Editor’s note: Church Invitation is an occasional series at OnFaith where we ask people of various backgrounds to attend houses of worship and write about the experience.
On Sunday, March 30, I visited St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, just outside of Charleston where I live. The church’s stated vision is to re-evangelize our society and transform our culture. My intention was to learn more about this church that was established in 1827 and now has more than 3000 members. So I attended both the 9 a.m. contemporary service along with several hundred young and old congregants, and then the 10:45 a.m. traditional service with fewer than a hundred people, mostly older.
Both services began with music (guitar in the first and organ in the second), followed by the minister reading Bible passages. The homily was titled “TODAY: How Should I Read the Bible?” I translated that in my mind to “How Should I Read the Bible TODAY?” However, the homilies were specifically about reading the Bible without concessions to modernity.
Rev. Chris Hancock, who led the contemporary service, was dynamic and sometimes humorous. After a little trouble with his PowerPoint presentation, he riffed off the Lord Acton quote, “Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” He told us to read the Bible “humbly, prayerfully, thoughtfully, expectantly, and obediently.” No mention of reading it skeptically. He warned of scorners (like me, I guess) who use difficult passages to undermine the Bible’s authority, and quoted 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”
Rev. John Burley had a more serious demeanor at the traditional service, though he made the same points. He warned of cultural biases that might lead us to follow only some parts of the Bible, saying that if any parts offend us, it’s because we don’t understand them. He also made the only reference to atheism, claiming inaccuracies in the film Noah were to be expected because the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, is an atheist. Burley added that we must trust only Jesus rather than those who appear to be good and moral. (Hmm . . . should congregants then not trust Rev. Burley?)
He told us to read the Bible “humbly, prayerfully, thoughtfully, expectantly, and obediently.” No mention of reading it skeptically.
I might have put money in the collection plate if the minister had said it was for a good cause, like helping the poor, but the first minister merely quoted Acts 20:35, “It is better to give than to receive,” and the second asked for an offering to God. So I kept my money.
Each service ended on a nice note when we were asked to turn to our neighbors and say, “Peace be with you.” Some hugged, while others shook hands. I was a shaker. A prayer team was available to meet with those who came forward to receive Communion. I would have enjoyed a discussion with the prayer team, but I knew that was not an option.
After each service, I waited until the minister finished shaking hands with departing congregants and then introduced myself to the minister and we had a brief conversation. Both ministers were polite, although I could see that this was not the time to discuss issues. But when a third minister, Rev. Rob Sturdy, took time to talk with me between services, I asked about St. Andrew’s Church transition from Episcopal to Anglican affiliation in 2010, several months after The Episcopal Church (TEC) voted in favor of gay ordination. Neither he nor other representatives at St. Andrew’s gave gay ordination as the reason, saying rather that TEC had lost its way because it no longer follows scripture. Rev. Sturdy referenced retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who disavowed the Nicene Creed that St. Andrew’s maintains as part of its liturgy.
The official explanation for the split at St. Andrew’s website begins with a quote from St. Paul: “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” St Andrew’s certainly thought TEC was becoming too liberal, but I question whether the split would have occurred had it not been for the issue of gay ordinations.
What I liked about my experience was how happy and friendly everyone appeared. Talk of Jesus’ love was not accompanied by threats of eternal damnation for those who stray. I didn’t like all the rote reciting and praying during the service. I made my compromise of standing silently (with head unbowed) when others stood, then sitting instead of kneeling when others knelt. While congregants were supportive of one another, I didn’t hear much interest in the outside community. I wish there had been an opportunity for participants to gather and discuss the sermon and perhaps listen to a variety of views. I tried to think of what congregants might have been inspired to do after leaving the service. They heard about church support groups and were encouraged to volunteer for church activities, but they were mostly told to love Jesus, read the Bible, and return to church next week.
I recognized only one song at the services, “Amazing Grace,” which always moves me.
As I walked out of church, I saw a police officer standing by my car in the parking lot. While I had been inside, another visitor had called the police after he saw a woman sideswipe my car before deciding to park in the street. As soon as the woman returned to her car, the officer confronted her with the evidence. She apologized, said her insurance company would pay for the damage, and that she was planning to leave a note on my car.
The officer told me I could press charges. When I declined, mainly because nobody was hurt and I didn’t want to bother going to court, the last words I heard before driving away came from the woman who had hit my car: “God bless you!” Interestingly, her car had an In God We Trust license tag, while mine had an In Reason We Trust tag.
I recognized only one song at the services, “Amazing Grace,” which always moves me. I associate that song and “We Shall Overcome” with 1960s marches I participated in for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. In church, however, “Amazing Grace” reminded me of Christine O’Donnell’s infamous “I am not a witch” political ad, because I had an urge to tell congregants, “I am not a wretch” (as the song implies).
Driving home from church, and for the next several days, I occasionally found myself quietly singing “Amazing Grace.” But don’t read anything into it — there’s nothing supernatural about earworms.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Note that since the time of this photo (2011), the church has changed its denominational affiliation, as reflected in Silverman’s article.