In response to the criticism directed at her General Convention Opening Address, Katharine Jefferts Schori has published an explanation of what she said. “Apparently I wasn’t clear”. Whether her explanation clarifies what she originally said, or obsfuscates it, is a question that different people will answer in different ways. Some will think that this what she meant all along. Others will wonder whether she has not snatched up the fig leaf of orthodoxy to cover up her heterodox teaching.
What she meant to say, she now says, is that “we give evidence of our relationship with God in how we treat our neighbors, nearby and far away. Salvation is a gift from God, not something we can earn by our works, but neither is salvation assured by words alone.” That’s unexceptionable so far as it goes. Doubts, however, remain, and not inconsequential ones. Classical Anglican doctrine could not have talked about good works as she does (at length) without clarifying their relationship with individual faith (see the Articles of Religion XI-XIV). It insisted that there is no right relationship (justification) of the individual with God without faith, and that there are no good works of neighbourly love without individual faith either. Without faith, our good works turn into Pelagian works-righteousness – which do not restore us to right relationship with our neighbour, or to God. Yet Jefferts Schori can only repeat her negative account of individualism, and on the relation of faith to justification and good works she is strikingly silent. She disclaims Pelagian works-righteousness ”“ “salvation is a gift of God” ”“ but given that she cannot say how that grace operates through the faith of the individual, there is nothing in her theology to prevent a collapse into it. She can issue a further clarification, if she wishes, explaining that she is in favour of justifying faith too (though this would involve backtracking on her “individualism is heresy” theme): but the lacuna is troubling. If you are striving to assure critics of your doctrinal orthodoxy, how do you ”˜overlook’ faith?
Moreover, classical Anglicanism would also have said that faith has a doctrinal content. Schori seems unable to speak of doctrine in positive terms ”“ only the comment about the insufficiency of “words alone”. Even her doctrinal affirmations have an oddly tentative ring. “We anticipate the restoration of all creation to right relationship, and we proclaim that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection made that possible in a new way.” Does this mean that restoration was possible in another way? Or that it is only a possibility? And just how does “Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection” make this possible? We can read a classical account of the atonement into that phrase, but we have no reason to do so. Many do not. Perhaps she is once more being “unclear”? She concludes with another unimpeachable platitude, that salvation “is a mystery. It’s hard to pin down or talk about.” That’s a cheap exit. The Biblical concept of “mystery” does not mean “vague” or “ambiguous”.
As an effort to set to rest the doctrinal anxieties of her critics, Ms. Jefferts Schori’s response is remarkably ineffective. It leaves us with a choice of conclusions: either she is not capable of the requisite theological clarity, or she really does not want to be clear. Given a bishop’s role as teacher of the faith and focus of unity, neither conclusion is re-assuring.
–The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is rector, Saint John’s, Savannah, Georgia