Episcopal Church's Bishop on Science and Faith

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, is the first woman to hold that office. She started out not as a clergywoman, but as an oceanographer. She discusses matters of science and faith, as well as current controversies in the church over sexuality.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Two prominent Episcopal parishes in Virginia voted today to cut ties with the Episcopal Church. Among their complaints, that the church's consecration of an openly gay bishop is a break with the faith's traditional values.

Members of the Truro Church in Fairfax and the Falls Church will join other conservative Anglicans, forming a rival denomination. Parishioners at the Truro Church say it was a hard decision.

Mr. BOB DELLING (Parishioner, Truro Church): My name is Bob Delling(ph) and I'm from Fairfax, Virginia. If they didn't decide to break away, then I think we would have had a massive number of people leave. We would not have been able to continue the programs that we have here in terms of the missions that we support and the work that we do.

Ms. HEIDI MARSHALL (Parishioner, Truro Church): My name is Heidi Marshall(ph). I'm a member at Truro and I'm a resident of Virginia. I think that the things that the Episcopal Church is doing then, if someone were to stay and have a different opinion, that I think it would make the job of standing for truth a much harder thing. The authority above us in the church would have a very different opinion to the authority of Scripture and Jesus Christ than we do. And it would make our job of going out and witnessing to that a much harder one.

Mr. STENTON BROWNER (Parishioner, Falls Church): So my name is Stenton Browner(ph). I'm from Fairfax, Virginia. I'm on the (unintelligible) of Truro Church, which means that I'm a part of, I guess you could call it, the sort of governing board of the church. Our fundamental beliefs and values have come to such different places. I don't agree with the Episcopal Church's theology.

Bishop KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI (United States Episcopal Church): We're obviously disappointed that the leadership in that congregation desires to leave.

ELLIOTT: Katherine Jefferts Schori is the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

Bishop JEFFERRTS SCHORI: But congregations are institutions of a diocese and their existence is really based on recognition by the diocese.

ELLIOTT: So the congregations are still there, in your opinion?

Bishop JEFFERTS SCHORI: Yes.

ELLIOTT: Is this a critical moment for the Episcopal Church?

Bishop JEFFERTS SCHORI: People have left at various occasions over the centuries of the Episcopal Church. But we will continue to engage in mission together and continue to assert that this is a very broad tent with room for people of a variety of opinions and theological positions.

ELLIOTT: Bishop Jefferts Schori took over leadership of the Episcopalians in November, the first woman to hold that position. I spoke with her at a wide-ranging interview this past week.

ELLIOTT: Now, I'm gonna start with your early life. I think many people might now know this about you, but you actually had a career as a marine biologist. You're a certified pilot, you know, and you came to your career in the church rather late in life.

Bishop JEFFERTS SCHORI: Well, I did spend the first part of my adult life as an oceanographer. I was an active lay person in the church and came to ordination in '94, 1994.

ELLIOTT: What role did religion play for you back then, before you came to be ordained?

Bishop JEFFERTS SCHORI: Well, probably start with childhood. I went to a Roman Catholic girls school in Seattle. We moved to New Jersey when I was in the middle of fifth grade and I left that convent school, a girls school, and my parents took us from the Roman Catholic Church into the Episcopal Church.

ELLIOTT: Why did they leave?

Bishop JEFFERTS SCHORI: It was before Vatican II had had any impact in local parishes, and I think it had something to do with their search for a religious community, a faith community that would invite questioning rather than providing answers. So a whole set of shifts for me at that point. And in my adult life, probably in graduate school, I came back to the church. I hadn't gotten a lot of help wrestling with science and religion issues in high school and college. And took a class in graduate school looking at philosophy of science, and we read some of the great physicists of the 20th century, like Heisenberg and Bohr and Einstein. And for me that was permission almost to begin to see the mystery in what I was doing.

ELLIOTT: And you actually studied the evolution, I understand, of squid. Is that right?

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: Correct. Correct. A piece of what I did.

ELLIOTT: Such a topic that has divided many communities.

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: Well, some people see the creation stories as history. I certainly don't. I understand them as having to do with meaning behind existence and not with the particularities of how it happened.

ELLIOTT: What would you say to those who wanted to teach creationism?

