Katharine Jefferts Schori: faith and culture

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori discusses contemporary issues and the church with the Huffington Post:

In an hour-long conversation with HuffPost staffers, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, touched upon subjects that ranged from her views on how to interpret scripture and challenges that face the church as its demographics change to debates over contraception and the relationship between religion and science.

On same-sex marriage and other gay rights issues, Schori said she has been "stunned at how quickly public opinion has changed in the U.S." though she cautioned that she doesn't expect controversy over gay clergy in the Episcopal Church to fade. As more states legalize same-sex marriage, she said, conflicts in the church could become more frequent.

"We muddle through [controversial issues] in a very public way," Schori (sic) of the church that has just under two million members in the United States.
[Jefferts] Schori also spoke of the recent controversy over a federal requirement that employers' health insurance plans provide contraception coverage.
"It's appropriate for couples to plan their families," [Jefferts] Schori said, adding that contraception is a "normative part of health care." She also said the Episcopal Church "has taken a very nuanced approach on abortion. We say it is a moral tragedy but that it should not be the government's role to deny its availability."

[Jefferts] Schori said that much of the conflict over sexuality among Episcopalians and Anglicans -- and more widely, among Christians -- comes from their differing interpretations of scripture. She warned against taking a strictly literal approach to the Bible.
She said her career as a scientist has influenced her belief that religion and science, which are often painted as incompatible, can coexist. Schori said she encourages parishes to tackle issues such as climate change and poverty.

"We are increasingly concerned that the way human beings use resources here in the developed part of the world has an increasing impact on poor people not only here but around the world," [Jefferts] Schori said. "Our part in what we call God's mission is to help heal the world, heal the brokenness of the world."
[Jefferts] Schori said that she is "not caught up in the numbers game."

"I don't know if people in the 1960s were as well-formed or as well-committed ... It was socially normative to be part of a church in the 50s and 60s," she said, adding that she believes attending church today is a more active decision than it used to be.

"We don't count the right way. How many lives has the work of a congregation touched this year?" she said. "That's a more important question than counting who came to church on a Sunday."

Watch Two Minutes of Wisdom from the Presiding Bishop here.

Comments (12)

She's not being realistic if she isn't concerned about numbers. Without parishioners there is no TEC. Plenty of priests out there with no one to minister to.

If you were not a Christian or had little theological expertise, how would you respond to this interview? Would you find anything to be "good news"?

I'm genuinely curious and I don't know what my answer is, partly because it's so hard to shed the presuppositions that have accreted to my faith over the years.


Hi Jesse. I liked the interview and found it valuable. The comments at the end of the piece, about socially normative church attendance versus an active decision to attend and to make a difference in the world, were well taken. Additionally, the recognition that we are publicly working through issues of equality was good. By definition, this will be a high-profile process, but one that I think will be worth it in the end.

Were there parts you liked?

Eric Bonetti

The "quality, not quantity" part of the interview strikes me as somewhat hollow, and terribly smug. And certainly not designed to bring new people into the Church - it sounds a little like "Gosh, we don't particularly care if you join us or not - we're such a superior collection of Christians that your presence would only add to us if you measure up to our high formation standards."

Again, I find myself wondering why certain issues are deemed moral tragedies, but not really our concern, while we rally to influence government in other areas of perceived moral injustice.

Jesse, I think that is an excellent question. As someone who preps people for these kind of interviews, I can tell you that if a reporter wants to focus on the issues of the day, it is very difficult to get comments about the love and mercy of Jesus, or any other overtly religious content into the piece, even if you make such comments. I am not sure if that is the sort of thing you were looking for, but I just thought I would mention it. Once The New York Times quoted one of our clients as saying that she was doing a certain thing because she believed that the gospel of Jesus Christ saves lives. It was a once sentence quote, but we damn near had a party. Also, at that point, she and all the other people involved in that endeavor were told that all press contacts should be made through the diocesan offices.

Speaking for myself, I find the news that the PB thinks we will pass legislation allowing trial use of rites for blessing same-gender relationships very good news indeed. And I am glad that faith leaders are speaking up in favor of contraceptive coverage. It seems to me that differentiating ourselves from the leaders of more theologically conservative denominations on this issue and others like it is important, and I am glad the PB has done it.

Claire, I think I see what you are getting at, but I don't think issue A is necessarily ignored. I think circumstances beyond our control (ballot initiatives, media interest) create the opportunity to speak out on issue B instead. We are a small church, and may not be capable of putting an issue on the map by ourselves, so we have to seize the opportunities that events provide.


