Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori released a statement Thursday defending an address she made last month in which she called individualistic salvation "the great Western heresy."
Acknowledging the national attention and criticism her comments from The Episcopal Church's General Convention drew, Jefferts Schori said the varied reactions came from people who weren't there or who read her statements out of context.
"Apparently I wasn't clear!" she wrote on Episcopal Life.
"In my address, I went on to say that sometimes this belief that salvation only depends on getting right with God is reduced to saying a simple formula about Jesus," she said. "He (Jesus) is repeatedly insistent that right relationship depends on loving neighbors – for example, "those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars."
In her opening address to the General Convention in Anaheim, Calif., in July, Jefferts Schori spoke about the crisis facing The Episcopal Church as its members remain divided over the authority of Scripture and homosexuality and as its relationship with some Anglican provinces overseas is impaired.
She said the "overarching connection in all of these crises has to do with the great Western heresy – that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God."
"It's caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus," she told Episcopal delegates. "That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being. That heresy is one reason for the theme of this Convention."
Her statements shocked many in the Christian community who believe the presiding bishop was dismissing the importance of a personal confession of Jesus Christ as Savior.
"How is it that a Church can dismiss the clear words of scripture (see e.g. Romans 10:9-10) as a mere 'individualistic formula'?" the Rev. Phil Ashey, chaplain & C.O.O. of the conservative American Anglican Council, responded.
Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, agreed that there is an unhealthy individualistic focus among Christians but rejected the presiding bishop's heresy comment. He said evangelicals "never downplay the importance of individuals – as individuals – coming to a saving faith in Jesus Christ," according to Christianity Today.
"We never say that an individual's very personal relationship to God is not important," he stated. "What we do say is that individual salvation is not enough."
Clarifying her comments, Jefferts Schori explained that the theme of the General Convention – "ubuntu," which means "I am because we are" – was intentional in focusing on restoring relationships with their neighbors rather than just the individual relationship with God.
"Individualism (the understanding that the interests and independence of the individual necessarily trump the interests of others as well as principles of interdependence) is basically unbiblical and unchristian," she wrote. "If salvation is understood only as 'getting right with God' without considering 'getting right with (all) our neighbors,' then we've got a heresy (an unorthodox belief) on our hands."
She added, "Salvation depends on love of God and our relationship with Jesus, and we give evidence of our relationship with God in how we treat our neighbors, nearby and far away.
"Salvation cannot be complete, in an eternal and eschatological sense, until the whole of creation is restored to right relationship ... We anticipate the restoration of all creation to right relationship, and we proclaim that Jesus' life, death and resurrection made that possible in a new way."
During the convention, The Episcopal Church's House of Deputies approved a resolution that declares the denomination's ordination process open to all individuals, including practicing homosexuals. The Episcopal Church – the U.S. branch of Anglicanism – had widened rifts in 2003 when it consecrated its first openly gay bishop.