J. Bennett Guess
August 2, 2010
When a public figure makes a public statement on a controversial topic, it invites — even encourages — a public conversation.
Such was the case last week when famed novelist and seemingly-former Roman Catholic Anne Rice renounced her ties to the entire Christian church because, according to Rice, she could no longer tolerate the church's anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science, and anti-birth control views.
By lumping all Christians together with the more-specific faith tradition she was repudiating, Rice triggered a response from many. Some Christians agreed with Rice that she couldn't authentically remain Christian and hold views that were so divergent from Roman Catholic social teachings. Other Christians — especially members of the United Church of Christ and other mainline Protestant denominations — felt, once again, that all of Christianity was being cast publicly as monolithic in its outlook when, in reality, many of Rice's more-liberal views are shared by many Christians in the United States and around the world. The rub is that too few know this.
The UCC's general minister and president, the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, said it this way: "We have unnecessarily insisted that we must be of one mind, instead of one heart. … I, along with many in the UCC, share Anne Rice's commitment to a personal relationship with Christ that affirms life in its fullness and diversity, not denies its beautiful and sometimes complex realities."
On July 30, when the UCC launched a Facebook campaign called "You'd Like the UCC, Anne Rice!" more than 3,400 joined the effort in less than 48 hours, exclaiming how they wanted Rice — but more so, all people — to know that many church-going Christians can and do believe in science, support women's equality, affirm LGBT people, and encourage the use of full-options birth control.
A few, however, misinterpreted the effort as a full-court press to win Anne Rice personally to the UCC. That was never the intent and not our style. While she is warmly invited to explore the UCC and attend worship with one of our congregations, the larger goal lies beyond Anne Rice herself and speaks to the church-questioning despair felt by millions that Anne Rice so eloquently articulated in her series of Facebook posts.
Every day, in my office and around the UCC, we hear a similar sentiment expressed: "I never knew a church like this existed!" You can hear the hopefulness in that statement, but you also detect the frustration. If only we had spoken up sooner — or louder.
As a denomination deeply rooted in ecumenical, interfaith commitments, it has not been easy for the UCC to talk about its distinctiveness in the marketplace of religious ideas. And, therefore, it's not surprising that our viewpoints often get swallowed up by the world's broad-brush perceptions of what being Christian means.
One thing, for sure, Christianity is not a religion rooted in individualism. We don't have the luxury of believing in isolation from others, even those with whom we disagree. As Christians, we share one another's hopes and struggles. Our faith — and even those frustrating social policy statements — are shaped in discernment with the larger body. We are baptized not unto ourselves, but into the community of Jesus Christ. To go it alone has never been a faithful option as tempting as it may sometimes feel.
But to the degree that evangelism is nothing more than one hungry person telling other hungry persons where they can find bread, it is imperative that UCC people, as well as others, tend to the spiritual hunger we see around us. As Rice has demonstrated, not all spiritual appetites are sustained by the same nourishment.
Anne Rice's visible platform brings this topic to light, but perhaps only temporarily. Her high profile offers credibility and urgency. To the degree that we keep the spotlight on the conversation, we encourage not only Anne Rice, but all of us, to keep the search for God alive — and honest.The Rev. J. Bennett Guess is director of publishing, identity and communication for the United Church of Christ.