SALT LAKE CITY – As Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori came down the aisle at our General Convention’s Sunday worship, I had many mixed feelings.
The next few months, we will experience many “lasts” with her, and this was one.
As her nine-year term as presiding bishop draws to a close, there is a growing cascade of commentaries in social media, The Washington Post and elsewhere reflecting on her impact on the Episcopal Church.
Most of these words have focused on her historic role as the first woman presiding bishop and how well she has managed the institutions of the Episcopal Church.
But I see her as a friend who I have known since before we were both ordained. She was our seminarian doing her field education at Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento, when I was on the vestry. She led an Education for Ministry group that included my wife, Lori.
I well remember Katharine’s first sermon with us in Sacramento—it was about the feeding of the 5,000. She talked about grace and God’s abundance reaching all people, and I remember thinking, “Oh my, can we keep her?”
Each time I have seen her speak or preach, or just listened to her talk, I have marveled at her centeredness, her courage, her leadership, her confidence in the Episcopal Church, and most of all her abundant faith in the Risen Christ and our future.
In her years as presiding bishop, I’ve known Katharine not only as a friend but also as a pastor to all the church. She has traveled tens-of-thousands of miles all over our country and the world.
She’s spoken at diocesan conventions, led pilgrimages to the Holy Land, met with world leaders and visited disaster sites. She’s preached in grand cathedrals and small parishes, and taken an unending stream of vitriol with grace and patience.
And she visited my parish, St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, for three days in January 2010 to celebrate our centennial.
She arrived during one of the worst blizzards in decades.
There were many enchanting moments in the three days we shared with Bishop Katharine. She talked precious little about Episcopal Church politics.
On her first evening with us, Katharine shared a potluck supper with teenage youth groups from St. Paul’s and several other Episcopal churches in the area. She and the teens sang a few camp songs in the chapel, and then Katharine took their questions.
We discovered Katharine has a weakness for macaroni-and-cheese and strong Starbucks coffee.
The teens were particularly fascinated by her transition from scientist to Episcopal priest, and then bishop. Katharine was asked about how she reconciled her previous career as a scientist with the Genesis stories of creation.
“All of them are true,” she replied, explaining that science explains the mechanics of creation, while Genesis explains the whys of creation.
On Saturday morning, the schedule called for a private luncheon with her and the St. Paul’s clergy at the University of Virginia faculty club. But with the snow piling up and streets closing, no one could reach the faculty club. We went to Plan B—soup and sandwiches at the church. That turned out to be one of the most wonderful moments of the weekend.
The presiding bishop, in her blue jeans, walked into the parish hall, and before we knew it she was picking up flower trimmings from the floor with our Flower Guild members.
That evening she joined us for our centennial banquet and sat with then University of Virginia president-elect Teresa Sullivan, another groundbreaking woman. We cleared enough snow from the parking lot to hold the dinner.
There was something about the snowstorm that gave the banquet a forceful energy. It started with the line of snow boots in the entry hall. Those who got to the hall were utterly determined to be there no matter what.
Sunday morning dawned spectacular. The sun was brilliant, the sky blue, and the snow coated the trees and the buildings.
More than 400 people made it through the snowy streets to join us for worship that morning. As the procession came down the aisle, I was moved by so many faces waiting to see the first woman presiding bishop and primate of our church. Cameras clicked, voices sang, and the celebration rocked the roof.
It is our practice in Sunday that after the sermon, our children march up the center aisle returning from Sunday School as the adults sing, “We are Marching in the Light of God.”
As we sang, Bishop Katharine marched with the kids, and then she leaned down and blessed each child on his or her forehead, one by one.
As it happened, Iris Potter, our Sunday School director, had taught a lesson that morning about how Jesus touched Peter, and then Peter touched others, and they became the leaders of the church.
After Katharine blessed our children, they ran to Iris and asked if they were now the leaders of the church.
When Bishop Katharine heard that she said, “Yes! Yes! They are the leaders of the church!”
In her sermon, Bishop Katharine challenged us to keep our outward focus, to minister to each other and to the world beyond our walls and to fear nothing.
She talked in detail about the Episcopal Church’s work in Haiti, which had just experienced a devastating earthquake. She talked about our responsibility to care for the earth, our island home, and the call to us to grow a healthy transforming congregation that welcomes and nurtures new people.
She ended her sermon with the words: “Be bold!”
Bishop Katharine’s time with us has had a lasting impact. “Be bold!” has become something of an unofficial parish mission statement. Her words have formed the basis of a five-year vision-planning project in our parish. The title of the plan?
In the three days we experienced with her in 2010, I was continually struck by how much she absorbed about our parish, and how she genuinely encountered each person she met. She was never in rush. When she spoke, she synthesized the best of who we are, and who we can be, and I end this reflection with her words from her sermon at St. Paul’s:
“You will continue to be prophets here as long as you notice the hungry and figure out how to feed people, as long as you reach out to students who might not otherwise get here,” she said. “The vision from Isaiah that Jesus read, the truth he proclaimed that nearly got him lynched in Nazareth, is the courageous truth we share – a healed and healing world.
“Prophets may be quaking in their boots, like Martin Luther King the night his house was bombed, but they keep on speaking, and they keep on moving toward God’s perfection. May your words and deeds be bold!”
James Richardson, an alternate deputy from the Diocese of Virginia, and a former reporter for the Sacramento Bee, is rector of St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville.