Newsweek: Where Liberal Episcopalians Get Their Theology?

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in ethics

On December 16, 2008, Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, gave a speech to the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on the subject “Religion in the Public Square.” Jefferts Schori, elected as the first woman to her position in 2006, is probably going to be remembered in history as the person who presided over the disintegration of the Episcopal Church. The process of this disintegration began in earnest before her watch when the denomination appointed an openly homosexual bishop and that is now accelerating to breakneck speed.

Although Jefferts Schori’s speech made no overt reference to homosexuality, it was clearly the elephant in the room. Toward the end of her speech, Jefferts Schori lamented that “the church only makes the front page if it’s about schism or sex.” This is as close as she got to acknowledging the issue in her prepared speech. The question did come up in the question-and-answer session.

What is fascinating is that both Jefferts Schori’s speech and her comments in the Q&A regarding same-sex marriage repeatedly echo the already infamous Newsweek cover article defending same-sex marriage that appeared in the December 15 issue (which was available online the week prior). In that article, religion editor Lisa Miller had offered a religious, theological case for same-sex marriage, riddled with logical and hermeneutical errors and displaying an egregiously one-sided bias that brought shame to the mainstream journalistic community. Jefferts Schori’s speech and comments have a number of points of contact—some of them startling—in common with Miller’s article.

1. Both Miller and Jefferts Schori cite Walter Brueggemann to similar effect, though not quoting the same words from him. According to Miller, Brueggemann thinks that the best religious argument for gay marriage “is not generally made with reference to particular texts, but with the general conviction that the Bible is bent toward inclusiveness.” Jefferts Schori, arguing that “the proper role of religion in the public square” is “diagnosis, linked with both challenge and encouragement,” comments: “Walter Brueggemann calls it prophetic critique and energizing…. The prophetic role is to point out the discrepancy between that sacred vision and what the world around us actually looks like, and then to go on to challenge the status quo and to encourage movement toward that dream.” A bit later in her speech, Jefferts Schori speaks of “a transcendent trajectory that continues to challenge the status quo.” The wording is different but the basic idea in both Miller’s article and Jefferts Schori’s speech is the same: the Bible (or religion) is applicable in matters pertaining to “the public square” (such as gay marriage) not directly (via “particular texts” or but in promoting a “general conviction” or “sacred vision” of how things should be different in one’s society. Miller describes the phenomenon as a “bent,” Jefferts Schori as “movement” and a “trajectory.” Again, the basic idea that both derive from Brueggemann is the same, though their language differs. Coincidence? Maybe. Clearly, Jefferts Schori was already familiar with Brueggemann, but the parallel is nevertheless interesting.

2. Both Miller and Jefferts Schori appeal to the creation of human beings in God’s image as grounds for their shared vision of a totally inclusive community. Miller writes: “If we are all God’s children, made in his likeness and image, then to deny access to any sacrament based on sexuality is exactly the same thing as denying it based on skin color…. ‘Being with one another in community is how you love God. That’s what marriage is about.’” Jefferts Schori says: “In my own tradition, that trajectory is based on the twin beliefs that every human being is a reflection of the divine, is of ultimate worth in him or herself, and that human beings only reach their full meaning in relationship with others in community.”

3. Both Miller and Jefferts Schori characterize the Christian religion as a message of inclusion for the marginalized. Miller writes: “In the Christian story, the message of acceptance for all is codified. Jesus reaches out to everyone, especially those on the margins…. The practice of inclusion, even in defiance of social convention, the reaching out to outcasts, the emphasis on togetherness and community over and against chaos, depravity, indifference—all these biblical values argue for gay marriage.” Jefferts Schori says: “The role of the religious voice is to advocate for the left out, the voiceless, the marginalized.”

4. Both Miller and Jefferts Schori make reference to the American practice of slavery. Miller recalls the time “when the country’s pulpits were full of preachers pronouncing on slavery, pro and con,” and later opines, “The Bible endorses slavery, a practice that Americans now universally consider shameful and barbaric.” Jefferts Schori noted in her speech that “it’s taken several centuries” to extend the full rights of citizens to slaves (as well as women).

5. Perhaps the most obvious parallel between Miller’s article and Jefferts Schori’s speech is that both employ the same quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. Miller writes: “But common practice changes—and for the better, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.’” Jefferts Schori uses a more accurate version of the same quotation: “But that religious voice lives in hope, eternal and sometimes foolish hope, that change toward that vision is possible. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’” King derived this saying, which Barack Obama has recently made popular again, from the nineteenth-century abolitionist and Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker. (Jefferts Schori actually refers to Obama in the very next sentence of her speech.)

6. When the Q&A session turned explicitly to the subject of same-sex marriage, Jefferts Schori again echoed Miller’s article. Miller had written: “Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? … Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists…. In the Old Testament, the concept of family is fundamental, but examples of what social conservatives would call “the traditional family” are scarcely to be found…. the Bible gives many examples of marriages that defy convention yet benefit the greater community.” Similarly, Jefferts Schori replied to the question about gay marriage as follows: “Oh, which biblical institutions for marriage? Solomon’s many, many, many wives? The concubines? The slaves who bore children for their male masters? There are some very odd images of family life in the Bible. And when people talk about family values, I want to know which ones.”

7. According to Miller, Jesus never said anything against homosexuality. In Jefferts Schori’s speech, she never says anything about Jesus. (Okay, I’m being a little playful here. But does it bother anyone else that Schori could speak as the head of the Episcopal Church about the role of religion in the public square, work in references to Walter Brueggemann, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama, and not mention Jesus Christ?)

I am not suggesting that Jefferts Schori plagiarized these elements of her speech and follow-up comments from Miller’s article in Newsweek. In some measure the parallels may be the result of Miller being influenced by the liberal Episcopalian tradition. She refers at one point to “the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer” and specifically “the Episcopal marriage ceremony.” Some of the points that both made are stock arguments or quotations popular in liberal or progressive circles. Still, the number and depth of the parallels suggest cumulatively that Jefferts Schori may very well have picked up some of her talking points from the Newsweek article.

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