Sunday, November 26, 2006

Not Ready for Prime Time

I read with interest the interview in last week’s NY Times with Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. I had refrained from commenting on this truly embarrassing interview, for frankly I do not have a horse in this race. The ECUSA is on a somewhat different trajectory than I am on. Additional information on KJ-S coming to light, however, causes me to offer up an opinion anyway.

I find three of her answers deeply troubling:

Q: How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

A: About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

I recall a saying from either one of the Desert Fathers, or perhaps from the Philokalia that one will never get in trouble for saying too little, or remaining silent. [S-P, help me out here!] Let's examine her answer. The newspaper asked a straightforward question. The correct answer (if indeed it is that many) was “about 2.2 million.” STOP. But KJ-S continued, noting that they “tend to be better-educated.” (While certainly true in the past, less so today and totally beside the point.) She concluded, somehow, that reproducing was somewhat lower-class behavior, or at least a under-educated thing to do. And then for good measure, she took a swipe at those rutting, breeding Catholics and Mormons. Considered alone, the last sentence is almost neutral, but within the context of her total answer, it was highly insulting. Why would one say those words, and particulary to a reporter of the nation's newspaper of record??? Can you say Elitist?

Q: Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

A: No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

This answer completely floors me! Yes, it is true that for the most part, higher-income and better educated people do have smaller families. But that is not the question. The question was “aren’t Episcopalians interested in having children (new little Episcopalians)?” KJ-S answers flat-out: No. And then, true to form, she goes on. In her view, being a good steward of the earth is a greater good than procreating (since when did it become either/or?). The last religious group I am familiar with that actively discouraged families and children were the Shakers. Met any Shakers lately?

Q: He [Pope Benedict] became embroiled in controversy this fall after suggesting that Muslims have a history of violence.

A: So do Christians! They have a terrible history. Look at history in the Dark Ages. Charlemagne converted whole tribes by the sword. I think Muslims are poorly understood by the West, and it is easy to latch onto that which we do not understand and demonize it.

Oh, dear. Where to begin: a cheap, moral-equivalizing, milksop cop-out, coupled with an appalling ignorance of history! No one seriously tries to whitewash Christian history these days—far from it. But KJ-S seems eager to spotlight our "terrible history,” as if this were some novel insight on her part. Yes, we tend to view the “Dark Ages” (a simplistic misnomer if there ever was one) as a rather bleak period of history. Bad things happened and terrible conditions persisted (as viewed from our modern perspective.) And yet, this is a western European concept that totally ignores the Christian East, where conditions were much different. And the thing to remember is that, by and large, the barbarity of the age was in spite of the Christian influence, not because of it. As Western Europe was coming out of barbarism (when things were really rotten), imagine how much worse conditions would have been (and had been) without Christianity. And the bottom line is that violence, the “convert or die” mentality, was never a tenet of the faith, was never institutionalized into the very fabric of belief, regardless of the brutality of the age. Even in the worse excesses of European Christian expansionism (the Spanish in Latin America, for example), the authentic Christian witness was always there as well. Such cannot be said for the violent, forced imposition of Islam across much of the known world, as decreed by Mohammed, the Koran and the hadiths. And yes, Islam is often misunderstood, but just because something is uncomfortable, or is an inconvenient truth does not mean that it is misunderstood. It seems the demonizing is largely not of our making. KJ-S would be better informed if she were to read the account of a recent symposium, here.

Even more disturbing is the story concerning KJ-S's mother, a convert to the Orthodox faith, and the behavior of KJ-S after her death. Ochlophobist has investigated and has the full story, here.


Jared Cramer said...

Fr. Jake has some good responses to the little uproar over the interview. The first is here and the second is here.

1) Though ++Jefferts Schori might not have been the most sensitive in her remarks, she certainly didn't say anything untrue. Statistically, Episcopalians have a greater percentage of members with college degrees than other denominations. And it is also true that those with more education tend to reproduce at lower rates. This is not her pontificating, but is the results of the some recently published studies regarding the decline of membership in mainline denominations (which is precisely what the question was asking about). Both the Roman Catholic and Mormon church do indeed have theological reasons for producing children (not the least of which is the RC ban on contraception). The idea that she "took a swipe at those rutting, breeding Catholics and Mormons" is not only harsh, it neglects the great respect she has for other faith traditions (note the inclusion of of other Christian traditions in her own investiture service).

2) Her remarks about procreation and stewardship of the earth are ones that I agree with. Though "be fruitful and multiply" was a good message at one time, in today's age with overpopulation concerns abounding, it is a much more dubious message (see here and here. And the last Christian I encountered who discouraged families was in my morning reading of Saint Paul . . .

