“This post comes from November of last year, and, with all the goings-on in the Episcopal Church and the upcoming day of reckoning it faces with its fellow churches in the Anglican Communion, it remains just as relevant today.”
– The Great White Shank
I’ve been meaning to complete this post for the past two weeks, ever since I read the sermon delivered by the newly-elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (TEC), Katharine Jefferts Schori, at her November 4 investiture at Washington’s National Cathedral. The reason it has taken me so long to put this up is because I usually post what I feel most passionately about first, and put off completing posts I’m less interested in until I get to a point where I figure there’s nothing left to say. So, here it is.
I suppose that in itself says a lot about my feelings about TEC, its new PB, and the sermon she kicked off her tenure with. First off, I do feel it struck a number of right chords both thematically and theologically with its emphasis on personal ministry – feeding, healing, comforting, welcoming, etc. those in our midst and the world we live in – as our own personal expression of “shalom” and “fulfilling the scripture”, as Jesus’ proclamation in the Temple (Luke 4:16-21) attests to …
There’s a wonderful Hebrew word for that vision and work â€“ shalom. It doesn’t just mean the sort of peace that comes when we’re no longer at war. It’s that rich and multihued vision of a world where no one goes hungry because everyone is invited to a seat at the groaning board, it’s a vision of a world where no one is sick or in prison because all sorts of disease have been healed, it’s a vision of a world where every human being has the capacity to use every good gift that God has given, it is a vision of a world where no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another, it’s a vision of a world where all enjoy Sabbath rest in the conscious presence of God. Shalom means that all human beings live together as siblings, at peace with one another and with God, and in right relationship with all of the rest of creation. …To say “shalom” is to know our own place and to invite and affirm the place of all of the rest of creation, once more at home in God.
..And while she invokes the concept of “shalom” to convey this vision of peace and abundance for all, she could have just as easily invoked the Christian baptismal covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself”, and, to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (p. 305, The Book of Common Prayer). No matter, her language still underscores our calling as Christians to transform the world around us by exemplifying the One we call the Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world. The PB’s words also provide a healthy reminder to Episcopalians (and non-Epicopalians) of the Hebrew tradition Christianity evolved out of – something I’m glad to see from the person called and elected to lead our little corner of the Christian faith.
That being said, there’s really nothing here to feel passionate about, nothing any different than you might hear from the pupit of your local parish on any given Sunday. Beyond that, she personally lost me when she reverted to “Episco-speak” by bringing up the Church’s “Millennium Development Goals” initiative – a 3-year program seeking to achieve “global reconciliation” (whatever that means) and relieve global poverty approved at this year’s General Convention (my boldings):
This church has said that our larger vision will be framed and shaped in the coming years by the vision of shalom embedded in the Millennium Development Goals â€“ a world where the hungry are fed, the ill are healed, the young educated, women and men treated equally, and where all have access to clean water and adequate sanitation, basic health care, and the promise of development that does not endanger the rest of creation. That vision of abundant life is achievable in our own day, but only with the passionate commitment of each and every one of us. It is God’s vision of homecoming for all humanity.
The ability of any of us to enjoy shalom depends on the health of our neighbors.
Uh huh. Putting aside for a moment the laudable goals of the MDG initiative (goals which, BTW, are not only vague, but unquantifiable, thereby rendering them irrelevant as achievable organizational goals – something any institution worth its salt would understand and never agree to were it success-oriented), I can’t help but wonder if the PB’s passion for “the health of our neighbors” extends to the health of the very institution and its 2.2 million members she has been called upon to lead. And I’m not alone.
