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Thoughts on 'The Conversion of St. Paul' - a homily by Katharine Jefferts Schori: A critique

Thoughts on 'The Conversion of St. Paul' - a homily by Katharine Jefferts Schori: A critique

"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."Matt 10:16

By Bill Helms
Special to Virtueonline
January 30, 2015

Last night while searching the web for things to read I was drawn to a homily given by Katharine Jefferts Schori the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church on the conversion of St. Paul. I was curious to see what she would have to say about Paul's conversion. The homily was given in Jerusalem while she was there on an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I have read and listened to a number of her homilies over the years. The first that I can recall hearing was at a Diocesan Convention to which I was a delegate. The Rector of the Church I attended had spoken so highly of her that my expectation for something special at Convention was high.

That Diocesan Convention marked the beginning of a journey for me that has led to a clear understanding of how Jefferts Schori's theology differs from traditional Anglican Theology. What started as discomfort with a pagan American Indian Smoke Ritual during Holy Eucharist at that Diocesan Convention eventually lead to a deeper faith in, and understanding of, what Jesus taught and what the Apostles carefully delivered to the world. I am not startled by the way in which Jefferts Schori twists the story of St. Paul's conversion. Her purpose is clear. It is important to her to take every opportunity to spread her old 'new theology'.

Schori begins her homily with references to the interfaith pilgrimage she is on. There are many faiths represented. Being careful and open listeners to what those of other faiths have to say is important.

I am here as part of an interfaith pilgrimage, with a group from the U.S. composed of Jews, Muslims, and Episcopalians. We are here to meet God in one another and in the midst of the Abrahamic traditions we share. We have spent the last week in conversation with people who are working to build bridges and make peace. We have remembered that the work requires vulnerability, and a willingness to make space where God might enter and make peace in us and in the world around us. Listening deeply to the story another person tells is an essential and holy way of opening that space. What does that require of us? Slowing down, sitting down in patience, breathing deeply, and focusing our attention on another rather than ourselves. It is a kind of prayer, listening for the creative word of God in another.

The sentiments expressed here have been heard before. The importance of listening, being vulnerable, and willing to make space where God might enter is voiced. However, hearing them does not eliminate our understanding of how Schori operates, it simply frames the reality of who she is. We have all seen and heard enough to know that in practice, she leaves little room for "slowing down, sitting down in patience, breathing deeply" when dealing with those who disagree with her. In reality she neither has time for canon law nor for any process which would delay or interfere with her purposes or theology.

With those thoughts as an introduction and thematic material, the setting of St. Paul's conversion becomes an irony for Schori.

There is some real irony in the readings for this morning, which commemorate the Conversion of St. Paul. Originally called Saul, he was a pious and observant Jew who found the new movement of Jesus' followers deeply objectionable. Their preaching was disrupting the peace in the synagogues, he's afraid of further chaos, and seems honor-bound to do all he can to expel and end this havoc. You heard how Luke begins to tell the story in Acts: "Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord..." Threats and murder are hardly a sign of holiness, yet they are often the companions of zealotry in every religious tradition. Zealotry is in many ways the opposite of that act of holy space-making that will slow down enough to breathe in the words and story of another.

The deepest irony in her words is her expression of personal 'zealotry' in attacking Paul whenever and wherever she finds an opportunity, and in the obvious way in which she operates with those who oppose her theology. Paul's threats and murder "are hardly a sign of holiness" for Schori. It might be pointed out that they differ only in degree and are perhaps simply more straightforward than lawsuits.

But that is just the beginning. All irony aside, her retelling of Paul's conversion quickly becomes the basis of a struggle for power. Paul's blindness is healed, his vision is expanded, but his conversion and his evangelic calling becomes the basis for error!

Ananias prays that the breath of God might fill and heal Saul and let him see. Saul has a conversion; he turns around, expands his vision of what is possible, and embraces a former enemy. His changed attitude astonishes people who knew him only as an angry and threatening zealot; "Isn't this the guy who used to terrorize us?"

Yet the sad reality is that others soon began to tell his story as one of reversal, as trading violence toward one group for power plays over his own people. What originated in an expanded awareness of truth gets narrowed down again to a tale of winners and losers. Listen again to the last sentence we heard in Acts: "Saul became increasingly powerful and confounded the Jews... by proving that Jesus was the Messiah." That is the story told by a group that still feels afraid and anxious -- 'see how powerful our leader is, how thoroughly he conquers the unbelieving.' It is not exactly the story of Jesus...

Jefferts Schori has carefully left out what Jesus told Ananias about Paul. "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." What Jesus tells Ananias does not fit with her attitude toward St. Paul nor with her desire to portray those around him as "afraid and anxious".

In reality Paul's only 'power' is his willingness to suffer for our Lord and to carry his message to the world. Of course this is precisely the message Jefferts Schori earnestly desires to change and subvert.

Speaking against the Lord's chosen instrument is one thing. Twisting the Lord's words to speak against his Apostle is quite another. Only those who do not know the fullness of the Gospel and the teachings of the New Testament will be mislead by Jefferts Schori's homily. And only those who are not aware of her actions will be swayed by her words. For the rest of us, there is little new in her twisted zealotry to malign a true Apostle.

Bill Helms is a retired Music Professor. He lives with his wife in Athens GA where they are members of St. Stephen's Anglican Catholic Church

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