What is True Religion?
The apostle James says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” ~ James 1:27
This was my question today in reflecting upon the reaction of a few to the provincial council of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), meeting this week in Amesbury, Massachusetts to consecrate the All Saints church as a cathedral. Due to the historic and highly-visible nature of the council, media reports from the Newburyport News, National Public Radio, and the progressive newspaper Edge Boston explored the place of the council within the broader context of the Episcopal church and the Anglican Communion. With the exception of the Edge, most news reports were fair and balanced, even though the predominant theme explored by the reporters was the role the ordination of gay bishop Gene Robinson played in the creation of ACNA.
The most interesting aspect of these news stories, though, were the opinions expressed in the comments boards. Many of the comments came from people within the community of Amesbury and the surrounding towns. While comments boards are usually not representative of the opinions of most people, in this case there was a common theme expressed by many of the posters: ACNA is a purveyor of hate due to its stance on homosexuality.
Some representative examples:
“Will Amesbury have “the Anglican Church in North America does not welcome you” signs?” ~ posted by John
“Amesbury is a beautiful place, and it’s no place for hate” ~posted by Rebecca.
“it’s anti-gay. Driven by hate and bigotry, they carry their rectitude high.” ~posted by Wimsy.
“Your beloved church goes out of the way to oppress gays.” ~posted by Gay Man.
“As a Amesbury citizen, they are not welcome in the Communion of my city. This sub group of right wingers, and third world conservative, belongs some where else.” ~ posted by Timothy Knight.
“You people ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You are nothing like the god you say you worship. Shame on you for making second class citizens.” ~ posted by herroprease.
“What a shame for Sacred Heart Church [the former congregation before All Saints] to be turned into a center for hate.” ~posted by Amesres2.
These are serious charges, especially since those within ACNA are trying to be faithful and obedient to God–to practice True Religion, as it were. In taking the biblical and theologically orthodox position in regard to the homosexual lifestyle, ACNA has opened itself up to such charges from secularists and other non-Christians who cannot see such a position as anything other than hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. ACNA, along with the Center for Theology, has provided plenty of resources regarding the intellectual, biblical, and theological argument for their stance, but still the charges of hate continue. What can we do to overcome these charges and communicate the glory of God’s love?
Certainly, many people will never be convinced and will continue to spurn God’s loving truth no matter what ACNA says or does. But not everyone will be so stubborn. Some will respond to God’s love as it is communicated to them through his people, the church. And so the practice of True Religion is more important than ever in order to overcome not only the charges of hate, but hatred itself. So what shall we do?
I think the way is helpfully marked by David Lumsdaine, an Anglican who posted his own comment in response to the charges of hate:
“orthodox Anglican churches (ACNA churches) — in several states I’ve lived in — focus on building people up in Christ, and reaching out with the Gospel of Christ, and with practical assistance for neighbors…That’s why I attend an ACNA congregation: to grow in love for God and humankind, with mutual support in following Jesus, seeking God’s help to be a better person, to reach out to others in need, and to share the good news of Christ’s redeeming love!”
More help comes from Marc Frigon, a fellow Beloved who attends Christ the Redeemer church in Danvers, MA, who wrote in an email exchange with me:
“The strength of the ACNA’s foundation will be tested in fire, and this is a taste of the kind of fire we will face as we remain faithful to God’s word. Of course, though, we must remember that such arguments will lose their teeth as the ACNA grows and demonstrates that ours is a mission of love, not hate.
“With God’s help, I believe that more and more people will realize that it is a far more bigoted thing for someone to call the church a “center for hate” than it is for Christians to love gays and lesbians enough to welcome them into our midst and encourage them to discover the truth about God’s design of human sexuality.”
David’s and Marc’s statements direct us, I think, to the fundamental way in which All Saints and ACNA can overcome the charges of hate: practice True Religion as defined by love. Specifically, love towards those on the margins of society. The verse from James, quoted at the top of this post, spells out the direct consequence of True Religion, which is to care for those who’ve slipped through the social insurance networks in society (widows and orphans in James’ day; today they may be the homeless or drug addicts or the poor).
In a liturgical prayer recited often during a church service, we pray “Where there is hatred, sow love.” I think this is very good motto for us Anglicans, who, as we try to maintain the holiness of God as it was passed down to us from the apostles, can overcome the charges of hate against us by sowing love to the poor, the helpless, and the infirm. By sowing love to the marginalized, our church can become a Public Sacrament in which we become a visible sign of God’s love to the communities around us.