“I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”
- ATTRIBUTED TO GROUCHO MARX
- ATTRIBUTED TO GROUCHO MARX
There's a pretty good chance that you've heard by now that novelist Anne Rice has declared to the world that she is "no longer a Christian,” citing the “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous” lot we have become, and saying that to count herself among us would mean she would have to declare herself “anti-gay … anti-feminist … anti-artificial birth control … anti-Democrat … anti-secular humanism … anti-science … anti-life.”
To quote Vic Ferrari: "Hard to get happy after that one."
Since the initial announcement, Rice has clarified repeatedly that this does not mean she is giving up on God; she still believes the same God those quarreling Christians purport to follow. She just can't do it in the same room with them anymore. This is different than the last time she walked away from the church; that time she declared herself an atheist, returning to the Roman Catholic faith several years later.
As CNN's Brian McLaren pointed out, this leaves the rest of us in kind of a conundrum:
"Her brief announcement raises lots of fascinating questions. For example, when a person quits Christianity in the name of Christ, what do you call that person? If Christianity means 'following Christ’s followers,' what do you call someone who wants to skip the middlemen?"
Semantics aside, it's a somewhat bitter pill to swallow, especially for those of us who have made universal inclusion a central part of our ministry. Apparently Ms. Rice has not heard of the Believe Out Loud initiative, a movement by seven mainline Christian denominations and a number of smaller ones, plus independent churches, secular organizations, and individuals to connect the LGBT community with congregations who have agreed and equipped themselves to welcome them.
She is also apparently unaware of, or chooses to tune out, the efforts many of us have made -- some of us at great personal sacrifice -- to help bring women closer to full equality both in the church and the world. The Episcopal Church ordained its first female priests in 1977 and its first female bishop in 1989. She also might not be familiar with the church's support for the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which prescribe the use of "non-natural" contraception and frank sex education to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, and all kinds of other science to improve the lot of billions of people around the world.
Apologies that I keep focusing on the Episcopal Church here for my examples, but she might also not know that our means of governance pretty closely parallels that of our democratic (at least in theory) nation, which is not a coincidence since many of the same people worked on setting them both up.
It would also be hypocritical for me to condemn Rice for her decision. I personally separated myself from the Roman Catholic church for fairly similar reasons in my late teens, attending only when family or a paid music gig required it, and did not find a new church home until shortly after 9/11. I don't blame the gay and lesbian people, Marxist graduate students, or anybody else who tells me they can't reconcile the message of inclusion I share with the images of Fred Phelps, Pat Robertson and all the others who use the Bible as a club to beat back those they perceive as undesirables from the gate. Some pretty rotten stuff has been done both by churches (including my own) and by individuals in God's name. And there really are verses in the Bible to which they can point and claim they are doing exactly as God instructed.
Even in "liberal" mainline churches like mine, there is still vast room for improvement. Our internal dirty laundry has been spread all over the world media for the better part of 25 years as we squabble over these issues. Maybe Rice's words sting because -- despite the progress I mention above -- there is more than a grain of truth to them. Even those of us on the "right" (by which I mean those who share my opinion, natch) side of these issues are guilty at times of looking at those who disagree with us as "the other" and maybe not worthy of our time. These problems would go away if only they would. Except that -- in some cases -- they have, and we keep bickering nonetheless.
Rice is correct that the church, religion in general, is flawed. This is largely because it is a human construct, and thus flawed from the start. We behave the way we think God wants us to... at least most of the time. But -- having little more than a very, very old book, cobbled together from scraps of parchment and oral history, then translated and truncated by people divinely inspired perhaps, but human nonetheless, as concrete evidence of what's expected of us -- we don't all get the same message at the end of the game of theological telephone. All of us -- Rice included -- share some responsibility for the result, something that is at times awful and other times wonderful, and even if she walks away she continues to shoulder that burden.
Viewed through that lens, it's somewhat amazing that we bumble forward even at the glacial speed that we do. But the fact is that there are still moments when we collectively deliver something that wouldn't be possible otherwise, such as the church's adoption of the ONE campaign to support the UN Millennium Goals when logic, experience and cynicism all tell us they are hopelessly optimistic. And grace happens at a much smaller, but no less important, scale every day thanks to hundreds of people who work together to make someone's life a little better, because -- at the crux of it -- that's what Jesus wants from us. We know that much for pretty certain. The rest of it is -- in my opinion -- best left to the suits.