Atoning for Tony: In Praise of Mainline Clergy

Blogger Tony Jones recently announced the formation of a (much needed) Progressive Evangelical network by channeling the evangelical wrap on Mainline Christianity: "They bitch about the irrelevance and bureaucracy of their denominations; they bemoan the shrinking numbers and the identity politics; and then they attend all of their denomination's meetings and conferences, sit on committees and fill out reports." The part of me formed by my Evangelical ethos thought, "I know just what he's talking about!" But my Episcopal priest wife had the opposite response: "He doesn't know us!"

To be an Evangelical is to have at least a dash of contempt for the Mainline traditions (Episcopal, PCUSA, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, and company). My Mainline friends tell me the reverse is also true. (My wife's favorite Mainliner joke about Evangelicals: Why doesn't God answer our prayers for world hunger? Because he's too busy finding parking places for Evangelicals.) Evangelicals and Mainliners are the siblings who must put a line of painter's tape down the middle of the bedroom if they have to share one at all.

Is it too much to ask that the progressive part of Progressive Evangelical leave that Evangelical marker behind?

This is a ripe moment for Mainliners and Evangelicals to stop the mutual stereotyping. Many Evangelicals are newly humbled by the widespread view--created by the Evangelical-Fundamentalist-Roman Catholic alliance called the "Religious Right" --that Christians are judgmental meanies. Mainliners are chastened by their shrinking numbers and diminished cultural voice--for being too nice to bother quoting in the culture war play-by-plays. This might produce enough humility to promote mutual learning from each other.

The humility to move past identity-defining stereotypes requires a jolt: in my case, a late- in-life marriage to an Episcopal priest. Someone I admire and really like. But I had already been softened up by befriending some Mainline clergy who didn't fit my clannish evangelical stereotypes.

The first is James Rhodenhiser, rector of St. Clare's Episcopal church in my hometown. OK, I'm partial to Fr. James because when I was a widower, he introduced to the woman I would marry, herself a widow. But I'm also partial to James because when I was pressured to resign as the founding pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor due to my outside-the-foul lines view on the care of our LGBT members, I texted James to say I might be in the church-planting business again at the age of 62. To which he responded in a text that brought me to tears: "Would you like to use our Social Hall on Sunday mornings?" This might mean nothing to you until you realize how reluctant most clergy are to share their buildings with another church period, let alone on Sunday mornings.

James leads a church that shares a building with a Reformed synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth. Together they run a food pantry with Muslim Social Services--representatives of the three Abrahamic traditions pleasing Father Abraham by caring for the hungry. And James loves the Bible, knows it better than I do, and does whatever he can to pass this bug on to his parishioners so they can experience the risen Jesus more vividly.

The second is Debra Dean-Ware, who writes a HuffPo blog on her experience as a 42 year-old mother battling breast cancer while pastoring a United Church of Christ congregation called Church of the Good Shepherd. A church she adores, unlike many pastors I've known. Her vibrant congregation is filled with people from secular backgrounds, with refugees from conservative Christianity, LGBT people longing for a faith home, the mentally ill who do so much better in a loving community, 12-steppers, and University of Michigan grad students and faculty. She preaches from the Bible every Sunday, egged on by cries of "Say it, sister!" from her African American congregants. Pastor Deb attended my church and wanted to go out for coffee in order to learn from someone from an charismatic-evangelical background.

Sure, the Mainliners have less nimble organizational structures, with more committees and commissions and conventions to deal with. But those were the very structures used by the Holy Spirit to lift the religious oppression of women and racial and sexual minorities--features that now define (30 years later) progressive evangelicals.

Tending to those structures may well have created impediments to the vitality of Mainline congregations, who knows? But biting the hand that did the heavy lifting in the hard work of religious reform seems something less than progressive. Time for a new birth narrative if there really is a new way of claiming evangelical identity (which, increasingly, seems beside the point of following Jesus).

Ken Wilson is Co-Pastor of Blue Ocean Faith, Ann Arbor and author, most recently, of A Letter to My Congregation: an evangelical pastor's path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender into the company of Jesus (ReadTheSpirit 2014).