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Traditionalists incensed by Jefferts Schori sermon

24 May 2013


Imposing: a statue of St Paul, at the Vatican

Imposing: a statue of St Paul, at the Vatican

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, has been strongly criticised by traditionalists over comments about slavery and St Paul in a sermon. British biblical scholars, however, expressed interest and suprise at the fuss.

Dr Jefferts Schori preached a sermon earlier this month on a visit to Curaçao, Venezuela, interpreting the story in Acts 16 of St Paul's exorcising a slave girl as his being "annoyed at the slave girl . . . and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness".

She appeared to suggest that the exorcism was an angry reaction from Paul, because he could not tolerate anyone who was different from himself. Referring to Curaçao's historical associations with slavery, she said: "Human beings have a long history of discounting and devaluing difference, finding it offensive or even evil. That kind of blindness is what leads to oppression, slavery, and, often, war. . . There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning [including Acts 16.16-34], and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it. . . Paul can't abide something he won't see as beautiful or holy; so he tries to destroy it."

An internet news service in the US, Anglican Ink, accused Dr Jefferts Schori of denouncing St Paul as "mean-spirited and bigoted", and condemning those who did not share her views as "enemies of the Holy Spirit".

Others argued that her interpretation was at odds with traditional Christian teaching, grammar, and logic. One contributor described it as "quite possibly some of the most delusional exegesis I've ever read in my life. I'm sorry, but this sermon is not a Christian sermon."

Several bloggers joined in the criticism. One, the Revd Bryan Owen, said: "What's happening here is the exploitation of a biblical text in service to a theopolitical agenda.

"The Presiding Bishop suggests that anyone who doesn't buy into that agenda - anyone who holds to the traditional, orthodox understanding of such matters - is likewise afflicted with the same narrow-minded bigotry as Paul, and thus in need of enlightenment."

Biblical scholars in Britain appeared to be less outraged. Dr John Court, an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury, said: "It is not really a new, serious interpretation of the text: just someone putting modern spin on it. It's an interesting rereading of the scripture."

He suggested that Paul acted because he was concerned about the slave girl's alternative demonic voice. "This would be, in the period, a perfectly normal thing to do, if you were campaigning for truth, and seeing other things as the fruits of falsehood.

"I think the Presiding Bishop has been highly influenced by where she is preaching. She is, therefore, very much more open to multi-strands of thought, and she brings in references to both slavery and same-sex relationships, indicating a modern situation in which there's going to be a lot more liberal attitudes, and any voice is almost as good as any other."

Another biblical scholar, Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB, a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, said: "I don't really see that this has anything to do with slavery, and I think Paul's 'annoyance' is a somewhat feminist interpretation. It is also based on a dubious translation of the Greek, which I would translate 'turning on her in the Spirit'. He does not 'deprive her of the gift of spiritual awareness', but simply shows the superior power of the Christian Spirit.

"It is not worth making a fuss about, except for the danger of making political or feminist points without a proper understanding of the Greek text, and without regard for the context."

For the full text of Dr Jefferts Schori's sermon, visit www.episcopalchurch.org/page/easter-7c-all-saints-church.

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