Friday, November 17, 2006

The Focus of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori

Taking up my comment about listening, the controversy and furore over Mark Driscoll has led me to follow up his blog about Katharine Jefferts Schori, the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, and, in particular, the Time interview she gave earlier in July to which Mark links. The fluffy bunny and male testosterone stuff in his blog is all unnecessary, but I think it may obscure a far more important issue.

For the first question in the interview, the Bishop is asked:

‘What will be your focus as head of the U.S. church?’

to which she responds:

‘Our focus needs to be on feeding people who go to bed hungry, on providing primary education to girls and boys, on healing people with AIDS, on addressing tuberculosis and malaria, on sustainable development. That ought to be the primary focus.’

I accept that you have to be careful with press interviews and with the way they can twist what people have said. But taken at face value, I personally find this a rather strange set of priorities. As most places in America have primary and secondary education, is she advocating more church schools? And why single out AIDS? What about cancer and heart disease, much bigger killers? The reason is, of course, that she is focusing not on the US, but on the developing world and a headline disease in it.

These are all serious concerns, but why should she as head of a US church focus on issues in other Provinces of the Anglican Communion? Shouldn’t she as head of the US church be focusing on US issues? It’s fair enough to argue that development concerns us all, but are there no specifically US issues that she thinks need focusing on? Isn’t this a religious form of US imperialism thinking it can sort out the rest of the world? Isn’t it arrogance masquerading as compassion?

But much more seriously, where is God? I don’t want to get all fundamentalist, but surely the head of a church, in a country such as the US, should want God at least to be part of her focus. And what about the teachings of Christ? Or reaching those outside the Church? And that’s leaving aside healing divisions within her church and the wider Anglican Communion, and between her church and other churches. Is that also not to be a part of the focus?

It may not ultimately matter for she may be the last presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, because the way things are going there isn’t going to be an Episcopal Church for much longer.

Sadly, I have seen it all before in many churches in the UK. Once you make social issues the focus, why do you need to bring God into it? No wonder, then, that many churches who made social issues the focus in the 20th century simply no longer exist. And the void left by churches who failed to focus on God is being filled today by far more fundamentalist types of Christianity. By the sort that Mark represents, for example.

Of course, as Christians, we have to be socially aware and socially concerned. Of course, the Gospel is a call to love people who are politically and socially disadvantaged. But when a church or its leaders make their focus something other than God himself, then the reason for that church’s existence has gone. The world does not need the Church to become just another development agency. It needs it to tell the truth of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. So don’t blame people for going to Mars Hill to hear about God from Mark. Blame leaders of churches who can’t even list God as one of their priorities.

For me Katharine Jefferts Schori’s answer, as reported, to the question of what will be her focus is deeply troubling. Frankly, far more troubling than Mark’s admittedly silly remarks about fluffy bunnies.

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