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NEW YORK — When the Rev. Brad Braxton was tapped last year as the next senior pastor of Riverside Church, he was billed as an energetic and dynamic preacher with the power to reinvigorate the flagship pulpit of progressive Protestantism.
Soon, however, those very qualities got in the way.
Some parishioners found him a little too energetic. He talked a lot about Jesus, and perhaps a little too much about Scripture. Some critics even used the dreaded “f” word: fundamentalist.
Two months after his installation, Braxton, 40, abruptly resigned on June 29 after a bitter dispute over his leadership style and compensation package made his job impossible and untenable. And while Braxton’s departure was shaped by Riverside’s unique culture, some see a generational conflict over what constitutes progressive Christianity.
“It was persistent rancor that went on for weeks and weeks,” Braxton said, acknowledging that he remains baffled that a minister who has publicly championed gay marriage could be labeled a biblical fundamentalist.
“I take Scripture seriously, but I’ve tried to articulate what a progressive reading (of the Bible) looks like.”
As the old guard of the progressive movement of the 1960s starts to fade from view, a younger generation, represented by Braxton and others, has taken hold of a reinvigorated Religious Left. Unwilling to cede their renewed prominence to conservatives and evangelicals, they understand that their alternative voice, if they want to be taken seriously, needs to be rooted in Scripture. As Braxton puts it, they must answer “the why” with as much fervor as their forbears preached “the what.”
The intersection of West 120th Street and Claremont Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sandwiched between Harlem and Columbia University, for years was the hub of progressive theology. Riverside sits on one corner; Union Theological Seminary sits on another; and the so-called “God Box,” home to the National Council of Churches, sits on another.
The intersection was the stomping grounds of the old guard, with William Sloane Coffin and Harry Emerson Fosdick at Riverside, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr at Union, and a host of left-leaning faith groups at the God Box.
The transfer of power, however, hasn’t been without its challenges.
Over at Union, Serene Jones, 49, recently completed her first year as the first female president of the nation’s best-known training ground for liberal-minded clergy. Most recently, it has been a center for black and feminist theologies.
From her side of the street, Jones says “there’s no grand story to be told” in Braxton’s brief tenure, although she says “the tensions of Riverside are a microcosm of some of the tensions that run through liberal Protestantism in general.
“There’s no single diagnosis of a problem that can be solved, as if the mainline church is a sick patient that needs a cure,” Jones said “I see it going through a process of cultural and religious change of such tremendous significance that no one knows how to manage the change.
These problems aren’t going away.”
They are, she says, “the waters we all swim in.”
By most accounts, Jones’ first year went off smoothly, even as she wrestled with the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. That resulted in a shrunken endowment that had been painstakingly rebuilt in recent years following an era of potentially fatal financial distress.
“I’m amazed how well it went,” Jones said of her first year, “except for the money question.”
Katharine Rhodes Henderson, 53, the new president of Presbyterian-affiliated Auburn Theological Seminary that shares a campus with Union, said the financial downturn has demonstrated the younger generation’s “keen sense about the need for partnership and collaboration, both as a way to address the current financial challenges but also because we can increase our impact by working together.”
That “working together” is partly what hobbled Braxton. Parishioners complained, loudly and publicly, about what they said was insufficient collaboration. For his part, Braxton said long-standing — and unresolved — power dynamics that stretch back to Riverside’s earliest history contributed to his decision to leave.
“It’s in the DNA of the place,” Braxton said, noting tensions even existed between Fosdick, Riverside’s acclaimed first minister, and John D. Rockefeller Jr., who built the soaring Gothic-style church.
Just how much racial dynamics were a factor is difficult to gauge.
Riverside has become an increasingly African-American congregation, and Braxton was the second African-American to lead the church. Some at Riverside were reportedly unhappy with Braxton’s preaching style, rooted in the black Baptist tradition.
One thing Fosdick did not have to deal with, however, was the Internet. Anonymous e-mails made the rounds among some of the 2,400-member congregation, implying that Braxton was a theological conservative, even a fundamentalist.
“If you’re impassioned and use the name `Jesus,’ you’re (seen as) a `right-wing Christian,”‘ said one Riverside parishioner, a Braxton supporter, who asked not to be quoted by name because tensions are still high. Most “old-style” liberal Protestants, she said, are simply “not comfortable with zeal.”
That doesn’t surprise the Rev. Bob Edgar, who spent eight years as Riverside’s neighbor as general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
Recalling his own time at the council, Edgar said, “I found it a challenge to balance those who cared about `faith and works’ (social action) with those who cared about `faith and order,’ (ties to tradition), and sprinkled with folks who added `New Wave spirituality’
to either or both of the two major theologies.”
The challenge for Riverside and other pulpits, Braxton said, is to match a proud legacy of social activism with an authentic religious voice, one that’s rooted in Scripture and unafraid to speak in religious terms.
“Deeds and creeds,” he says, “must mutually support each other.”
“We are called to seek social justice in the world,” he said, “and we must understand the creed that provides the inspiration for that mission.”
By CHRIS HERLINGER
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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