BB NOTE: The following is an in-depth report on a meeting yesterday between the clergy of the Diocese of Virginia and the Presiding Bishop at Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS):
May 25 2007
Opening remarks by the PB:
PB: “One of the great gifts of serving in this position is that I get to travel around the church and see what’s going on. I get to meet people and hear stories about how the church lives its life in different places and contexts. And there’s enormous good news in that. Every diocese I have gone to visit has stories of health and vitality to tell. I discovered … last week that some people were annoyed by my talking about that. But I talk about that certainly because it’s true but also because it, I think it’s essential to counteract what the headlines have to say about the Episcopal Church, which is a tiny fraction of what is going on … the stories of health and vitality come from congregations and people and communities who are paying attention to the needs of their neighbors and are engaged in that mission to serve the world. I think that’s great and glorious good news and there simply needs to be more of it, and teach the other parts of the church or challenge other parts of the church to be about that work as well.”
“Now a conversation … just a word about “conversation” … it comes from a Latin word that means turn about, to go around with, to have dealings with, and it doesn’t come to mean what we mean as talking with each other til quite a bit later … “conversation” has that same constellation of meaning as the Hebrew word ‘yada , “to know” ... conversation is a way to begin to know each other in intimate ways, to hang out with other people, to come to know them. A conversation is one of the challenges, not just in this church but in our society. How do we have conversation that does not immediately lead to violence? You remember the flap about Don Imus and his comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team? Well that was a violent conversation in many ways, and his language about the basketball players, ah their response was nonviolent. They said we just want to get together and talk, we want to have conversation with you … his words initially were words of judgment that these women were somehow less than I should pay attention to or not important to my life, they’re beneath me. And some of the commentators that challenged him and others were no different … Once we get to that point of conversation no one is going to come out of it in a gracious way. That leads to judgment through shutting off what we mean by conversation. I think as a church we have some capacity to model and teach a nonviolent way of having conversation. That’s something I think that’s a gift we have to offer not only in our own context but in that of the world around us. I long for conversations that build up … that create rather than destroy.”
Commentary: Many questions followed, and with them, many answers which often used the words ambiguity and conversation. With each new presentation in her slow and measured monotone, the Presiding Bishop made it clear she highly values continuing dialogues with others without necessarily valuing coming to a place of agreement. The final place that we can find in theology is ambiguity. While we may start by seeing things far more clearly, like a child learning to read by learning the alphabet she said, we learn as we grow that language is far more complex and ambiguous. I suppose she intended to say that those who were growing in their faith would also be leaving behind childish certainty for a more mature sense of ambiguity. Her comment later in the proceedings gave a very clear insight into her way of working through all these issues. She said, “I have no clear answers, that’s what pastoral skill is about.” What we received then, was not clarity, but we were invited into a relationship with someone who wanted to offer her pastoral skill to us an anxious and worried folk. When she added, “The spirit continues to urge us into greater depth.” What shall we find in those depths? The bishop told us that what was needed was not to have people change their minds but to have a change of heart. It was not hard to imagine that the change needed was that of becoming more open to the ambiguities of life, less anxious, more inclusive, and less tied to theological or structural answers. “We are still living into the theology of the ’79 Prayer Book,” she offered, “and the shift in ways of being is even harder than the shift in ways of thinking.”
This change of being needs to be reflected in how we are the church she said in many different ways, including offering an interesting perspective on planting churches and evangelizing folk. She told again her story of the priest who sits in a Starbucks waiting for people to talk to him about God. She applauded the idea of sitting and waiting for people to tell us their stories of God because after doing so “maybe we will have some good news to share with them.” We need to reach out “rather than by imposing our own well-defined structures on them we need to open up places to hear the stories of others.” However, as a church planter it seems odd that so little emphasis would be placed on proclamation of the good news … That lead another church planter to ask the Bishop about her sense of the mission of Jesus in salvation. Her answer was:
PB: Our understanding as Christians is that Jesus is our salvation, that he died for the whole world. That said, we don’t necessarily know the mechanisms by which God saves the whole world … My understanding of idolatry includes the assumption that I can know and comprehend the way in which God saves people who are not overtly Christian. I understand that Jesus is my savior, I understand that Jesus is the savior of the whole world. But I am unwilling to do more than speculate about how God saves those who don’t profess to be Christians. I look at the fruits of the life of someone like Mahatma Ghandi and the Dhali Lama and I see Christ-like features …
The priest followed up by suggesting the Bishop spent more time saying what she would not say instead of affirming what she could say about Jesus. She responded by describing the difference between what she called apophatic and cataphatic faith:
PB: “… our tradition includes both a negative way of refraining from affirming that God is more than we can understand, and is beyond our comprehension and there’s a positive part of our tradition that says Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. And I hear you saying that you want a much more positive statement about it and that’s not from where I come. I can only offer what I can offer.”
