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.]