The Barack Obama moment is happening at a time when the church I pastor is finding new unity amidst diversity. Our congregation might not vote in unison this November, but we can testify that a unifying message like Obama’s is suitable for the pulpit as well as politics.
Once wracked by division and intolerance, Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church here in Colorado Springs is coming together in a novel show of Christian solidarity that welcomes theological moderates and liberals to its ship of fellows. Unfortunately, such openness wasn’t always the case, for me or for this old parish.
For most of my life as an Anglican priest, I have led congregations that identified with the political and theological right. Now, I find myself at the helm of a group that bridges every conceivable identity gap. We are trying to come together and have all things in common (Act 2: 42-47). Our commonness is not expressed by conformity, but uniformity—we are learning to focus on that which holds us together.
Such unity has come at a heavy price. Since Easter 2007, our parish—with over 550 members—has been forced to reside in exile. We hold services in a neighboring church, while a polarizing faction led by the former rector of Grace and St. Stephen’s occupies our historic downtown building.
Before this tragic split, I was invited in 2004 to join Grace and St. Stephen’s as an assisting priest and resident pastoral counselor. No doubt chosen for my more “conservative” views, it was not a surprise to me when from the pulpit I heard a steady torrent of homilies designed to expose the Episcopal Church’s move leftward from traditional views of biblical interpretation. In fact, I welcomed the torrent. Reforming the Church from within seemed to be a worthy Franciscan ambition, and I concluded that my family and I had found the ideal parish home.
No matter how critical some (not all) of these sermons were , I was comforted by the constant reassurance (from the pulpit) that we’d never break unity with the Episcopal Church. For me, as well as for my wife, being Episcopalian was about living within a diverse, albeit united, community of Christ—a communion of Christians that numbered well over 70 million world-wide. And so, there I sat every Sunday—either up front in “sacred space” functioning as a priest or seated alongside my family in a pew—believing that Grace and St Stephen’s Episcopal Church was a safe place to worship God, in concord and love.
In late 2006, just after I was appointed full-time associate priest with the parish, my rector was forced by his Bishop to take a leave of absence for alleged financial malfeasance. Soon after, the rector broke his “inhibition” and restored himself to the position of senior pastor.
With this act, he and his followers broke with the Episcopal Church. They claimed that the allegations of financial malfeasance were smoke and mirrors, and that the Bishop was really just trying to remove an outspoken critic. Locks on the church and office buildings were illegally changed. Employees–lay and clergy alike–were forced to choose between an indicted priest and a lawful Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
I had no other choice but to follow our Bishop into exile, along with several hundred other members of Grace and St. Stephens. The now-defrocked pastor and his leadership seized the entire 17-million dollar campus and rectory. On Good Friday of last year, they sued the Episcopal Church for the property.
In exile, my congregation and I have discovered how to embrace a “road less traveled”—a road that has come to be about a life-giving journey in Christ, where formerly alienated men and women are again free to walk together as a living example of the prayer of Jesus, “Holy Father…may they be one as we are one” (John 17:11).
And what has this unity accomplished? The will of God, I believe.
Clergy and laity now sit along side each other in Bible studies where dialogue is finally open and differing opinions are respected. They no longer choose pews that keep them at arms length. They no longer pick which priest will commune them at the Lord’s Table based on that cleric’s theological point of view. And, they now give money to the work of the Church, not holding a penny back (as they did before) lest it go to the “wrong” cause. Instead, they pray, sing, and “break bread together with glad and sincere hearts,” at last united to God and to one another.
Unity is about a great assembling that is taking place, where once separated, segregated individuals—men and women, blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, and liberals and conservatives—are being amassed by God for the purpose of accomplishing something extraordinary that they’d be powerless to achieve while estranged.
This is the commanding testimony of the ancient Church that, when united during its formative years, grew because of its constant witness to the moral loveliness of feeding the poor and clothing the naked, which contrasted with the ever-increasing ugliness of pagan Rome.
What does my church have to do with Obama’s hugely popular message of unity and hope? I think the two are a sign of potential for moving away from old wars between the left and right. In a democratic republic, disagreement can be leveraged; the “far right” and the “far left” relish a nation divided. This is equally true of the church, where Sunday is still the most segregated day of the week and where we still need to heed the prophetic words of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
At Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, my congregants “agree to disagree” and daily heed Christ’s warning that “a house divided will surely fall.” Given the option of unity or discord, we’re choosing unity. It’s a very real choice that could define hope these days—in the body of Christ as well as in the body politic.
Fr. Michael O’Donnell is an Episcopal priest and senior pastor of Grace and St Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Colorado Springs, CO. He has a Ph.D. from Kansas State University and is the author or co-author of 7 books.