His first lecture was Saturday night, addressing the role of the church in the public square. Appropriately this was held in the church, where he began by observing "we could stick to religious issues if it weren't for Jesus." He's not a big man, but he's mobile and lively. He has a quick wit, clearly very intelligent and a thinker, but also a man very much "of the people", not hiding behind cautious, elaborate constructions but speaking with a directness and a wry sense of self-deprecating humor. This is not a man who is a calculating politician, but a passionate preacher.
Bp Gene began by considering what he called "isms" and defined as the combination of prejudice with power: racism, sexism, and heterosexism (which he considers a more accurate term than homophobia for those opposed to GLBT equality). He pointed out that there were "isms"--that is, prejudice against people buttressed by majority power--in Christ's time as well: think of the lepers, the Samaritans, and the awful treatment of widows. He said, not for the first time,
"It's not enough to pull drowning people from the river. We have to go upstream to stop them from being thrown in."It wasn't just GLBT people he identified as in the water, but immigrants, the disabled, the elderly, the ill, and of course, the poor.
So, how do you stop the fall into the water? Bp Gene noted that in a world suspicious of religion and institutions, liberal Christians must show a different way. But he admitted there is lot of bad press to overcome. He distinguished his sort of activism from the religious right, for whom "their way is THE way", and instead recommended that his listeners personalize the argument, and explain how their beliefs lead to their conclusion, rather than forcing their conclusion on everyone. Begin with
"My faith tells me....."Too often the Christian right's influence is used as an excuse for Christians not to BE Christians in public life, he said.
He also noted the tension between two views of creation: either people are sinners in the hands of a loving God, for whom religion calls them to "liberation, hope, and the best of themselves", or religion is about holding it together to death (what he called "white knuckling it") with new things and discovery being dangerous and frightening. A redemptive view, as opposed to a punitive view. To him, God is at the door asking to be let in, and the "living God" is the message to share.
"The church exists to facilitate a relationship with God", he said. Too much time and effort are spent on property and sex, and it's time to get back into the business of spirituality. The Bible should be a guide, not an idol. "I'm not interested in a God who was 'done' after the Bible was 'complete,'" he said. And during the questions, he added,
"this idea that the Church is a peaceful happy place with no conflict....when was THAT?"And he finished with the idea that if you aren't in trouble, is it the Gospel you are preaching?
It was a stimulating talk, advocating an involvement in the world but at the same time doing so with humility and respect. And very much driven by inclusion, and bringing all people of all stations and beliefs together in a common humanity. The audience replied with lusty applause.
But there was a measure of pain, too. In the questions, a young man we couldn't see asked in a taut, hurt voice, "What will it take to bring the Catholic church to your view?" (I leaned over to BP and muttered, "about 400 years.") Bp Gene answered gently, pointing out the difference in a church polity that has to have one rule for all cultures, and the Anglican way, where different churches can move at different rates for their cultures. He talked about meeting with gay Roman Catholic priests, and concluded by stating his admiration for people who stay within and fight for inclusion. He was adamant that "inclusion" had to begin with women, drawing explicitly the connection between bias against women and against gays. "But", he cautioned the young man, "If by staying, you find you can no longer believe that you are a precious child of God as you are, being gay, then perhaps you need to find a healthier place for now."
We went to a reception afterwards. A lot of people bought Bp Gene's book and asked him to sign it, and there were many pictures (yes, BP and I got our picture taken with him). The next morning, we went to his next talk, which I'll tell you about shortly.