I'm not sure it's fair to characterize the PB's position, nor the nuanced official position of TEC on abortion as "not our concern." Quite the contrary, in my view, as it has been regarded by formal statements of the Church as a very serious pastoral matter, on which, when the trust is there over such a painful and intimate matter, would involve the pastoral care of the Church.

To the PB's point, the narrow concern about governmental involvement is around the question of legislating away access to abortion services. This may be one moral situation where a direct legislative approach has unintended consequences that do more harm than good. An indirect approach – tackling the roots of poverty, societal stresses that break down the family, acting to address environments at all levels that leave women vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, providing access to contraception, adoption services, etc., may be more effective together at preventing unwanted pregnancy and offering robust alternatives in many cases to abortion.

I use the word "may" deliberately because, of course, our tradition allows and even embraces disagreement about many complex moral issues, even issues where the Church has made official statements.

For the record:

"All human life is sacred from its inception until death. The Church takes seriously its obligation to help form the consciences of its members concerning this sacredness....We regard all abortion as having a tragic dimension, calling for the concern and compassion of all the Christian community. While we acknowledge that in this country it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion, as Christians we believe strongly that if this right is exercised, it should be used only in extreme situations. We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience."-69th General Convention 1998

"Resolved, That this 71st General Convention (1994) of the Episcopal Church express its unequivocal opposition to any legislative, executive or judicial action on the part of local, state or nation governments that abridges the right of a woman to reach an informed decision about the termination of pregnancy or that would limit the access of a woman to safe means of acting on her decision."-71st General Convention 1994

I think her concern for something other than attendance numbers is absolutely right, and she's got a good idea of what the correct measure of a church's influence and effectiveness is. Is it a 'we don't care if you come, because we're above you all', as another writer suggested? I don't think so. I think what she's saying is that the church is there to serve--and in a culture that is increasingly a 'what's in it for me' thing, that's not bad. I spent a lot of time researching a Church of England diocese, and the influence of the church in any community is far more than you'd ever guess by mere attendance numbers. (I'll grant that the structures which fund the church are very different, and legal establishment is also a factor.)

All that said, one disturbing thing in the US is a demand by many churches of a higher commitment (in time, money, even 'belief') than a lot of people are willing or able to make. We're too wrapped up in an 'all or nothing' vision of church life. We may have to demand a little less of each individual, so that more people can share the responsibilities of church life and more on their own terms.

I also question the need for special liturgies for same-sex couples. We already *have* liturgies for marriage and blessings because we've always done that. If the church wants to marry and bless marriages of same sex couples, is having separate liturgies from those of mixed-sex marriages one more way of saying they are not the same in the eyes of God?

Among my acquaintances, I only know of a small number who have had abortions (there may be more who have not shared the information with me). Of these few , none were poor, none were single, none had become pregnant accidentally. They were all white, middle class, married, Christian women who had planned for and deeply desired to be mothers. In each case, either the baby had deficits that were (in the words of one of the women) 'incompatible with life', or their own health was becoming so compromised by the pregnancy that, if carried to term, they may not have been able to care for the child, or existing siblings.

As long as women become pregnant, and as long as pregnancy carries risks to a woman's health, abortion will at least theoretically be something that could occur. To pass laws to make it more traumatic, or less available, is unacceptable.


I agree in principle with your concerns re:the proposed same gendered blessings and the "separate but (un)equal" status they give couples. The practical problem the SCLM was trying to tackle in their work is that civil law around this matter currently is literally all over the map, and a blanket marriage service would create legal headaches for couples and clergy in many areas of the Church. They see this only as an interim step until civil law settles more and the Church decides to take on the more involved constitutional change around the marriage definition in the BCP. Still, I wonder if there might have been a more effective approach, though I cannot now assert what that might be.

Thanks for your corrective to my implying unintentionally that abortion is only a concern where poverty is involved. Of course it isn't. As an ethical matter, I think your account rightly touches the question of moral agency and authority. That is: who ultimately has the most information and agency to decide when an abortion is necessary?

FWIW, I think -- self critically here -- that we men should be largely silent on the matter!

Re: SSBs. I think the intention is to avoid as far and as long as possible the idea that we are changing the theology of Matrimony. After all, a good deal of the lobbying for this was not based on arguments from marriage, but along the lines of "Why can we bless animals and ocean liners but not same sex couples?"

Personally, I wish the SCLM had gone with something like the Adelphopoiesis rite, if it was determined we absolutely needed such a rite. I see the whole issue as a distraction from the IMNSHO important issue, which is civil marriage equality. And it feels a little too much like aping straight people to be entirely comfortable.

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