When Titus Online, an orthodox blog I occasion from time to time, posted the PB’s speech, I wasn’t surprised at the visceral negative reaction by most who chose to comment afterwards. What did surprise me, however, was how one commenter, “Maryland Brian”, seemed able to articulate in his own way my exact thoughts when he wrote:
This is actually pretty funny if you let yourself see the humor in it. All the wonderful talk about bring[ing] peace to the world â€¦ from a denomination thatâ€™s disappearing at an alarming rate, thatâ€™s [w]racked with internal strife, and may well be shown the door by the anglican communion or, if not shown the door, the bulk of the orthodox anglicans in the world will walk out anyway. Who is she kidding? Whatâ€™s a larger vision from a statisticially insignificant â€œclub?â€ Ho ho ho â€¦ ha ha ha â€¦ the irony is astounding.
All in the name of peace and through effort[s] to empower the goals of a corrupt, ineffective international organization. This is just priceless stuff.
You know, ever since I’d first read the PB’s sermon, I couldn’t figure out why, even though I appreciated both its prose and overall message, there was something about it that bothered me. And it wasn’t until I read “MB’s” comment that I finally figured it out: what bothered me was not its vision, nor even its absurd idea that humankind, taking its lead from the Episcopal Church, could, on its own, before God’s time, make such a vision reality by embracing the concept of “shalom” (or, my preference, “aloha”, which derives from it). Rather, it was the sheer arrogance and the audacity that lie unstated behind her words:
* The arrogance that the Church she represents is so high-minded, so principled, so prosperous, and so united behind this vision that it doesn’t have time for such trivial annoyances as the fact that every week across the U.S. comes news of yet another parish or two leaving their dioceses, or a diocese suing one of its parishes or facing financial trouble, or a bishop deposing yet another orthodox priest, or another diocese either requesting alternative episcopal oversight or threatening to leave the Church entirely.
* The audacity to think that a tiny Protestant denomination, once the proud manifestation of Anglicanism in the U.S. and one that claims no less than eleven former U.S. presidents in its past, a denomination now hemorrhaging membership like a sieve and virtually coming apart at the seams following the consecration of an openly-gay, non-celibate bishop (the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire) two years ago, in real danger of being reduced to “crazy aunt” status in the worldwide Anglican Communion, thinks it can speak from a position of authority on what “shalom”, “reconciliation” and “abundant life” would mean for the world.
While it is true we Episcopalians have spent far too much time focusing on the significant issues that divide the “progressives” and “orthodox” in our midst, and too little actively striving to bring about, in our own way, the Luke passage Jefferts Schori bases her sermon upon, one has to be careful about crossing the line between vision and rhetoric, and parody. And, in this regard, the PB falls victim to the “purple arrogance” of her position in her audacity to think that a Church so dysfunctional and fractured will simply suck it up and go marching forward to cloak the world in a spirit of “shalom”, inspired by her message and lofty rhetoric.
…Or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe it’s her own private view that the train is leaving the station bound for that glorious, MDG-driven destination with those who share her vision of diversity, inclusiveness, and acceptance, and for those who don’t, well, they’ll just have to find their own train. And maybe it’s her own private view that in this “homecoming for all humanity”, the only prodigal sons to be welcomed home to feast on the fatted calf are those who share her progressive view of the human condition, and the new traditions and teachings her Church is striving towards.
If that’s the case, well, so be it, and maybe it’s better that way. Perhaps the PB shares my view that the toothpaste has long since squirted out of the tube, so to speak, and there’s no putting it back in again. Perhaps she agrees that all the hard feelings, conflicts, and dissent have for too long kept us Episcopalians from working the fields so ripe for harvesting, and it’s time for everyone to either fish or cut bait. Me, I’ve long since stopped caring about what TEC does. Whatever happens is fine by me – I’ll just keep searching for that spiritual home where I can feel comfortable and find nourishment for my soul.
While Jefferts Schori’s sermon on the surface appeals to the dreamer in us all, it is an insult to the intelligence of those who love their church, still care about its survival, and hate to see it disintegrating before their very eyes because of those who choose to ignore the truly desperate straits it finds itself in. If the PB would rather make her vision of achieving “shalom in our time” the focus of her ministry rather than the health of the institution she is charging to help her make that vision reality, more power to her. Just don’t expect me to get all worked up about it – I’ve got more important spiritual exercises to attend to.