The leader of a major denomination of Christians is in Alaska over the next several days. Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in 2006. The church claims more than 2 million members in 16 countries.
But before she started in ministry, she was an oceanographer. During a stop in Sitka, she had a chance to meet relatives of both Jack Calvin and Ed Ricketts. They are co-authors of Between Pacific Tides, a book that redefined marine biology.
She spoke to KCAW the morning of Tuesday, July 23.
KCAW: You have a science background.
Jefferts Schori: I do.
KCAW: And you’re here on the side of the Pacific Ocean… you’re an oceanographer?
Jefferts Schori: I was. It’s hard to claim still to be one.
KCAW: It’s hard to get out on a research vessel when you’re (presiding bishop)?
Jefferts Schori: It is.
KCAW: Are you going to have a chance to experience some science here?
Jefferts Schori: This afternoon we’re going to visit with some people who are descended from scientists I knew of in my earlier career.
KCAW: You’re referencing “Between Pacific Tides” and Calvin/Ricketts?
Jefferts Schori: Exactly. Ricketts, Calvin and Hedgpeth published the version of that tome that I used in my early career, and a descendant of Ed Ricketts lives here, and a descendant of (Jack) Calvin lives here. It’s remarkable.
KCAW: Put that in context for people who aren’t scientists. Are these the rock stars of your field?
Jefferts Schori: Absolutely. Ed Ricketts worked with John Steinbeck, and people often know that connection, about “Cannery Row” and “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.” Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck took a trip into the Gulf of California in the 30s, I believe, and explored what was living there at a time when people were still doing the basic biology to name the species that lived in a place.
KCAW: There are often conflicts, or tension, between science and faith. How do you handle that tension in your role?
Jefferts Schori: Many in the general public believe there’s a conflict because of what they hear from very conservative Christians. I think it’s more a myth than a reality for many people. There are two creation stories in Genesis, in the first book of the Bible, and they tell rather different stories about how things came to be the way they are. The first one talks about creation on six days of the week, and God resting on the seventh. And at each point during that week, God says “It is good,” what’s been created that day. God gets to human beings and says “It is very good.” The second creation story is the one about Adam and Eve. It tells about what goes wrong in relationships between human beings and God, and relationships between human beings. They tell rather different things about what it means to be human and be in relationship. There’s a third creation story, and it’s the great scientific, cosmological, evolutionary creation story. They’re all true. They all tell very significant truths about what it means to be human, in relationship in the two Genesis stories, and the third one tells about the mechanics of how things came to be the way they are. I don’t have any trouble holding all three of those together. I believe I’ve got a much richer view of the way things are than I would if I only used one of them.
KCAW: So many churches right now are experiencing schisms or division or difficulty dealing with a lot of current social issues, whether it’s gay rights, or even just theology differences between a congregation and its pastor. The Episcopal Church is experiencing that, the Anglican church is experiencing that. Can those be avoided, or is that just a natural evolution of people and an institution?
Jefferts Schori: I believe conflict is an opportunity. It’s a sign of the possibility of growth and development, if it’s well managed. If it gets too strong and too arduous, if it explodes, it’s not being used for the possibilities it has. If there’s no conflict, there’s no possibility for growth, because there’s no tension, there’s no invitation to look at things in a different way. We’re going through a time, as Phyllis Tickle calls it, it’s the “500-year rummage sale.” Every 500 years the church, or religious communities, look at the way things are and discover that something’s really not working. You referenced earlier the tension many people see between religion and science. That’s a conversation of the Enlightenment. We’re coming to a time when people are more comfortable with a variety of viewpoints, and that is in significant tension with people who believe there are only black-and-white answers in the world. We’re wrestling with that transition right now.
KCAW: So what’s the successful model for handling it?
Jefferts Schori: The Anglican tradition at its best has always said a diversity of viewpoints is a sign of health, that none of us knows the fullness of the truth, but that together in community, we have a greater possibility of discerning something truthful. We’ve never been black-and-white thinkers. We’ve insisted that dialogue and conversation is the way to discover and to discern more of God’s truth. It’s hard work, and it does lead to some conflict — that tension I talked about — but it’s creative.
KCAW: I know a lot of people who profess to a faith, or some sort of belief, but are skeptical of organized religion. What’s the case you can make for why organized religion is an important thing in the world today?
Jefferts Schori: I think we have to be skeptical of it. We have to insist that no human institution can ever have the fullness of the truth, and therefore there has to be possibility for questioning, for doubt, for push-back, or the institution simply ossifies. It tends to ossify in unhealthy, even sinful directions — that the person at the top has got all the truth and is going to tell people what to do, or it only answers old questions and doesn’t deal with new ones. Institutionalized religion, if you will, that which binds people together (which is what religion means) works in a constructive and creative and Godly way when it continues to move and evolve. It has to.
KCAW: I think there’s a spectrum that especially Christian denominations operate on, from “the door’s open, we’re here if you need us,” to “we have to go out and save the atheists.” On a spectrum, where do you see the Episcopal Church? What’s the mission of the church, especially in terms of nonbelievers?
Jefferts Schori: You will find Episcopalians spread out across that spectrum. That’s part of our characteristic DNA. We’re not all in the same place. But I think overall, the Episcopal Church is coming to understand its part in God’s mission to be present in the world, not simply to expect people to come inside our beautiful buildings and find us there, but for us to be present and active as agents of transformation in the world around us, toward something that looks more like the kingdom of God, shalom, a beloved community, where people treat each other with justice, because we see the image of God in our neighbors, and we understand that loving our neighbors means responding to needs and issues and pain and fear, and not avoiding it.
KCAW: What does the church get right?
Jefferts Schori: The church gets right the wonder of God’s creation, the beauty that is present all around us, that life is a gift, and therefore every human being whom we meet is a gift to be unwrapped and discovered. The church gets right its understanding that mission means leaving the worship service to go back into the world to respond to that gift and opportunity in human beings, and the needs of the world around us?
KCAW: What does the church get wrong?
Jefferts Schori: The church gets wrong understandings that issues are political and therefore not significant to life as a Christian. And that doesn’t happen everywhere, thanks be to God. The church gets wrong a narrow understanding that we’ve figured it out for all time. The church gets wrong a tendency to believe that we’re better than other Christian communities because we’ve figured it out. We haven’t. We’re all on the road, always.
KCAW: All the time, reporters ask you about science and faith and your background and schisms in the church and all the things I’ve asked about in this interview. What’s the question you wish reporters would ask you more often, and what’s the answer to it?
Jefferts Schori: I think the question that people almost everywhere ask in the depths of their heart is “What does it mean to be a human being in relationship to all that is around us?” And I think that’s the deeply spiritual question. Where do you find God? Where do you find the presence of God? Where do you find God at work in the world around you, in the depths of your own heart, and how do you live a good life in response to that?
KCAW: Is there an answer?
Jefferts Schori: The answer, I believe, lies in membership in a community of faith. That’s what the church is for. It’s to encourage and challenge us in relationship to continue to grow. It is the useful reason for conflict and tension, because no one of us gets it completely. It’s in that tense, even conflicted relationship with another human being who disagrees with us that we find the opportunity to discover God at work.