By Eric Turner
In a sermon she preached to Episcopalians in Charleston on Jan. 26, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori chose a regrettable tone in her characterization of people who were, until only recently, fellow Episcopalians.
I confess up front that several of those who have declared themselves out of the Episcopal Church are people I count as friends, and people with whom I share theological convictions as well as concerns about the direction and decisions that our church has taken. In spite of many sympathies with those who have chosen to leave the Episcopal Church, I have chosen to remain.
I write as rector of a parish, St. John’s Church of Melbourne, Florida, that split over these same issues. Nine years ago about three-quarters of the active members of our parish left and formed another parish. I have spent much of these eight years dealing with the pain and hurt caused not just by the split but also by the years building up to it and the fallout from it. I am highly sensitive to these issues.
In her sermon at the closing Eucharist, Bishop Jefferts Schori began with an illustration about a man flying a glider, completely within the law. Local police, who had no jurisdiction, believed he was out of bounds (flying low over a nuclear power plant), forced him to land, and arrested him. She said that the attitude of the local police is the same as “we’ve seen here”:
Somebody decides he knows the law, and oversteps whatever authority he may have to dictate the fate of others who may in fact be obeying the law, and often a law for which this local tyrant is not the judge. It’s not too far from that kind of attitude to citizens’ militias deciding to patrol their towns or the Mexican border for unwelcome visitors. It’s not terribly far from the state of mind evidenced in school shootings, or in those who want to arm school children, or the terrorism that takes oil workers hostage.
I find it horrifying that our Presiding Bishop would draw a parallel between Bishop Mark Lawrence, and the clergy and laypeople with him, and border vigilantes, serial child-killer Adam Lanza, and kidnapping terrorists. This kind of demonizing is patently false, unchristian and, monumentally unpastoral. I believe she has lost her “moral authority” in this mess.
Perhaps most troubling is the tone she has chosen. If we seek healing and reconciliation, we must resist the temptation to demonize those with whom we disagree. She did remind her congregation that finger-pointing and accusations will not lead to “abundant life,” but she did so in the midst of a sermon that engaged in such rhetoric.
When I arrived at St. John’s, I contacted the priests who had left our diocese. I still consider them friends. I’ve had people leave this parish because I was being “too forgiving.” Setting that example, however, was not enough. I listened as people told their stories of hurt from the buildup and the split. I thought I was being “pastoral.” In fact, all I did was allow these attitudes to fester and I am still dealing with them. Although they are kept under the surface most of the time, the damage to the community remains.
Instead, I should have challenged this talk immediately. I did, consistently, remind folks that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ and that they were trying hard to listen to the Spirit, even if we disagree with their actions. But by failing to challenge them to practice charity, grace, and forgiveness even in the midst of pain, I believe I have allowed the damage to be deeper and longer-lasting.
I am deeply distressed that Bishop Jefferts Schori took the easy way. Instead, she might have challenged her congregation to face their own sin and their own contribution to the mess they are in. She might have tried to help them see their former churchmates in a more loving and graceful light, rather than as “not far from” terrorists.
Perhaps it will be argued that we’re not going to reconcile with those who have left the Episcopal Church. That may be true institutionally. But unless we are ready for reconciliation, unless we begin with grace and forgiveness, not only is the possibility of reconciliation that much further away, but our own walk with the Lord is severely compromised.
The Rev. Eric Turner is rector of St. John’s Church, Melbourne, Florida, a member of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Central Florida, and chair of its Christian Formation Commission.