A follow up question by another priest asked the Bishop what she does with the Great Commission. The priest asking said she felt the Great Commission had been watered down.
Bishop Jefferts-Shori responded that it was to be lived out by “teaching and forming and baptizing and nurturing and continuing to prod people to grow up into the full stature of Christ.” Absent from this answer was any value of evangelism. There seemed almost a reticence or bashfulness about spreading the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it.
A question about Bishop Robinson failure to be invited to Lambeth brought a new twist on the ides of conversation:
PB: “The conversation isn’t over yet … how can we be involved in this conversation in a way that offers yet another possibility? … So rather than having to come to one conclusion or the other let’s keep it open and see if we can find something more creative …”
Another priest stated his dissatisfaction with the Anglican Covenant, and asked the Bishop what she felt it meant to be an Anglican. Her response included these words:
PB: “… One hundred and forty years ago we did, as a communion, make some statement about what we felt the essentials of Anglicanism were and are in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. That’s been the basis of our conversations with other communities and other denominations for many years since. I think a big part of the push for something more clearly defined has to do with anxiety, with an unwillingness to live in the tension of two (contradictory) stories that can both be true … I think that the goal of increased conversation about identity and what it means to be an Anglican as well as an Episcopalian I think is enormously healthy …”
Another priest asked: “You started by talking about conversation and used the example of Don Imus and how speaking to people beneath you is not gracious. A question that comes out of my congregation is when they hear the words ‘a handful, a tiny minority a tiny fraction.’ There’s some question about how tiny it is and if it is growing in fact, and the comment I have to face is ‘Doesn’t that sound condescending to speak about these people as a tiny fraction?’ How would I respond to members of my congregation?”
Her response sounded familiar talking points:
PB: “I think it needs to be taken in its context … that the members of the congregations where a majority of members have voted to leave constitute about a half of one percent of the total congregations in the Episcopal Church. I do see that as a tiny minority …”
The priest did not seem satisfied with her answer and asked his question again. She responded:
PB: “Well I apologize if it sounds condescending. I am trying to report accurately what we understand is going on.”
The priest then commented: “So the ‘gracious conversation’ you said was the gift the church could offer … that conversation with the departing congregations would look like what?”
PB: “For those who have come now to the faithful conclusion that they can no longer be part of this body I think our task is to bless their journey and reassure people if they want to return the door’s open and we’ll keep the light on. We pray for the best for all communities …”
No one took the initiative to ask how praying for those communities and wishing them the best squared with the lawsuits pending against them. But then, the good Bishop may have only been trying out a new slogan for the Episcopal Church: “We’ll keep the light on for you.” After listening to her speak, though, it was clear that whatever light would be kept burning in the Episcopal church, it could not possibly be the light of Christ.
Commentary: What gets clearer is that in looking at faith you have to look at both the content of what is believed and the way in which someone believes. The content of her conversations is advanced, but the process of her faith is much less developed. This is what seems so confusing.
She appears to have a faith that encourages deep ambiguities and mysteries, when in fact that's the content of her faith, not her practice. That's what she says, not how she acts. No wonder so many of us feel marginalized by a person who says she is so concerned with people on the margins.
When she said, "I have no clear answers so it comes down to pastoral skill" I finally saw the light. The PB is all about pastoral skill. That's the highest value in her life, and no doubt why she has been lauded and raised to the highest levels in the church. She comes across as pastoral. Part of that skill comes through in her monotone and slow speech, the perfected skill of non-anxious presence. Part of her skill comes through in the content of her beliefs. But the how of her beliefs shows there is not space for others who hold contrary beliefs. Her value on conversation/relationship as the highest ideal points away from a the more highly developed faith that she seems to express in her words.
• What matters most is pastoral skill, and an outward impression of compassion. She will always act to protect this impression.
• When listening to the PB we need to look past the content and watch for the actions ... but then we knew that already.
• Those who applaud her are perhaps most interested in the calming presence she offers than in anything else she can teach
• To question her or stand against her ideas one has to do so without giving her any passion to work with, for she will very quickly discount any alternative answers as a "rush to judgment" or "people acting out of fear". It is simply not possible for the PB, given her process for thought/faith, to imagine that any smart/compassionate person could disagree with her conclusions. She may allow for them to do so, but she can't understand how it could happen.
The reporter is a member of the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.