Church Invitation: An Atheist on American Anglicans and Amazing Grace

What will an atheist find when he attends services at a conservative Christian church in South Carolina?

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.

Herb Silverman
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  • anamericanundernogods

    Herb, you and I are in the minute minority. Majority of the people like that women who sideswipe your car needs god in order to be good. This was the case, is the case, and will be the case. It is not only for America, but all over the world, the mass need something supernatural to hang on to. Alas

    • Doug Wilkening

      Sounds to me like she needed the policeman for her to be good.

      • Eli Odell Jackson

        Or maybe she was telling the truth?
        Who are you to judge?

  • Dangerous Talk

    Did you get a chance to talk to any of the church goers? I used to love going to religious meetings for that reason. After the meeting was over, the religious would come over to me (noticing that I didn’t stand or pray when I was suppose to) and talk to me about Jesus. We always had such great conversations and I met a lot of cool people that way — some of which have de-converted since then.

    • Herb Silverman

      I did talk to some, and we had interesting conversations. A couple of them invited me to have coffee with them, and I Iook forward to doing so.

  • Ed Buckner

    It’s nice to see my friend Herb Silverman offering, as he always does, a thoughtful, unintimidated but easygoing face of atheism to the world. The congregants in that church may have thought he judged them too harshly even as I think he bordered closely on letting them off too lightly. I wasn’t there and so cannot know, but I suspect I would have found them more dangerous and less sincere than Herb did. I love the “I am not a wretch” line, especially since that line may be the core problem with that song and with the religion it promotes.

    • RichardSRussell

      The song was composed by John Newton, a former sea captain who had engaged in the slave trade without much reflecting on what he was doing to his fellow human beings until he found religion. While I think that, on balance, religion has done way more harm than good in the world, in his particular case he was indeed a wretch, and his conversion made him a better person, so that’s one that gets chalked up in the plus column for religion.

  • MM Dobson

    I attended St. Andrews about a year ago with a friend, at his invitation. I was raised in the Catholic Church, but left organized religion at age 17, and all theism about 10 years later. The service I attended was a more well-attended contemporary service, with lots of hand waving during the singing, some people calling out to Jesus. When I was asked afterward what I thought, I said (and still think), “it seemed like a mass hallucination to me.” The big screens with the song lyrics, people moving and speaking and singing in unison. I can see where for some people that would be comforting, fellowship, but for me it looked like people just surrendered their minds for an hour or so in order to fit in. I agree about the collection, if it’s going for some reasonably altruistic purpose, I’d contribute, but if it’s for church building maintenance, that’s better left for the members.

  • KlingonMami

    “the homilies were specifically about reading the Bible without concessions to modernity” A not-so-small reason why so many are leaving churches and organized religion in droves. Many are choosing to believe in God without the slavish obsession to a book of often misinterpreted oral histories tweaked to meet the whims of flawed church leaders. Others still are breaking the shackles of groupthink and realizing that abdicating real world logic for the comfort of fellowship is too high a price to pay. It’s akin to surrendering freedom for security. I appreciate Herb’s sublime restraint. He was treated with kindness and respect and I’m glad that as the face of Atheism that morning he returned the favor.

    • Eli Odell Jackson

      Who are these people you speak of?

  • ValPas

    Good one, Herb. BTW, you’re looking more and more like Spock all the time!
    I think it’s important for skeptics to try to understand what religion is about because most human cultures include religion. There is a functional reality to human religious practice, which I think has to do with forming social groups that can then protect the individuals within them. We are, after all, social animals who currently live in a world that is no longer tribal. Of course, in contemporary culture there are many other types of groups that can serve a comparable function–philosophical groups like the Humanists or Ethical Culture, and special interest groups such as quilting societies, or political parties, or book groups…



      ANS: All things that act, act for an end. Human life is an act; Religion defines its end. Aristotle found the end to be happiness, eternal happiness. However, there is nothing eternal in a world of matter. Consequently, man seeks the infinite in a world of that which is finite. Hence, man’s very nature seeks that which transcends the material universe, namely, God who created man for the purpose of eternally living in total happiness.

      No one on earth is totally happy, yet this is what every one seeks. Man acts for what he perceives to be good. Even a suicidal person perceives suicide is better than living, namely a good for him.

      Religion is the compass to the end of life. St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in you.” Jesus said, “John 14:2, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions. If not, I would have told you: because I go to prepare a place for you.”

      The alternative is oblivion, namely Hell. Man has a choice one or the other.

      Christianity (Catholicism) is given to man as the compass to his natural destiny and perfection. To be in a state of eternal happiness one must become perfect, but imperfect man cannot on his own be perfect.

