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Presiding bishop says church seeks agile ways to do mission

The Most Rev Katharine Shori

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

The Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church USA, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, says the institutional church is on the edge of  transition from “a focus on r to more agile ways of doing mission” such as networks that pull people together for task forces and then disperse.

Knowing she was coming with that vision to the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, Bishop Jim Waggoner, Jr., arranged for her to meet with representatives of the diocese’s four areas—a new structure—and to visit Christ Episcopal Church in Zillah and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in West Central Spokane.

Both are small churches, serving as chapels—gathering people for fellowship, prayer and worship—one for an area around Zillah and the other for the West Central neighborhood.  Both function in ecumenical ministries that meet people’s needs through services and advocacy for justice.

Bishop Katharine had been to the diocese before, but this visit was long enough for time to learn about “people’s joys, concerns and growing edges.” 

Her role as the presiding bishop is to connect people from local churches with the national and global church.  She learned about the area to share with others, as well as to bring a message from the wider church.

“I always talk of God’s mission and our partnership with God,” she said in an interview in Spokane.  “In The Episcopal Church, we have in recent years shaped our mission efforts around two frameworks.”

The first is the church’s 10-year commitment to promote the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, which include ecumenical relationships around the world to address poverty, systemic injustice and care of the earth.

The second is shaped around the five Anglican marks of mission, which the Episcopal Church’s General Convention said are to be a framework for mission.

Those are focused on egangelism, forming people of faith for ministry in the world, corporal acts of mercy, changing unjust systems and care for the earth.

“Our mission is to build justice in the world, because there is no peace without justice,” she said.  “Justice is God’s vision of what we are to be.”

She encourages partnerships across boundaries people set to stay within their congregations, towns, states, dioceses and religious traditions.

“People of faith share values, and we need to work with people who share our values even though they may not be Episcopal or religious,” she said.

Bishop Katharine hopes to see people connect, collaborate and cooperate to move from institutions into fluid networks to meet needs of the moment.

“‘Body’ language helps always she said.  “Churches have talked about the Body of Christ.  Now we are talking about the Body of God and the family of God.

“We are moving from hierarchical systems to more organic relationships, and from images of buildings or architecture framing our understanding of church to images of people living their faith,” she said.  “We need ways to work together that adapt and evolve, so we are more agile and flexible about the ways we work together, as people today work together more and more virtually and electronically.”

She anticipates that people will become more comfortable with forming task forces and letting go once the task is done.

“We struggle with a structure of standing committees and canon law.  Our General Convention meets and decides what committees will do the next three years, rather than focusing on what we need to do in the next year or the next five years,” she said.

The convention named 24 people to serve on a Structure Task Force to look at how the church might be better organized to respons to what is going on in the world around the church.

That way of operating, said Bishop Katharine, requires and produces a more vulnerable way of relating with others that may be “closer to what it means to be the church.”  That way depends less on formal structures. 

“It’s about being on a pilgrimage,” she said.

Bishop Katharine reported that ecumenically the National Council of Churches is doing the same thing—divesting itself of structures that arose from the corporate mindset of the mid-20th century and responding with flexibility to current needs.

Locally, she sees ecumenical congregations as a possibility, forming like many rural churches, in ways that may see beyond denominational rules to facilitate ecumenical Christian communities, with the church as a mission center serving hungry people and addressing needs of poverty, safe drinking water and education.

As an example, St. Michael’s Church in Yakima received a $30,000 bequest, which they first talked of using to improve their building.  Aware of Christ Church’s mission in Zillah, however, they decided to disperse the bequest over three years, $10,000 a year, to invest in that mission.

As the 26th presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, Bishop Katharine is the primary pastor, ecumenical officer and primate for the church’s 2 million members in 16 nations, connected with 38 other leaders of Anglican Provinces around the world.

Elected to a nine-year term in 2006, she was previously bishop of Nevada.  Before being ordained to the priesthood in 1994, she was an oceanographer.

After high school, she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Stanford University, master’s and doctoral degrees in oceanography from Oregon State University, and a master of divinity degree from Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

When elected bishop of Nevada in 2001, she was a priest, university lecturer and hospice chaplain in Oregon.  Speaking Spanish, when she was assistant rector at the Church of the Good Samaritan in Corvallis, Ore., she was pastor to the Hispanic community and led adult education.

Preaching Sunday, Dec. 9, at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John in Spokane, she told of her trip to Yakima and churches working ecumenically through “Between the Ridges” programs to “build an easier and smoother road for Native Americans, farm workers, children without functioning parents and people who bristle about their neighbors.”

Between the Ridges is an effort to respond to needs people have expressed for nourishing food and healing from generations of trauma, poverty and homelessness.

“We met people sheltered at Noah’s Ark, where residents govern the community. We saw some of the work of Campbell Farm, a sustainable agricultural enterprise that teaches young people about their place in the community and the larger world,” she said.

The presiding bishop met with Yakama tribal spiritual leaders who seek healing for their people, and with partners who stand “in solidarity with all God’s children struggling to find the road home.”

She found that work a prophetic effort to engineer highways “that are broad enough for many people to travel, moving together into the heart of God.”

“Prophets have to be edgy,” Bishop Katharine said, pointing out that prophets are often on the edge of society, the margins of communities.  From there, they speak truth even if it’s unpopular, seeing the heart of the community and beyond.

“Sometimes the truth seems crazy,” she said.

Asking, “Why are prophets so challenging?” she said prophets point to a road for people to follow, a road with bumps and obstacles.

“Prophets challenge us to exchange our paradigms for God’s.  Our ideas of what the good life is or what’s most important may not be the best ones,” she said.  “Mostly prophets point to a road that can’t be taken alone, that has to be open to all our brothers and sisters, or we’ll never find the way home.

“That’s profoundly challenging for most of us. We want to be special and well-loved, and we tend to think that means others can’t also be.  Part of us wants to be the center of attention, and see that as winning the competition, yet this road home is on a map that shows every creature of God equally close to the divine heart,” Bishop Katharine said.

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Copyright © January 2013 - The Fig Tree