Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians — OH MY!
The recent conferences and assemblies of mainline denominations sparked expected news and debates as churches move — much too slowly according to some — in the direction of affirmation and reformation, taking radically more inclusive stances to affirm marriage and ordination privileges for same-gender-loving parishioners and preachers.
Gay or lesbian marriage, bisexual or transgender rights — these are only some of many cultural issues facing the institutional fabric of the Christian faith. Social and political debates mirror ongoing theological speculation about the divinity of Jesus or questions concerning the existence of eternal torment in a place called hell.
If we are to believe the books and the blogs, contemporary Christian leaders live in an ongoing identity crisis about many issues of a theological or political nature. Debates rage about how we define our evolving faith tradition or whether our faith has a future worth defining (or not).
Whenever dialogue about the fate of faith surfaces, which seems like always (and perhaps it’s been this way since disciples first broke bread together), the church gets hit the hardest. The “relationship-not-religion” rap remains popular on the right, the left loves to loathe abuses of ecclesial authority, and so on; thus the internal bickering multiplies like so many loaves and fishes.
When my denominational family, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), decided against sanctioning gay marriage at its recent General Assembly, I expressed support for the defeated measure on my Facebook page and reposted a blog that denounced some of the more bigoted remarks from the assembly’s discussion floor. An old friend who participates in a Unitarian Universalist congregation read my post and replied, suggesting that I might be “going too easy on the church,” perchance because my comments accompanying the reposting were not harsher and more dramatic in my critique of what many view as religiously motivated homophobia.
This phrase and image of “going easy on the church” stuck in my mind because the church has been quite easy for me — inviting me, a confessed sinner, into its doors and into its community, after years of walking on the slippery slopes and loose living of the wild side.
In my experience, the church has not just been easy on reformed sinners, it has been easy on the poor, the lonely, the recovering addicts, the very young, and the very old. The church makes life easier for a lot of people, with its marrying and mourning, peacemaking and potlucks, prayer groups and parenting classes, rummage sales and support for refugees, disaster relief and radical discipleship.
My experience of church resembles what Anne Lamott describes in her memoir Traveling Mercies:
“Our funky little church is filled with people who are working for peace and freedom, who are out there on the streets and inside praying, and they are home writing letters, and they are at the shelters with giant platters of food. When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home. . .”
To be honest, I don’t quite understand why some Christians talk a lot about loving Jesus but act like they hate the church. The church is the body of Christ in our world.
When I fled from church in my early 20s, my head was filled with anger at the church, the crusades, the witch burnings, and the treatment of indigenous populations. But actually, my experience with any bricks-and-mortar church up to that point had been saturated with activism, with peace and civil rights and solidarity with the poor.
Maybe some Christians skip church because of a critique of institutional power structures and internal power trips. I wonder how many others like their personal salvation (thank you very much), but couldn’t be bothered with long-term commitments or actually obeying the commandments?
While I am grateful to see my denomination wrestle with and even inch towards full inclusion for its LGBT members, I’m definitely not ready to throw in the towel regarding PCUSA simply because some votes did not go the way that some of us wanted them to go this particular year.
Widening the already vast chasms created by the culture wars won’t heal deep wounds in the body. As we faithfully argue, our God and our interpretations of the Bible ought to make church a wide and wonderful enough place to accept members who are different and who differ.
As Paul states so succinctly in I Corinthians, we are one but many — an interconnected, sacred polity that possesses diverse gifts, sometimes much more diverse than some folks perceive. Diversity means including our differently-desiring sisters and brothers, but it also means fellowshipping with those with whom we disagree.
How often I’ve heard my left-leaning religious friends suggest that this far-flung and fragmented body actually represents entirely different Gods. That is, they say, there’s no way we could disagree so vehemently on issues that matter and still worship the same Savior.
We’re monotheists, aren’t we? No matter how divergent our visions and versions of God might be, splitting God into gods is not really an option for monotheists. Admit it, some of us more easily find kinship with friends from other traditions in an interfaith context than we do with conservatives of our own faith community.
Let’s admit it — the church isn’t dying just because it doesn’t look like the open-minded, eclectic, egalitarian, and ecumenical place we want it to.
May we accept even as we agitate and advocate.
I’m not ashamed of going easy on the church; the church goes easy on me. Let’s go easy on one another — not because we walk a narrow path of theological and political consistency, but because we dance in a wide open field where we accept, admire, and work within the vast and endless frame of our differences.
Andrew William Smith is an English professor by day and DJ by night who works as the Faculty Head of Tree House living and learning village at Tennessee Tech. He’s an activist, poet, blogger, writer/editor at Interference.com, seminarian, unlikely Sunday school teacher, and aspiring preacher. Follow Andrew on Twitter @teacheronradio  or on Unlikely Sunday School Teacher. 
Image: Last Supper Stained Glass, Temple of Atonement, Templo Expiatorio, Guadalajara, Mexico. Artist finished stained glass in the 1970s, died and is buried at the Temple of Atonement. Photo by Bill Perry /Shutterstock.