Schori’s theology is that God = society but God = the Knowledge Class whose social function is to legitimate the welfare state the Knowledge Class is dependent upon. Christianity would be reduced to a loose group tied together by symbols sharing the same relationship to the means of production (Marx) and not the “Communion of Saints” or the “Kingdom of God on Earth.” In short, Christianity would be reduced to a Greek or Roman pagan elitist temple cult for the Patrician class.

      • Gary Novak

        When Schori says that the great
        Western heresy is that we can be saved as individuals, she is, as Berger suggests, advocating collective salvation. If the collectivity she has in mind is the Knowledge Class, does she
        wish to see that class enlarged—potentially including all of humanity? Is her idea of salvation universalizable or
        inherently elitist? Your suggestion that the Knowledge Class is dependent on the welfare state implies that she sees no
        “realm of freedom” beyond class-divided society. The poor and dependent will always be with
        us—we’ll make sure of that!

        I think her ideology is more
        generous than that. Richard Rorty held that ethnocentrism, though much maligned, can be a good thing. The problem with our socially-constructed ethnicities is that they are too narrow, too small. We need to work (through the conversation of mankind) toward a single world-wide ethnicity. There is no “human nature” which can unite us, but we can unite
        ourselves by coming to appreciate each other’s stories. Eventual unification is not built in to history, but it is a possible achievement if we are imaginative and compassionate enough.

        I suspect Schori is closer to Rorty
        than to the Roman Patrician. But, as Berger points out, she has, in fact, no patience with Episcopalians whose diversity is “wrong.” What kind of
        conversation could she have with Texans who place restrictions on
        abortion? She would be happy to
        “educate” them—but cannot take them seriously as they are. Since her progressive ideology is not, in
        fact, universalizable, she is destined to remain in the role of the elite vanguard of an unrealizable future, an exorcist of unprogressive ideas. So, I would agree with you that, as far as
        her contribution to the realization of the Kingdom of God on earth is concerned, she might as well be self-consciously committed to elitism.

        • msmischief

          Of course there’s a human nature. Just as there is a triangle nature. This is how you can say there are triangles, the things that evince triangle nature, and humans, who evince human nature.

          • Gary Novak

            I agree that there is a human nature. The paragraph in which the denial of human nature occurs was intended as a statement of Rorty’s postmodern defense of ethnocentrism. I do like his idea of listening to each other’s stories– because it’s a good way to discover (not invent) our human nature.

  • Peter Barlow

    Once again, Dr Berger provides a civil, thoughtful and balanced analysis. As always, he avoids giving offence, considers the matter carefully and points out what many of us might have missed in a) our haste to excoriate the archbishop or b) our haste to defend her.

    Dr Berger is far too polite to address the question of how it is that someone who holds high office in a church that still, at least publicly, professes the Nicene Creed, could possibly express the opinions that the archbishop expressed; or at least, he does not press the point quite so directly.

    Regardless of St Paul’s motivation, which might be open to debate and could be a proper subject of discussion in a university faculty lounge or a seminar in a school of theology, addressing it in the way that the archbishop did could be called imprudent, if not actually h

  • Peter Barlow

    Sorry, hit the post button too soon.
    I meant to write:

    I would suppose, however, that given the archbishop’s track record, one should not expect too much, and are we surprised at her position? Is this not the position of most Episcopalians, and of people in many other denominations (whether stated formally or held privately)? In which case, the horse is out of the barn, and discussion would seem to be somewhat pointless.
    But congratulations all the same to Dr Berger for his article, a pleasure and an education to read.

  • Stephen Manning

    Philip Turner put his finger on it in 2005. The true theology of ECUSA is radical inclusion, regardless of what historical Christianity says. And like all egalitarians, Ms Shori is an elitist tyrant at heart.

  • FredO

    Schori has been a disaster for Episcopalians, toadying the leftist collectivist party line almost without exception. She has been a total embarrassment.

  • FrankArden

    Dr. Berger shows his remarkable subtlety in this interesting essay.

    I appreciate all the comments but, unless I’ve misread this, is not this whole matter of Schori’s criticism of Paul’s lack of appreciation for the demonic girl reducible to the great mantra of progressives i.e., intolerance?

    So Paul was intolerant of the girl’s spiritual diversity according to Schori. Well, what does that make her in relation to the traditional Christians within her own church (as I) who struggle to find a rightful place in its communion as we pray to forgive dogmatic progressives (for they know not what they do)?

    It was Jesus who called the Pharisees “hypocrites” for their smothering sanctimony.

    Might Schori fear that that she is a post-modern daughter and preacher of the ancient Pharisaic ways under the banner of progressivism?

    • ThomasD

      Perhaps Schori would be best served by experiencing her own intervention by St. Paul?

  • Nathan Zebrowski

    This is simply silly. What a weird occasion to jump on Katherine Schori. Have it out directly rather than on the pretense of caring about a sermon that mentions one of the stranger and more inexplicable of Paul’s doings. Or would you rather yourself explain exactly what a pneuma (and not a daimon) is? And then perhaps explain what a pneuma of python is? Good luck because that’s the sole occurrence of this pneuma in the New Testament. In any case, I don’t see how any explanation of these terms will allow you to make much sense of this text. There is nothing straightforward about this story. It does take some imagination to bring it to life. I think Augustine would have been proud of Schori.

    The fighting in the Episcopal Church has been ugly. On that we can agree. Clearly, we disagree on the cause of the ugliness. I don’t see how this blog helps in any fashion whatsoever. It just exacerbates the split. Frankly, it does so by offering a classic red herring.

