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Presiding Bishop’s sermon controversy

Presiding Bishop’s sermon controversy

Back in May, the Presiding Bishop preached a sermon in Curaçao that made waves around the blogosphere, setting some people’s hair on fire.

The New York Times tells the story:

Curaçao, the Dutch island off the Venezuelan coast, is nice this time of year. Actually, it’s nice any time of year. The temperature is in the low 80s and the seawater is nearly as warm. It must be a nice place to give a sermon. But for Katharine Jefferts Schori, since 2006 the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, memories of Curaçao will always be associated with the controversy that greeted her upon her return — another controversy in what has already been her rocky tenure as the head of a troubled, shrinking church.

Within a week, angry Episcopalians — yes, that could be an Updike title — took to the Web with outrage. Articles in Anglican Ink, The Christian Post, and other conservative publications questioned the presiding bishop’s exegetical acumen, even her standing as a Christian.

Disdain for Bishop Jefferts Schori is common among church conservatives. …

No presiding bishop could be truly popular right now. Bishop Jefferts Schori assumed her post at a time when, on issues of sexuality and theology, it would be impossible not to make enemies in the church. That said, her rereading of Paul’s actions toward the slave girl are indeed provocative.

Read more at NYTimes.

Read the sermon itself below:

All Saints Church, Steenrijk, Curaçao [Diocese of Venezuela]

12 May 2013

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Presiding Bishop and Primate

The Episcopal Church

The beauty of this place is legendary. It is beautiful – and fragile, for its beauty depends on a dynamic balance among the parts of this island system. Many people don’t notice beauty around them until it’s gone. When we go somewhere that looks very different, often it takes a long time to appreciate that it has beauty, even though it’s a different kind of beauty. Some people never do learn to value the different kinds of loveliness in the world around us. One of the gifts of this remarkable island is its diverse mixture of desert and tropics on land and sea – and even more so, the beauty of its different peoples, languages, and heritages. Yet the history of this place tells some tragic stories about the inability of some to see the beauty in other skin colors or the treasure of cultures they didn’t value or understand.

Human beings have a long history of discounting and devaluing difference, finding it offensive or even evil. That kind of blindness is what leads to oppression, slavery, and often, war. Yet there remains a holier impulse in human life toward freedom, dignity, and the full flourishing of those who have been kept apart or on the margins of human communities. It’s a tendency that seems to emerge along a common timeline. Formal legal structures that permitted human slavery ended here and in many parts of the world within a relatively short span of time. It doesn’t mean that slavery is finished today, but at least it’s no longer legal in most places. Even so, slavery continues in the form of human trafficking and the kind of exploitation that killed so many garment workers in Bangladesh recently.

We live with the continuing tension between holier impulses that encourage us to see the image of God in all human beings and the reality that some of us choose not to see that glimpse of the divine, and instead use other people as means to an end. We’re seeing something similar right now in the changing attitudes and laws about same-sex relationships, as many people come to recognize that different is not the same thing as wrong. For many people, it can be difficult to see God at work in the world around us, particularly if God is doing something unexpected.

There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning, and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it. Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves.[1] But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and 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. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so! The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns.

An earthquake opens the doors and sets them free, and now Paul and his friends most definitely discern the presence of God. The jailer doesn’t – he thinks his end is at hand. This time, Paul remembers who he is and that all his neighbors are reflections of God, and he reaches out to his frightened captor. This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.

The reading from Revelation pushes us in the same direction, outward and away from our own self-righteousness, inviting us to look harder for God’s gift and presence all around us. Jesus says he’s looking for everybody, anyone who’s looking for good news, anybody who is thirsty. There are no obstacles or barriers – just come. God is at work everywhere, even if we can’t or won’t see it immediately.

The gospel insists that Jesus has given glory to the growing company of his friends and disciples so they can be all be one. When we recognize the glory of another human being, we become her advocate, and we begin to see him as friend. The word that’s used for glory has echoes that speak of awe, and gravitas, and deep significance. The glory we’ve received is something like a grand ceremonial garment, maybe even a shining face like Moses’, that says to those around us, “here comes the image of God.” The world begins to change when we see that glorious skin shining on our brothers’ and sisters’ faces.

The great loves in our lives come from a deep recognition of the glory in another human being and a desire to share that glory. When Jesus speaks of oneness, he’s moving in that direction. What would the world be like if we could love not only our lovers, but every human being with that kind of starry-eyed passion? The glory is there to see in all of us. Certainly God sees that glory. Most of us have eyes that can see that glory in one or a few other human beings. Learning to see that glory all around us is a good part of what the Christian life is all about. Slavery, war, and discrimination are only possible when we fail to see the glory in those people. Why does Jesus tell us to pray for our enemies, except to begin to discern their glory?

We live in a time when we need to see the glory of God in every other human being, and also in the rest of creation. This fragile earth, our island home, is also shining with the glory of its creator. If human beings are going to flourish on this planet, we’ll need to learn to see the glory of God at work in all its parts. When we can be awed at the beauty of a sunset or the delicate complexity of an orchid or the remarkable diversity of a coral reef, we’ll be much more wary about using it for our own selfish ends.