3) I don't know if ++Jefferts Schori is "eager to spotlight our terrible history," it seems to me that she was acknowledging that our own religious tradition has it's own history of violence--an important point to note. Indeed, when I was considering Orthodoxy one of the points that gave me pause was the history of the Russion Orthodox Church and the terrible things that came from its relationship with the state. Before we go pulling specks out of the Muslim's eyes when it comes to violence and religion, we should have a look at the plank in our own. That seems to me to be what she is saying.

As for what happened with her and her mother, knowing how painful family relations can be, I'd be a little more hesitant to chide the actions of a grieving daughter and to claim such actions are representative of her pastoral abilities is also a little harsh.

Grace, John. Grace.

Terry (John) said...

Sorry, Jared if you took offense. Frankly, that is one reason I was hesitant to post anything about the interview.

1)I do understand the points you (and others) are making in her defense, and they are not new to me. My point is that there are ways to answer these quite legitimate questions. And she bombed (hence my title "Not Ready for Prime Time"). The interview speaks for itself. Her responses to these 2 questions were condescending and elitist (and wholly unnecessary).

2) Again, my comments were directed at the very specific answer KJ-S gave to the question. Nowhere in my comments do I advocate a wide-open "be fruitful and multiply" policy. I myself am the parent of an only child and am about as "Green" as a person can be, living in my part of the country (you used to live here--you know what I mean!) And while I am keenly aware of the burdens of overpopulation in many areas, I suspect that in your lifetime, you will be hearing much more about the problems facing our aging, childless societies than the overpopulated ones. (And no, St. Paul is not saying the same thing KJ-S is saying.)

3) Her response to the Pope Benedict question is just boilerplate stuff--"Christianity is just as bad as Islam," in effect. Frankly, I expected better from her. I immerse myself in this subject-reading all across the spectrum. Sorry, I'm just not buying it.

And on the situation with her mother, I neither chided, nor reflected on her pastoral abilities. I simply noted that I found the report disturbing. I did and I still do.

KJ-S is a public figure. She is in the big leagues now and is accountable for what she says. She does not get a pass on this one.

I apologize if my comments seemed harsh to you. I'm generally pretty even-tempered, and certainly don't have any axe to grind with the Episcopalians. But that being said, if someone like myself reacts in this way, then maybe there is a problem with the message.


D. I. Dalrymple said...

Not ready for prime time, indeed. Her non-sequitors are damning.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I will have to add that while perhaps the percentage of degreed Episcopalians is higher than the percentage of such Catholics, the total number degree-holding Catholics is undoubtedly greater than even the total number of Episcopalians. The comparison is specious, and held as probative only by those with a contemptible superiority. There is nothing more well-qualified about the Episcopal leadership or laity than the Catholic leadership.

Putting a shine on infertility is merely spin. She would have done better to explain why so many adults have left her church, rather than why the ones remaining are not or cannot have children, and why her church continues to shrink at a rate substantially higher than the death rate. That would be addressing reality.

But, spin is in, and the Episcopalians have always been good at that!

Terry (John) said...


Good point and absolutely spot on! I was so taken aback by the nature of her comments, that I did not even address the real elephant in the room. As you note, the ECUSA's diminishment has less to do with fertility and "stewardship" issues than it does with the many American communicants who have abandoned this listing ship in recent decades.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Like they say, John, there's no such thing as bad publicity! I think Ms Schori knows that quite well, probably at the very least from the turnover chats with her predecessor.

Luke said...

Listing Ship, is a good way to put it. I was baptised in the Episcopal Church in 2001. I enjoyed the litergy and service. I also appreciated the apostalic succession of the church.
The small Episcopal Church I belonged to was great for me. I learned about stewardship, true communion, and gained a desire to learn more about Christ's church. The problem begins when western secular thought starts dictating doctrine. I believe in an effort to attract more patrons, the Episcopal Church loosened their doctrine to closer resemble their protestant counterparts. I anticipate the Episcapol church to move further away from a litergy based service and an emphasis on communion. This is why I have moved away from the Episcapol Church and become more interested in the Catholic and Orthodox Church.
There is a great leason to be learned here. Jesus formed his church for us and tought us how to worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To my knowledge there wasn't another alternative that allowed modern man to rewrite the roll of woman in the church, homosexuality, marriage (etc.), to fit a modern pop culture, but the Episcapol Church is doing just this. Jefferts Schori's remarks shows a lack of appreciation for the Catholic Doctrine her church sprung from, and the move toward pleasing the masses with poll based theology. I am probably being to harsh, but I have a hard enough time trying to learn and follow the right path without seeing the message watered down. I wish us all the wisdom and the strength to follow the teachings of Christ without questioning the Word.