The existence of conflict in the church is a sign of health and vitality, the head of The Episcopal Church told a live Web audience Wednesday.
"If there's no conflict, it means that we're dead," said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. "There has always been push and pull in the church. It's a sign that the diversity among us is passionate and that is a gift from God, not something to be squelched."
The Seattle native was addressing Episcopalians and the wider public in the first of a series of webcast conversations, which have been designed to foster better understanding in the church and to address current issues.
Jefferts Schori had just returned from a meeting in London involving a number of Anglican primates – chief bishops of the Anglican Communion's 38 provinces – and others on the Standing Committee. During the July 23-27 meeting, committee members rejected a proposal that The Episcopal Church be separated from the rest of the global body. Cutting the U.S. church would inhibit dialogue on sexuality issues and therefore would be unhelpful, they agreed.
"There was ... a clear reflection by members of the group that The Episcopal Church's presence is important to that dialogue, an unwillingness by the group to exclude us even though one member called for that because of that commitment to dialogue even when we don't agree on something," Jefferts Schori said during the webcast.
Noting the significance of staying united, the Episcopal leader said together, they can serve God's mission more effectively.
The proposal came months after the U.S. body ordained its second openly homosexual bishop in Los Angeles despite calls for restraint by the wider Anglican Communion. The ordination caused uproar as conservative Anglicans called it another act of defiance by the U.S. body of Scripture and the 77 million-member communion. The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003.
When asked by a viewer of the webcast, "Has the Anglican Communion abandoned us, have we abandoned them?" Jefferts Schori responded, "Nobody's abandoned anybody."
"We continue to be committed to God's commission together even though there [are] certainly some members of the Anglican Communion as there are some members of The Episcopal Church who disagree with decisions by various bodies either in this church or in others."
Diversity is a blessing, she made clear on Wednesday, and her goal as presiding bishop is to help others recognize that.
"I've been clear from the very beginning that I think a big part of our challenge in the current age is to recognize that we are a multicultural church in many different ways – in terms of nationality and language, in terms of gender and orientation, in terms of socioeconomic status, in terms of educational level – and to value that diversity, to see it as a blessing and not something to be criticized or avoided," she said in response to a question on the primary goal she wants to achieve by the end of her nine-year term.
While controversy in The Episcopal Church has largely involved sexuality issues, Jefferts Schori pointed to the reality faced by their brethren in other parts of the world.
"It's amazing how much of the conversation tends to change when one of the conversation partners is really dealing with life and death issues," she noted. "It is a luxury in many parts of The Episcopal Church to talk about challenging issues of difference from a theoretical level.
"When the issue is of starvation, of war, of life-threatening disease ... people who disagree about some hot button issues usually discover that they have an awful lot more in common than they thought and that what they have in common is about serving the image of God right in front of them."
The Episcopal leader drew attention to the Philippine Independent Church – with whom they are in full communion with – and the extrajudicial killings of ministers in recent years. Two lay leaders, a bishop and two priests were assassinated and church leaders are hoping the new administration there will respond to the injustices.
Meanwhile, there is fear in Sudan that violence will be renewed in the months leading up to the January referendum that will determine whether Southern Sudan will become an independent state, she noted.
And in the United States, the immigration issue remains unresolved. Jefferts Schori expressed support for finding ways for people to come to the United States to work, for reuniting families, and for regularizing the immigration status of those who came illegally.
Jefferts Schori is the first female presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church. She was elected in 2006 and serves as primate of Episcopal members in 16 countries.