    • FrankArden


      Thank you for your comments. I’m tempted to ask though, how I, and others,
      could make this discussion less “silly” by finding a less “weird” occasion to
      “jump” on poor Mme. Schori other than a mere “red herring” as you describe it?
      Do you have a more cogent and serious example of her actions or remarks where
      my jumping on her would be more justified and find you in agreement?

      Further, how can I “have it out directly” with the lady? Should I keep my mouth
      shut and send a registered letter to her good offices and demand a reply? In
      that imagined letter, do you think I should ask her why she cared to preach an
      obscure sermon “that mentions one
      of the stranger and more inexplicable of Paul’s doings” in an obscure church
      where her obscure interpretation was brought to the fore by the obscure New
      York Times?

      Even further, I wonder how my exact explanation of a pneuma “and not a diamon” would help to decipher your angst. As for the penuma of a python, I would say that a python has no pneuma or soul and lacks a diamon. The old serpent is what he is: the same vendor of original sin.

      But, back to having it out directly with Mme. Schori: I’m sure she’s a decent
      and sociable person and I wouldn’t embarrass her with talk of religion. I would
      like to meet her at a dinner party where, after an hour of cocktails, I found
      her seated to my right for dinner. I’d much prefer to ask her about her aviation
      ratings in a Learjet and whether she was rated in a Cessna Citation II and a
      Gulfstream. I’d tell her my all time heroes are Wilbur and Orville Wright.

      I’d ask her if she remembered that great poem, High Flight, by John Gillespie
      McGee, Jr. where he concluded while hovering in the rarified atmosphere that,
      “I put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

      Beyond that I’d like to know about her experiences as a marine biologist and
      what she had found, as Genesis calls it, “upon the floor of the deep.”

      After a few glasses of wine I should hope that she’d laugh out loud at a few of
      my ribald and tasteless jokes, and that we would depart friends.

      Nathan, I am a poor Christian, but even the poorest of us don’t hate anyone. Do
      not conclude my robust criticism of her unfortunate sermon was an opportunity
      to “jump” her. She spoke and argued with her own mind and voice. No matter how
      obscure, she started it.

  • Gary Novak

    Since Berger is not using the “argument” (i. e., prejudice) of the “right side of history” (suitably placed in scare quotes), I’m not clear why you think he needs to refresh his religious outlook. Whose side do you think HE is on? (Trick question: typically– here, too– Berger finds little profit in taking sides in the clash of fundamentalisms.)

  • Jim__L

    Apologies, I was unclear — those three thoughts were only tenuously connected. No inferences should be made from connecting them.

    As for Berger’s side, he insists he is “incurably Lutheran”. It is a continuing source of amazement to me, how asymptomatic he usually appears. There are a number of passages in Scripture that would seem to discourage such silence — lights under a basket, buried talents, a direct commission to go and teach, etc.

    If he has found a “pearl of great price” that he can share without diminishing its value to himself, why would he not share? Is it really being considerate of or polite to other people, to hold it back, when the benefits are so amazing (and the drawbacks of its lack so appalling)? If it’s a fear of ineffectiveness, does the sower stop sowing because only a fraction of his seeds sprout?

    He has a public forum. He should make more constructive use of it.

  • Gary Novak

    Thanks for the clarification. You make an interesting point. Peter Barlow makes a similar one: Is Berger, perhaps, being TOO polite? Should he condemn Schori as a heretic? Should he write a blog on Christianity as a
    pearl of great price instead of on religion and other curiosities? YOU recognize the incurable Lutheran through the politeness, but many do not. In an old “Cheers” episode, Sam asks Woody “Do I have to draw you a picture?” “No—but it would help.” Why isn’t Berger more “helpful”?

    Needless to say, I cannot speak for Berger—or, rather, I speak for him all the time, but my speeches are interpretations without authority. But my impression is that his calling to missionary work is Kierkegaardian. You introduce the appropriate criterion: effectiveness. But you seem to assume
    that effectiveness is a product of the plausibility of the explicit message, the tirelessness of the sower, and the fertility of the soil. What about Kierkegaardian indirection? In “The Point of View for My Work as an
    Author,” Kierkegaard writes that “the religious writer, whose all-absorbing
    thought is how one is to become a Christian, starts off rightly in Christendom
    as an aesthetic writer.” The pretense of being an aesthete, rather than a Christian, “does no harm. The harm is much greater, or rather the only harm is, when one who is not a Christian [e. g., Elmer Gantry] pretends to be
    one.” And, however “asymptomatic” Berger’s
    Christianity may appear to you, he has repeatedly and explicitly affirmed
    Christianity—from “The Precarious Vision” to “Questions of Faith.”

    So I wouldn’t worry about a dash of indirection, irony, aesthetics, or sociology here and there. Directness can easily backfire: “A
    communicator of the religious may very often be over-anxious on his own behalf to be regarded as religious.” We can’t
    spread the Gospel by contributing to the noise of solemn assemblies. Of course, your criticism of Berger is also a tribute: HIS preaching would not be the noise of solemn assemblies. I agree, but it seems to me that the fact
    that Berger is not over-anxious to appear religious on his own behalf makes
    his testimony more effective.

  • Jim__L

    Actually, his most recent article includes a good bit more of what I’d expect from someone whose view of religion and life is illuminated by the Lutheran teachings. The inclusion of Luther’s writings was especially gratifying.

    Seeing more of that would be very nice, if he is determined (in my view and in the view of “Scripture and plain reason”, mistakenly) to maintain an arm’s-length relationship with actual evangelism.

    Still, I’d ask Berger to consider: if including Luther’s point of view is good (which it is), how much better would it be to include Christ’s point of view?

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