A month or so ago a small storm erupted in the American Christian world over something said by the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. (I took this photo of her when she last visited Kansas City.)
I was traveling and busy with a million other subjects at the time, but I want to return to her remarks and to the uproar they caused to see if there's something all of us can learn from this incident.
Speaking to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which was meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Jefferts Schori, whom I've met and interviewed, said that "the great Western heresy (is) that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God. It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being." (Her reference here is to a common "Jesus prayer," with various wording, that confesses one's need for a savior and accepts Jesus in that role.)
I've used -- and linked you to -- the Associated Baptist Press account of this because I found it to be one of the more complete and fair reports on the subject.
The reaction to her remarks was swift and sharp.
For instance, the Rev. Canon Julian Dobbs of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), which is made up generally of people who have split with the Episcopal Church, called the statement "appalling and indefensible." Dobbs said Jefferts Schori's agenda has no place in faithful, biblical Christianity.
CANA, by the way, a missionary effort of the Anglican church in Nigeria, says of itself that it "consists of more than 75 congregations and 160 clergy in 21 states. CANA was established in 2005 to provide a means by which Anglicans living in the USA who were alienated by the actions and decisions of The Episcopal Church could continue to live out their faith without compromising their core convictions."
Among their core convictions is that it was unbiblical to elect and install V. Gene Robinson, and openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire.
But let's return to what Jefferts Schori said.
In traditional Christian theology, there is a creative tension between the self and the community. That is, although it is acknowledged that ultimately we will stand alone before God, we never do that unrelated or unconnected to what, in my Reformed Tradition, we call the covenant community. Indeed, the church is at its healthiest when it can maintain a good balance between individualistic theology and community theology. Beyond that, traditional Christianity would say that what matters most in this life is how we live out our individual faith within a community of faith.
My reading of Jefferts Schori's words is that she was trying to suggest that the over-emphasis often found in some Christian circles on individual salvation creates an out-of-balance religion. And I agree with her. But her words were not artfully chosen and did not, in the end, illuminate her subject in useful ways. She spread more heat than light by seeming to attack one approach to the faith rather than constructively critique it as a way of advocating a more communal approach.
In some ways, the bishop was guilty of what I've several times accused Pope Benedict XVI of, which is being tone deaf. That is, B-16 has said things that, had he considered ahead of time more carefully how his words would be taken, might have said them in a different way.
The reality is that Christianity is a team effort and cannot be thoroughly understood outside of that concept, despite the important and necessary emphasis on individuals deciding to make a commitment to Christ by accepting what we Christians call God's saving grace.
Perhaps the same p.r. person who should be pre-reading the pope's speeches could do double duty and pre-read Bishop Jefferts Schori's remarks, too.
(By the way, Jefferts Schori will be visiting St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Mission, Kan., on Oct. 25. She'll be free then to disagree with me in person.)
* * *
SAVE 'CREATIONISM' FOR SOMEWHERE PRIVATE
A mayoral candidate in Tulsa wants a creationism display in the local zoo. The editorial writers at the Tulsa World think that's an awful idea. Which it is, of course. Creationism is a religious idea that should be neither promoted nor disparaged by government. Why is that concept so difficult for some politicians to grasp? Oh, I get it: Because going against the concept wins them votes.