Yesterday, Katherine Jefferts Schori, leader of the Episcopal Church, spoke at the National Press Club on the role of religion in the public square. As an Episcopalian who holds a strong opinion about religion in public discourse, I was anxious to hear what she had to say.
The Most Reverend Jefferts Schori addressed the issue at the outset:
… what I’m going to assert is the proper role of religion in the public square – diagnosis, linked with both challenge and encouragement … grows out of a particular worldview, a weltanschauung, if you will, that has an idea or ideal of what the world is supposed to look like.
That world view is rooted in divine revelation, both in a scriptural tradition and in later encounters with the divine. 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 religious tradition asserts that divine warrant and/or transcendent reality trumps any merely earthly philosophy.
Ah, and there’s the rub. To whom is divine revelation privileged? Which scriptural tradition bears ultimate truth and who can claim with certainty encounter with the divine? Toward whose dream ought we be encouraged? Isn’t religious tradition a product of earthly philosophy itself?
Later, the moderator followed up with a question I had upon hearing Dr. Schori’s assertions. “How do we know when god is speaking to us? One person’s voice of god could be attributed to Satan’s deceit by someone else. And another person says, much in the same vein, ‘You spoke of the prophetic voice. How do we know when the voice is authentic?'”
The primate responded:
How do we know when that inspired or apparently inspired voice is authentic? Is it congruent with a long tradition. And that is why we look back to foundational documents of faith. Is it congruent with a prophetic biblical tradition? Is it congruent with the prophets of our own day? Is it congruent with at least some portion of the community? If a prophet is crying lonely words in the wilderness and there’s no one to hear, maybe not. Maybe not. Is the prophet’s voice continuous? Does it continue to pique people? If it’s a one-shot flash in the pan, maybe not.
But what if it is congruent with a long tradition of oppression and sin, such as slavery and ownership of women? Who are the prophets of our day? The reality is that there are many prophets in the commons, espousing divergent and opposing messages, who are heard and who do more than irritate and provoke.
Or are the true prophets those who speak on behalf of the poor, the powerless and the marginalized? Perhaps. For she also claimed that the
… sacred ideal in the Abrahamic faiths looks like a peaceful society where no one is in dire want, where all have equal access to justice, where each is truly free to seek her or his highest purpose in this life.
The religious role in public life is to continue to challenge the larger society on behalf of all who do not yet live in a world like that. And because there are some who don’t have access to that world, none of us can be assured of living in peace.
I would argue that there are appropriate and inappropriate roles for religion in the public square … When the religious voice argues for a narrowly sectarian view, it belies its identity and its transcendent origin, and becomes no different from the dairy lobby or an earmark request for a new bridge. They may be important causes. They may be concerned for some of the least and lost and left out. But they don’t challenge the whole society to a more transcendently compassionate future.
The proper role for religious diagnosis, challenge and encouragement has something to do with offering a larger view of reality, with challenging a politics of the individual to consider and care for the needs and rights of other individuals and groups, or, in other words, understanding the well being of the whole as having some higher call on public consideration than a narrowly individual concern.
We’re talking about a public policy that pays attention to the well being of the whole community.
While it is easy to quote these words and say, see, Katharine is on our side and she is telling everyone to welcome lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals, she is not. At least not in an absolute and unequivocal way. She may very well be telling the LGBT community to put aside their agenda and consider the wider community. This would be consistent with her continued appeal to gay Episcopalians and their supporters for patience with the wider and more reactionary Anglican world.
With a faint and patient smile, Katharine answered:
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.When I look as the challenges that the gay and lesbian community, and their supporters have brought to the church over the past several decades, I have heard a prophetic voice crying, that has gathered a community of support and has asked that community of the whole church to look at its own tradition, to critique its present reality on the basis of that tradition. Do we consider some members of the body more equal than others? Do we consider that some rights of the church are available to some and not to others? We’re at least asking the hard questions. The church as a whole hasn’t reached a conclusion on this. But we’re asking very challenging questions.
Thank you Jesus! Thank you Katharine for hearing the voice in the wilderness and asking difficult and painful questions.
Image from the National Press Club.