Analysis by Zachary Guiliano
The Sunday Eucharist of General Convention is typically a time of great celebration, not least because it includes the public ingathering of the United Thank Offering.
This Eucharist was no exception: Spontaneous shouts of “Alleluia!” broke out, and the stereotypically understated dignity of Anglican worship was marked by more charismatic elements, as worshipers lifted their hands during “I am the bread of life.”
Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori used the occasion to speak an enlivening word, in a tone that departed somewhat from her usual preaching style. The gospel reading for the service was Mark 5:21-43, the story of the resurrection of Jairus’s dead daughter and the healing of the woman with a hemorrhage.
The presiding bishop noted the Aramaic phrase preserved in the gospel text: “Talitha, kum! ‘Get up, girl! You’re not dead yet. Jesus might just as well be speaking to this church.”
The gospel text mentions that Jairus’s dead daughter was 12 years old, and the woman healed in the story had “suffered many things at the hands of doctors” for 12 years. Bishop Jefferts Schori drew a series of parallels between these stories and the recent history of the Episcopal Church.
“We have lived for too long like that shamed and bleeding woman,” she said. “She’s had to endure finger-waggers blaming her for her own illness. Anger and anxiety over membership loss in this church has frequently prompted finger-waggers to use that image of unstoppable hemorrhage — and it’s been going on for almost exactly 12 years, since we began to tell the truth about who we were and are and are meant to be. We have consulted plenty of ecclesiastical doctors, without much relief — until we began to find the temerity to reach out and touch Jesus’ robe. … The bleeding began to be staunched when we found the courage to reach out and touch the face of God, to see God at work in new contexts, and to have the confidence to claim our experience of the divine presence.
The comments were a not so veiled reference to the 2003 approval of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, the ensuing troubles in the Anglican Communion, and the Anglican Covenant process. The church has indeed lost many members, even dioceses, in the past twelve years.
Given the context of General Convention, the most surprising thing about the sermon was an unclear position on the reasons for the denomination’s well-publicized decline, which began well before 2003.
Many resolutions at the 78th General Convention are aimed at addressing decline through structural reform, following on the recommendations of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church.
On Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, massive energy and effort went into supporting the passage of resolution B009, which would allocate millions to digital evangelism, through testimony at the meetings of the Program, Budget, and Finance Committee. Other resolutions on evangelism have also been submitted to the Convention.
Moreover, questions addressed to the presiding bishop nominees on Thursday were overwhelmingly concerned with basic issues of faith and witness, as well as a concern for preserving unity amidst theological diversity.
Yet Bishop Jefferts Schori pointed to the Episcopal Church’s social witness as its promise: “We are beginning to see new life in the bleeding one as we confront the violence around us, particularly the war that guns are unleashing on the innocent in these United States. We will see the body rise as we address the death and violence that continues to be perpetrated here and around the world.”
She pointed specifically to the kind of work funded by UTO grants, such as youth ministry, work with migrants, refugees, and homeless families, and relief work after Hurricane Katrina.
The Episcopal Church is clearly committed to a strong witness to justice in the United States and around the world, but the weight of resolutions at Convention might suggest that the presiding bishop is giving the wrong diagnosis.
Image: “Jesus healing the woman with a flow of blood” by Paolo Veronese, via Wikimedia Commons • http://is.gd/tBkrUo