Looking for the reflection of God’s glory all around us means changing our lenses, or letting the scales on our eyes fall away. That kind of change isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s the only road to the kingdom of God. We are here, among all the other creatures of God’s creation, to be transformed into the glory intended from the beginning. The next time we feel the pain of that change, perhaps instead of annoyance or angry resentment we might pray for a new pair of glasses. When resentment about difference or change builds up within us, it’s really an invitation to look inward for the wound that cries out for a healing dose of glory. We will find it in the strangeness of our neighbor. Celebrate that difference – for it’s necessary for the healing of this world – and know that the wholeness we so crave lies in recognizing the glory of God’s creative invitation. God among us in human form is the most glorious act we know. We are meant to be transformed into the same kind of glory. Let’s pray that God’s glory may shine in us and in all creatures!

[1] E.g., Romans 1:1


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Jonathan Galliher

What does it mean to preach the church’s teaching? Does it mean that for every sentence, taken in isolation, there has to be a specific prior piece of writing or teaching that has been explicitly endorsed by the church in some way, for example by an explicit decree from a church council? That sounds to me like a completely insane standard that virtually no priest or bishop could meet. But if the standard is that the point of the sermon as a whole has to have a similar sort of grounding then the PB’s sermon is fine since it amounts to nothing more than an exhortation to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves (see BCP pp. 293 and 305), not a sermon about how horrible Paul is or about liberation from slavery or about taking the view of the oppressed (except to the extent of underlining that the oppressed still count as part of “all persons” and can’t be vanished as so often happens to minorities).

And the energy of this conversation seems to me to just point to how neuralgic the modern debate about what counts as true is for a great many people as we shift from modernism (in which the only truths worthy of the name must be intellectually expressible and intellectually embraced) to some sort of post-modernism (one in which, if truth exists at all it is a much richer thing that sometimes can only really be properly expressed by action and/or ritual).

Rod Gillis

@ c. Wingate, “And Rod, God gets to make stuff up. KSJ is not God.”

Jesus was fully human, that’s as orthodox as it gets, so his story telling, was part of his human nature. So, I don’t really think you have a point.

Benedict Varnum

I’m a bit surprised by the amount of energy this has garnered.

I understand, of course, the problems of any ordained person preaching something untrue. And I suppose I understand a number of other things; for instance:

I understand those who hear in this sermon a challenge to read it from the position of the least powerful character in the story.

I understand those who hear it and have a concern for how its Biblical exegesis is performed (and indeed whether this is eisegesis?).

I understand those who are concerned by seeing a defensive reaction whenever the presiding bishop speaks.

I understand those who are concerned by seeing a defensive reaction whenever the presiding bishop is critiqued.

But at the end of the day, I’d imagine most people on this thread agree about more than they disagree about.

I suspect, for example, that most of us agree that preachers should preach the Gospel (and other texts) truthfully and faithfully.

And that sometimes preachers make mistakes and that it’s fine to disagree when they do.

And that the ordained have a certain authority (though we might have differences on the nuances) to speak for Christian communities that call them, and so too do bishops for the church, and that this authority entails a responsibility too.

That bishops remain accountable to the Church and not merely themselves.

That imagination, parable, speculation, and provocative questioning are useful homiletical tools.

That it’s a poverty when sexism or any other prejudice initiates a reaction before content is heard (though we might disagree about the degree to which that has happened here).

That clergy deserve a share of grace and mercy just as the rest of the faithful do.

That various preaching styles appeal to various groups.

That no single preacher consistently says what is most needful to any person.

That not every exegetical impulse bears the intended fruit or is executed perfectly.

That God can take imperfect words and make them to work in the hearts and minds of the faithful.

That some seem to have been edified by this sermon, while others were not, and others still disapprove of it actively.


For me, I’ll take what I’ve heard of the sermon as a challenge to reflect on the story in various ways: if Paul DOES act out of annoyance, is he abusing his own authority (that’d be an irony, given this discussion, wouldn’t it?)? What’s to be made of the future for this girl and her “spirit of divination” — is this like the Lord sending Hagar back to enslavement, that her children might also become a nation? Is it a revelation of a new zero-tolerance policy for spirits and demons of any kind? Is it worth thinking through the economics of moral activity — and the consequences of change for the powerless?

My own experience of hearing the sermon, that is to say, remains as it ever does: hearing the thoughts and reflections of the faithful and taking them as that: thoughts and reflections that encourage me to consider my own faith. If I were worried that the laity simply replicated as the total of their faith life whatever was heard from any pulpit, I’d never dare to preach again myself. As someone who preaches in my current parish without a manuscript (though certainly still with plenty of preparation!), I’m quite sure that I’ve said something in the last few years that could be held as heresy, if we were to speak strictly. But I’m sure that Bishop Jefferts Schori, like myself, was attempting to offer the faithful something encouraging that could provoke reflection, and not a temptation into abandoning Christ.

I read Oppenheimer’s piece, and thought it was hardly news. The amount of reaction here and elsewhere gives me pause for reflection.

C. Wingate

Sorry Matthew, but I can see even in the BCP stuff that claims we do have some theology. And if “inclusion” is the only standard these days, well, I don’t feel included in a church where it’s OK to subject me to clerics who make stuff up and then pretend that the church teaches it.

And Rod, God gets to make stuff up. KSJ is not God.

Rod Gillis

Jesus made up stuff too–the stuff he made up are called parables and similitudes. Apparently he was real good at it.

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