By Steve Waring
A relaxed Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori discussed “Perspectives on Spirituality and the Environment” during an interfaith workshop Jan. 26 at St. Paul’s Church in Milwaukee.
Despite a brief but intense snow shower shortly before the event, an enthusiastic audience of 220 participated in the lecture and a discussion session, according to the Rev. Steve Teague, rector of St. Paul’s. Of those, about 175 remained for a closing ecumenical service of Evensong.
Manminder Sethi, a member of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, read the New Testament lesson during Evensong. Last August a white supremacist attacked that temple, located in the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek, killing six people before he committed suicide.
The majority of workshop participants were Christians, but the event also attracted Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, said Tom Heinen, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.
Environmental stewardship is a natural topic for Jefferts Schori, who worked as an oceanographer for several years before pursuing ordained ministry.
“We increasingly live in a culture which is sometimes described as SBNR: spiritual but not religious,” she said. People who find spiritual solace in nature would be surprised to learn how much the creation story has to tell human beings about conservation and environmental sustainability, Bishop Jefferts Schori said.
“Our survival depends on justice issues about sharing resources,” she said. God’s charge for Adam and Eve to have dominion over the earth has been misinterpreted to mean subjugation rather than its proper use as a domicile.
Bishop Jefferts Schori said that global warming could have potentially catastrophic effects on the global economy and stoke global conflicts as geography and weather patterns change. Sea levels could rise by as much as 70 feet by 2100.
“Most of the world’s population is located near the coastal areas,” she said. “These are the areas most vulnerable to climate change. We need to be creative.”
Before breaking for questions, Bishop Jefferts Schori suggested several practical steps that individuals could take, including better use of church buildings that often sit idle during much of the week.
“There should be room for all creatures, and not just as a commodity,” she said of the environment, reminding listeners that the Old Testament encourages farmers to let land under cultivation lie fallow one year out of every seven. “Nothing is disposable in a mindful universe that reflects the divine intent.”
During a brief reception, coffee and appetizers were served on St. Paul’s china, which the congregation chose to decrease paper waste.
One workshop participant asked how to best motivate people about environmental concerns.
“It is a challenge to convince people we all depend on each other for existence,” Bishop Jefferts Schori said. “Not everyone has the gift to go and sit in a Senator’s lobby, but each of us can proclaim by word and example. The witness of a life well lived is always more powerful than any clever use of words.”
Another participant asked why Bishop Jefferts Schori did not require individual congregations to work toward a measureable target, such as a smaller carbon footprint.
“We don’t impose edicts well on individual congregations,” Bishop Jefferts Schori. “It’s not usually our polity. It is better to generate enough social energy to accomplish change.”
A Sikh participant asked one of the last questions: “What brought us to this place?”
Bishop Jefferts Schori said that “sin, the idea that we are God” was the root cause of environmental problems. Faith communities have an enormous ability to influence civic government for good or ill, she said.
She elaborated on the notion of influential voices during a brief Evensong homily. “The poor can seldom speak for themselves,” Bishop Jefferts Schori said. “Who can’t be heard around here? Children, the elderly, immigrants, prisoners — they and others like them need more advocates. The oceans and the creatures within them have no voice either. It seems as though our world is growing poorer as it continues to be exploited for its resources.”
The afternoon workshop by the Presiding Bishop was part of her busy Jan. 26-28 visit to the Diocese of Milwaukee. She participated in the Sunday morning service and annual meeting at Christ Church in Whitefish Bay, as well as an extended tour of the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Inspiration for inviting the Presiding Bishop to the diocese to speak about environmental sustainability and conservation first took root last October at a regional training conference for clergy and laity organized by a green committee from Christ Church, Whitefish Bay, said the Rt. Rev. Edwin M. Leidel, Jr., retired Bishop of Eastern Michigan. Bishop Leidel and his wife, Ira, are members of that committee.