Very recently (just this past Sunday, in fact), a large church in our community decided to leave their current denomination (the Presbyterian Church USA) and join a new denomination that was just founded within the last couple of years. Most observers characterize the new denomination as “more conservative.” This decision, as you might expect, has received a fair amount of attention in the local press. And, since the press is online these days, this gave people the opportunity to post comments — comments about the reasons given for the change, comments about suspected reasons for the change, comments supporting the change, and comments lamenting the change. Someone, in response to comments about some people perhaps seeking a new church home, posted a comment suggesting that those looking for a new church might try ours. Then, something interesting happened: someone else posted a comment seemingly advising against choosing our church because, the author wrote, our church is “ultra liberal, theologically shaky, and membership weakened.” The comment could not be found later, so it may have been deleted ultimately, but it did appear, at least for a while. And it is that very comment that inspired me on the blog this week, because — for the most part — I would like to completely embrace these labels, and let you know why I’m completely fine being characterized as “ultra liberal” and “theologically shaky”. I’ll get to the “membership weakened” comment, as well.
In some respects, our church — like most Episcopal churches — would not be thought of as liberal, at least in terms of our worship. We are a liturgical church, with an inherited tradition of worship that we strive to keep contemporary but whose form, symbolism, and ritual were developed centuries ago. And most of the time, our music is pretty traditional. So, in that sense, we could be thought of as conservative: that is, in the classical sense of that term, which means that we have a tendency to “conserve” more ancient patterns of Christian worship and spirituality in creative ways.
BUT, I would imagine that the term “ultra liberal” in this case is meant to convey what is considered a “liberal” moral stance and way of being church. For example, we ordain women and gay people, we bless gay marriages, and we tend to regard personal morality as, well, a personal matter. Which means that we try hard not to pass judgment on people based on who they are, whom they love, and how they live their lives. It’s not that these things don’t matter or are unimportant, but that they are deeply connected to a person’s relationship with God, and that who we are and how we live should emerge for each of us out of that relationship, not be defined for us by a religious institution. After all, St. Paul took great pains to point out that in Christ, we are invited to live not according to law imposed on us from outside, but by grace offered to us by God from within.
The term “ultra liberal” may also be related to the fact that I am not of the opinion that Christianity is the only way to reach God. It can be a great way, it’s the way that works for me, and it’s the way I recommend to others because it’s what I know. But I have known too many people whom I consider holy who have not been Christians, and I’m rather certain that God loves them.
So, I fully embrace the label of “ultra liberal” as a sign that I — and the community to which I belong — work hard to be open to all, without judgment. That we aspire to be a sign of God’s kingdom in which all are joyfully welcomed just as they are, because all are loved deeply and passionately by God. And I embrace the ultra liberal position that allows everyone to be full participants in the life of the church and all of its ministries and sacraments.
I’m particularly happy to embrace this label. Because, for me, “theologically shaky” means that we see the Bible not as an inerrant book that serves as a “text book” of the Christian faith, but rather as an amazingly diverse, complex, nuanced text that cannot interpret itself, but rather must be interpreted through a particular lens. For me, that lens is Christ as I have come to know him and understand him within my own relationship with God. The theologian James Alison (a Catholic!) points out that we always, ALWAYS read the Bible through a particular lens. And if we think we don’t, then we simply are failing to see the lens that we are using. For Alison, these lenses fall into one of two categories: sacrifice or mercy.
When we read through a sacrificial lens, then we see our relationship with God as costing us something. We see God as requiring sacrifice, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus. We embrace the Old Testament’s seeming tendency to ascribe acts of violence to God, or at least to God’s consent. Ultimately, a sacrificial reading of the Bible finds people guilty, and in so many ways diminishes them by means of that guilt. And much of what has been traditional Christian theology is done through a sacrificial lens.
However, when we read through a merciful lens, then we see our relationship with God as seeking to free us to be ever more ourselves. We see that God is not the one who requires sacrifice, but that it is we human beings who require it, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus and continuing through all the ways in which we human beings sacrifice one another. The Old Testament becomes not a catalog of the many and various ways God will smite us if we step out of line, but allows us to see how readily we will ascribe the violence that we do to one another to God, in order to make it appear that this is the way God is. It is using God as a cover to excuse the violence we do to ourselves and others. Reading the Bible through a merciful lens allows us to see that God is seeking to draw us into a relationship that does not leave us guilty but grateful, and rather than diminishes us, empowers us to be beacon’s of God’s light.
It is not so much that I or we are theologically shaky. Rather, we are willing to ask hard questions of our inherited tradition, and not simply accept the answers of the past. I am always mindful that it is not our relationship with the Bible that is our salvation (a word which has more to do with transformation and healing than anything else), it is not having the correct doctrine or believing the correct things. It is being in relationship with the living God. The Bible, doctrines, and all things churchly are meant to introduce us to that relationship, not to replace it. As our friends in the United Church of Christ like to say, “God is still speaking”. And what some see as theological shakiness I see as a profound act of listening.
Okay, so this is rather an odd term. And I assume that it refers to the fact that we are a smaller church (relatively speaking). And, the Episcopal Church has gotten smaller over the years, in part because of everything I have just been talking about. It’s not always easy to live as openly toward others as we try to live, or to live in the theological tension that comes with a questioning, listening stance. And, our tendency to conserve ancient forms and patterns of worship and spirituality in creative ways isn’t always easy for people to get on board with.
But, we’re not weak. We are simply smaller. And while I wouldn’t mind being a bit bigger, smaller is not a bad thing. Smaller allows us to have a community who feel like they know one another and are known. It allows us, I think, to carry on holding ourselves a little more lightly, not taking ourselves too seriously even as we are up to some pretty serious stuff. And that smallness doesn’t keep us from doing some pretty great things both within our church and for the larger community.
So, I’m the Rev Matthew Dutton-Gillett, Rector of Trinity Church in Menlo Park: I’m ultra liberal and theologically shaky. And I’m totally fine with that. In fact, I’m deeply grateful for it, and for the renewed relationship with God it has given me.