Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Should Churches Lead or Follow the Culture?

Raymond J. Keating

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July 20, 2004

Raymond J. KeatingWhen the world looks at Christians, it often sees disunity. Some differences merely reflect denominational specialties while others expose deep cracks in the church.

Regarding certain niches, Anglicans - including the Episcopal Church in the United States - often excel in architecture and worship. One of the loveliest churches on Long Island has to be St. Ann's Episcopal Church in Sayville. The elegance of its stone, castle-like exterior is rivaled by the interior's gorgeous Tiffany stained glass windows.

At St. Mary's Church in Amityville, this past Sunday's "Choral Eucharist" combined with the beauty of the sanctuary in such a way as to foster reflection about and praise of God.

But Anglicans are being ripped apart. And they are not alone, as most Christian denominations struggle with a fundamental question about faith and society: Should the church go along with shifting cultural views of morality or teach enduring truths?

Consider the ongoing debate over how to define marriage. Last week, delegates at the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's national convention in St. Louis voted by a 1,163-to-22 margin to affirm "marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman." Given what the Bible says and the church has taught throughout the centuries, such a declaration should be obvious. That's increasingly not so, though, in society and for some within Christianity.

The consecration last year of V. Gene Robinson as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire served as a signal. Robinson is the first openly gay bishop, and a divorced father of two. He told Newsday earlier this year that, if gay marriage were allowed in New Hampshire, he and his partner would "be married in a minute." Robinson's installation sent waves of tumult throughout much of the Christian world, but he has claimed that "10 years from now, we will wonder what all the hullabaloo was about."

I spoke with a couple of Episcopal priests on Long Island last week who see matters differently from Robinson. The Rev. Randolph Jon Geminder, the rector at St. Mary's, explained: "The leaders of the Episcopal Church that tend to be in the majority now in their hearts really feel that the church needs to mirror society." In contrast, Geminder noted, the traditional view is that "the church must lead the world to mirror the church's teachings."

He adds that traditional-minded Episcopalians in America "are in spiritual lockstep with 90 percent of the rest of the Anglican world," and that "just shy of two-thirds of the entire Anglican world has broken communion" to one degree or another with the Americans due to Robinson's installation.

Cutting across denominations, the most substantive split in 21st-century Christianity promises to be between liberals, who have chosen to eliminate or redefine sin to fit personal preferences and cultural trends, and more orthodox or traditional Christians who hold to the authority of Holy Scripture, and respect the long tradition of the church.

The Rev. Jim Byrum of St. John's Episcopal Church in Huntington placed the controversy within the larger context of Christianity's mission. He observed: "Once you start subjectively recategorizing sin, you effectively for the church eliminate the need for a savior." Christians, Byrum continued, are "a group that believes God sent his Son to redeem us from ourselves, from the dark side of ourselves. Well, if all of a sudden everyone is saying there is no dark side to ourselves, then what the heck does anyone need a Messiah for."

Both men worry that traditional Christianity today often gets portrayed as lacking compassion. To the contrary, in speaking with each, Christian love and warmth were evident. Geminder told me: "The church is a place where everybody is welcome. But we just don't feel we have the power to add to what the Lord taught us." He added: "Toleration does not equate itself with endorsement." That is essential to Christianity.

As the old saying goes, hate the sin, love the sinner - and we are all sinners.

Raymond J. Keating is a columnist for Newsday. Read this article on the Newsday website (link closed). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 7/22/04

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