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Episcopalian bishop takes on St. Paul, touts gay marriage
May 25, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
An Episcopalian bishop is catching some heat for claiming that St. Paul was depriving a slave girl of her "unique spiritual awareness" when he cast out a demon in The Biblical Book of Acts 16. Of course it didn't help that she also used the passage as a lead-up to criticize people who don't recognize same sex marriage.
Presiding Bishop The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori gave the sermon in Venezuela. "Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness," said Jefferts Schori. "Paul can't abide something he won't see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That's pretty much where he's put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God's nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!"
In the scene described in the Bible, Paul is doing mission work and is disturbed day after day by a young soothsayer who called out "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." Paul, finally fed up with the harassment, sees that the girl is possessed by a demon and demands that it leave her body. The demon departs and the girl loses her powers. Her owners, who had been making money off the girl's prophesying, are angry and have Paul beaten up and thrown in prison. Nothing more is said in the Biblical passage about what happened to the girl.
So why exactly was Paul so angry when the girl was apparently telling the truth about who he was and what he was preaching? I wondered that too, since it has been quite some time since I read or heard that particular passage, if I ever did. Reading it critically, with fresh eyes, I could see why Jefferts Schori interpreted it as she did. As a feminist, I have to admit that Paul has never been a great favorite of mine. Here's one of Paul's most oft-quoted statements, from Corinthians: "The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church." Just how do you think the guy who said that would react to a female interrupting his preaching? He would likely consider Jefferts Schori seriously out of line as a female bishop. I also found myself wondering what happened to that poor little girl in the aftermath, once she was no longer as profitable for her slave masters.
The traditional interpretation is that it might have been unclear exactly which "Most High God" the slave girl was talking about. The people in the square likely worshiped many different gods and might have thought she was talking about Zeus or some other pagan god. Just because the demon appeared to be telling the truth doesn't mean it actually was. Its subtlety is considered even more dangerous. By casting out the demon, Paul freed the girl from spiritual slavery. Mainstream Christian churches consider any form of divination a grave sin and, to this day, the Catholic Church practices exorcism to rid sufferers of demonic possession. Many mainstream Christian churches also still forbid same sex marriage. Episcopalians are having an internal war over that subject.
Those are among the reasons why Jefferts Schori's unique interpretation of that passage has raised a lot of eyebrows. Is she saying that demonic possession is a good thing? Is she perhaps saying that the girl wasn't really demonically possessed but her second sight was a gift from God? Some critics on one site said Jefferts Schori clearly isn't a Christian anymore; others called her Gnostic. And what does it mean for traditional Christianity to sanction gay marriage? Personally, I thought Jefferts Schori gave an interesting and challenging sermon, though clearly not one that will please traditionalists.
What do you think of the stir over Jefferts Schori's sermon?
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