      Consequently it is written, “With God all things are possible; with man alone nothing is possible, namely, we need God to become perfect, and we need to be perfect to be with God who is All-Perfect. Catholicism show man how to accomplish this, and God is the head of the Catholic Church. John 15:5,”I am the vine: you the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.” Moreover, the CC is infallible in its universal teachings of Faith and Morals.

      If man goes to Hell it is his own choice because God has made it known to all who earnestly seek the truth to do good and avoid evil, that they will be able to know the way to man’s eternal happiness, and God has endowed all men with free will to chose Hell or Heaven.

      • Herb Silverman

        Am I correct that you assume people choose Hell or Heaven according to whether they believe that Jesus was resurrected? For those of us who don’t believe because we find no credible evidence, why would your God torture us for eternity? Would a just God torture you for eternity because you believed in Jesus instead of the “real” God (Krishna, Allah, Vishnu, etc)? Wouldn’t a just God care more about behavior than belief?

        • RobWatkin

          Well said Mr Silverman.

  • Herb Silverman

    I talked to a parishioner, Lynn Smith, at the St. Andrew’s Church service. She wanted to leave an online comment, but didn’t want to register with Discus. She asked by email if I would post her comments, so here they are:

    This is a very good article and, I enjoyed reading it. The points that you make in your critique are what I would expect from someone who isn’t on speaking terms with God, and who doesn’t appreciate mysteries of faith. That’s OK. If your heart is hardened toward God, then, naturally, you will be deaf and blind to his voice. Though he can be very persistent, as C.S. Lewis (or it may have been G.K. Chesterton) described him as “the hound of heaven,” he will not force you to be in relationship with him. The choice is up to you.
    God does promise that if you seek him with all your heart, you will find him (Deuteronomy 4:29). Sorry about your car.

    • Matt G

      Once again it seems that theists think that atheists actually DO believe in god, but that we are emotionally or intellectually unable to wrap our heads around it. Bizarre.

      • Herb Silverman

        It does seem strange to me when people think that those of us who are evidence-based can simply “choose” to believe something for which we have no evidence.

    • sTv0

      And she quotes Deuteronomy. I loves it when Christians quote the Bible. It is a leveling of the playing field, because then, see, then I can quote the Bible, too. And Star Wars. And Monty Python. And Samuel Clemens. And George W. Bush. And and and…

  • RichardSRussell

    Rev. Chris Hancock … riffed off the Lord Acton quote, “Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”

    The actual quotation is “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Christians hold that God is all-powerful. Draw your own conclusions.

    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.

    How to tell the difference between education and indoctrination: Does the person at the front of the room invite questions from the audience?

    • Mags

      Really, if the principle of church goers is to tell the truth,all pastors should invite them to watch “Cosmos” an incredible example of facts and scientific work. Other important topic for discussion should be How obedience affects Democratic Society ( maybe we start seeing less abused church goers women) Also Mr. Hancock, another good topic to educate people in their churches could be What is Fanaticism? That could be a good educational session…!

  • Carstonio

    I wonder what Silverman’s experience would have been if he visited a white evangelical church in South Carolina, especially a fundamentalist one.

  • Mags

    Very good,Mr Silverman !

  • Eli Odell Jackson

    Well God bless you brother, I hope you find Him.
    Though that’s still a worldly church I believe you can be saved therein.
    Maybe y’all can find yourself a IFB church round those parts next time, and by the Grace of God you can walk down the aisle and be saved.
    I’ll make you a special prayer now that you might be saved and that God sincerely blesses you and strengthens you unto righteousness, have yourself a fine un’ now.

  • Will Moredock

    Writing from Charleston, S.C., where all hell broke loose a century and a half ago, I can say that I was struck by the fact that the seceding Anglicans in Mount Pleasant would not specifically identify gay ordination as the grounds for their decision to leave the Episcopal Church. Likewise, true believers in the Southern Cause can discuss the Civil War and secession all day long and never mention slavery. In their mythology, it had nothing to do with their glorious struggle. Secession, they will tell you, was about vague constitutional principles, about state’s rights and tariffs and the cultural differences between the English and the Scots-Irish. Likewise, the good folk at St. Andrews Anglican Church speak vaguely of doctrinal differences. They quote 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.” Yet, like generations of white southerners, they cannot bring themselves to face the fear and anger which forced them to break ancient bonds and betray ancient trusts.

    • Matt G

      There’s no deception like self-deception! Try listening to an intelligent design creationist pretending that IDC isn’t about religion. Cdesign Proponentsists of the world untie!

  • Patrick Johnson

    Someone here mentioned the Civil War in a comment here about the church. What I find interesting about churchs/religions in the the south is that many of those churchs were at best complacent and worst participators in slavery and in descrimination. While the Christian Bible doesn’t come out and support slavery it doesn’t come out against it either. In fact it gives rules as to how slaves and slave masters should behave.