WASHINGTON – The world is hungry for hope and the head of The Episcopal Church has challenged the media to take the less traveled road of feeding the public with more stories of encouragement than of scandal and controversy.
"On two occasions in the last few days, leaders in my own church have said to me that the church only makes the front page if it's about schism or sex – and in the current era, preferably both," said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who leads The Episcopal Church – the U.S. arm of Anglicanism.
The Episcopal Church has made headlines over the last several years ever since it consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003. The move, which conservatives see as part of the national church's departure from Anglican tradition and Scripture, created deeper rifts within the global Anglican Communion and forced a number of congregations to break from the U.S. body.
Now The Episcopal Church is prominently back in the spotlight over a rival Anglican church that conservatives are forming in North America. Conservative groups, representing 100,000 Anglicans who severed ties with The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, have expressed a desire to live out their faith separate from the current existing North American bodies but aligned with the rest of the Anglican Communion.
"The steps taken to form the new Province are a necessary initiative," said five conservative Anglican archbishops from the Global South, as a "new Province will draw together in unity many of those who wish to remain faithful to the teaching of God's word, and also create the highest level of fellowship possible with the wider Anglican Communion."
Commenting on the unprecedented situation of competing Anglican bodies in the same geographic area, Jefferts Schori called it an "oxymoron."
"We've said for hundreds of years that bishops are responsible for certain areas of geography and that the people in that area together with the bishop are evidence of the church. If there are some people in the same area that claim they're of the same tradition (Anglicanism) but aren't willing to be in relationship, that's an oxymoron to us," she said Tuesday at the National Press Club.
"When there are two bodies in the same place that say they are not in communion with each other then functionally what you've got is two different religious traditions. It's an ecumenical relationship rather than a communion relationship."
As controversy continues to loom in the Anglican Communion and the new North American Anglican province is expected to be up and running by the summer of 2009, Jefferts Schori said the church is still pondering questions about gays and lesbians.
Evading a direct response to whether the biblical institution of marriage applies to same-sex couples, she said, "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."
"When I look at 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," she continued. "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 hard questions, the church as a whole hasn't reached a conclusion about this but we're asking very challenging questions."
While schism and sex in the church may be difficult for the media to pass up or for the public to look past, Jefferts Schori said it is only a "rare few who are consumed by conflict" and those conflicts do not tend to last for they are "not life-giving."
Meanwhile, the reality for most Episcopalians, she said, is weekly worship, prayers and serving the community and the world through various works.
"Help us tell the stories of transformation, of moving toward that hopeful future for which the world hungers," Jefferts Schori urged as she invited the press to pursue the other side of critique – encouragement and hope.
The Episcopal bishop was at the National Press Club to speak on "Religion in the Public Square" – a timely address as the country is about to undergo a presidential transition. And as many across the globe are hoping for a different future, Jefferts Schori suggested that religion has a major role to play in that capacity.
"The proper role for religious diagnosis, challenge, and encouragement has something essential 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," she said. "We're talking about a public policy that pays attention to the well-being of the whole community."
According to Jefferts Schori, the religious role in public life also includes challenging the status quo, advocating for the marginalized and the voiceless, and reminding people of their interconnections with those in other parts of the world and with the earth.