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: Well, I think that's a sad misunderstanding, both of the faith story and of the best of science in our own day. Science is about knowing and so is religion, but they're about different kinds of knowing. Science is about how things happen and what's out there. And religion is much more about the meaning behind what is and relationships between human beings and that beyond ourselves and between human beings themselves.

ELLIOTT: Were there other issues or instances where you grappled with apparent contradictions in science and your faith?

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: I think the bigger picture, if one looks behind evolution, having to do with cosmology, is certainly a piece where I've grappled and found some wonderful coherence, if you will, between the way the Bible talks about creation and the way the Big Bang story goes. In the beginning, there was nothing. A wind blew over the face of the nothingness.

There is a wonderful poetic sense in Genesis that a scientist can take and say, well, here's a lovely poetic description of a scientific understanding of the origin of all things.

ELLIOTT: So ultimately you have not abandoned your scientific beliefs.

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: Absolutely not. Science is about discovering the world around us, discovering how it works, making a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis and forming a theory based on the best data we have. It's a useful tool and lens for looking at most parts of existence.

ELLIOTT: I was reading something that you said about reason and how important reason is in your church and how some people want to maybe forget about that part of it.

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: The Episcopal Ad Project a number of years ago put out a poster, a classic picture of Jesus that said, Jesus died to take away your sins, not your mind.

ELLIOTT: When did you decide, okay, I think I want to be a priest? Was there one moment where the light went off?

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: Well, in the mid-'80s the federal research priorities changed significantly and it was becoming apparent to me that it was going to be something different if I wanted to continue in oceanography as a research oceanographer. And at the very same time, three people in my congregation asked me if I'd ever thought about being a priest, just out of the blue, and that surprise sent me off to do some serious discernment. And we came to the conclusion that at the very least, the time wasn't right. So I went off and did other things in the community, and five years later, a different priest in that congregation asked me if I would preach on a Sunday when the clergy were meant to be away at a meeting.

ELLIOTT: What were they telling you? Why did they think you would make a good priest?

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: I think it had probably something to do with my own journey, wrestling with those questions of science and religion, and inviting other people in the community to wrestle with questions.

ELLIOTT: Well, now here you are. Much has been made of the fact that you're the first woman elected as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. And it's happening at a time when the country seems to be having this conversation of whether or not we're ready to elect a woman as president.

Do you feel like now that you are in this position of leadership, that you're accepted in that role?

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: Well, there are a handful of bishops in the Episcopal Church who don't believe in ordaining women and who have had some negative reaction to my election, but it's a very small percentage. There are times in human history when women's leadership has been celebrated and welcomed and other times when it's been shunned. And fortunately, I think we're moving toward a more open understanding in this season.

ELLIOTT: One of the big issues that has divided members of your church is the idea of gay priests, and you have voted to consecrate a gay bishop, and that is a very controversial subject. Is that an issue that can be reconciled?

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: Well, we're working hard at it at the moment. It's certainly not clear what the outcome's going to be immediately. The reality is that we've always had gay clergy. It's only in relatively recent years that they've been willing and able to be open about that.

ELLIOTT: Do you ever fear that you are going to somehow be known as the presiding bishop who made this your issue? And it is such a controversial issue. And there's even talk of splitting with the Anglican communion over it.

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: Well, I certainly wouldn't claim it as my issue. I think my leadership in this season is about reminding the church of its mission, its broader mission. Reconciling people over issues of sexuality is a piece of our work, but the larger piece is about human suffering around the world. It's about people who go to bed hungry every night because they don't have enough to eat. It's about girls and boys who don't have an opportunity to go to school. It's about women who die in childbirth because there's no medical care. It's about people who die needlessly from malaria and AIDS and tuberculosis because there isn't adequate provision for drugs and prevention.

ELLIOTT: You think there's too much emphasis being put on the debate over homosexuality in the church?

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: It's a very easy way to neglect, to ignore the other suffering in the world. It's important, but it's not the centerpiece of what we're about.

ELLIOTT: What other reforms do you hope to bring to the church under your leadership?

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: I think my basic hope is that we remember that, as the archbishop of Canterbury in the '40s said, the church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members, that our focus needs not to be so much on internal politics, but on serving the world, on helping to heal a world that's broken.

ELLIOTT: Katherine Jefferts-Schori is presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Thank you for coming in to talk with us.

Ms. JEFFERTS-SCHORI: My pleasure. Thank you.

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