The World, the Flesh, and the Bishop

Not nearly as many people pay rapt, reverent attention to the Episcopal Church as was the case in days of yore, when, seemingly, every other Wall Street financier, top diplomat and U.S. senator was Episcopalian.

Like other "mainline denominations" of American Christianity, the Episcopal Church has been looking — not with total success — for a role to play in the personal autonomy cult we sometimes refer to as modern society.

For all that, Episcopal bishops remain capable of providing food for thought concerning what goes on in modern religion. As did Katharine Jefferts Schori, when the church elevated her last week to the dignity of presiding bishop. My stars! — as dignified Episcopalians might exclaim — Not just a bishop of the female persuasion, but one of religious viewpoints that seem, on first as well as second and third acquaintance, to differ sharply from those of 50 years ago. Many find this an encouraging development. Many others scratch their heads in wonderment.

In her installation sermon at the National Cathedral, Mrs. Jefferts Schori portrayed Christian mission as "the health of our neighbors in its broadest understanding." She urged fellow Christians to find their fulfillment in "the courage to challenge our legislators to make poverty history, to fund AIDS work in Africa, the distribution of anti-malarial mosquito nets and primary schools where all children are welcomed."

The kind of world she’d like is one in which "all have access to clean water and adequate sanitation, basic health care, and the promise of development that does not endanger the rest of creation" — "a world where no one goes hungry" or "is sick or in prison"; one where "no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another."

Did I miss something? Was Mrs. Jefferts Schori taking office as figurehead leader of a Christian church, or as secretary general of the United Nations? It would not tax the imagination to guess the latter, due partly to the subject matter (human wellbeing), and partly to the politics implicit in all this. (Who makes certain "no one enjoys abundance at another’s expense"? Government — through taxes and regulation.)

In Mrs. Jefferts Schori’s vision of tomorrow — which is a nice vision, if you knock the government regulation out of it — we find the California dreamin’ of three-plus decades ago distilled into theology. Mosquito nets undergird it. Clean water laves it. The human family affirms it.

There is just one problem: in theological terms, the demonstrated capacity of the human family, living on its own human resources, to foul up everything in sight. The churches used to call it sin, back when they were bold enough to reproach well-heeled sinners, back when they called life in a sinful world a holding action. (But hold on anyway, because Jesus is coming back!)

The non-religious vision — this spinning globe made spic-and-span by human methods — and the Christian vision — the same globe offering to God humble obedience — constantly collide in history. Barely does the second vision gain wide recognition before scene and sets change, and Man himself becomes a god, issuing orders, drawing up blueprints … as when the snake whispered sibilantly to Eve.  In the 1960s, which began as the future Mrs. Jefferts Schori turned 7, the West and, with it, the churches of the West, turned from the vision of human dependence on God to that of human exhilaration with human means and ends. The traditional Christian vision, for all its fervent encouragement of good works, encourages infinitely more deference to divine direction than Mrs. Jefferts Schori’s installation sermon allowed for.

So she wants to make the world over? Now’s her chance, there being only one problem: The more Christianity resembles the United Nations, the less nearly it resembles the spiritual realm it exists to depict and lead us toward.

Who needs Katharine Jefferts Schori when you’ve got Bono and George Clooney?