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Interview: Robin Meyers, US pastor and author

07 March 2014

'If Jesus is love personified, then the Church is called to be love organised'

My conviction, after 35 years of parish ministry, is that the Church in America is dying, because it's been so completely and harmlessly absorbed into the dominant culture. The Underground Church - it's a reference to the Underground Railroad movement in America - makes the case that the first followers of Jesus were in the resistance business, gathering communities of embodied non-compliance to the status quo, and being intentionally subversive for the cause of love.

All my books are aimed at those who are disillusioned with organised religion, but might reconsider the life of faith if only it seemed relevant to their everyday lives.

My church is named after the good ship Mayflower, which set sail for the New World and religious freedom. We were those separatist Congregationalist pilgrims that broke off from the Church of England. Oklahoma is where I was born. It's the most conservative state in America, while Mayflower is one of the most liberal churches in America. We have sought to create an island of progressive thought in a place dominated by Evangelical Christianity and right-wing politics, and the results have been surprising.

As to my first experience with God, I have no distinct memory of a "first" memory. I think of God in non-theistic terms, so my memories of the divine are not incidental, as when one remembers an encounter with a parent or other person. I like Tillich's definition of God as the "Ground of Being". It was when I first felt completely alive that I first experienced the transcendent mystery that is Being itself. I felt no separation from it, but it infused and illuminated every aspect of consciousness.

At Mayflower, we try to be subversive simply by loving the other - which is pure subversion in a world that arranges and divides creation into distinct hierarchies along racial, gender, economic, religious lines, and so on. Love itself is subversive because it finds a way around all the obstacles of human contrivance. Love breaks down walls, and love finds a way to express itself.

At the end of every worship service at Mayflower, we say: "Go in peace, pray for peace, wage a little peace, and love one another. . . Every single other!" The congregation joins in saying the last three words aloud.

The course I'm teaching at Gladstone's Library will explore the devolution of Christianity, from a very radical way of being in the world to a set of creeds and doctrines demanding intellectual assent to theological propositions. I'll look at why our notions of God need to be reformed by the discoveries of science, and what followers of Jesus - as opposed to those who only worship Christ - might actually do in the world to get the attention of the Empire.

I'm coming to speak out of my experience as a liberal pastor ina deeply divided and polarised American culture, not as an expert on the religion of the UK. I'll letmy listeners inform me as to where they see similarities and differences.

I believe that if Jesus is love personified, then the Church is called to be love organised. The spirit of love is beholden to no one, however, and can be contained by no single institution - thank goodness.

Traditions matter, because human beings have much to teach us from the past. But we must also be constantly moving from the comfort of tradition to the edges of prophetic witness and social action.

Memory and hope are the two strongest forces in human life. Ideally, the Church should embody both. Woe be to any institution that ignores a changing world, and expects people to blindly follow tradition for tradition's sake. In case you haven't noticed, not only is the Church often irrelevant, it can also be downright boring.

I have one foot in the sanctuary, and one foot in the classroom; so I have the life of a truly fortunate man, reconciling head and heart. The mind is not the enemy of the spirit, nor is science the enemy of faith. Like most people, one part of me wants to know all that I can know. The other part knows that I can never know fully, and that is what it means to fully know.

I was raised in a Low Church, non-Anglican tradition, where preaching was the central moment in worship. I still love to hear sermons that are engaging, well crafted, and courageous in their critique of culture and the human condition. But I also love beautiful music of all kinds, as well as an authentic embrace of our imperfection. Worship can become so grand and self-obsessed that it becomes little more than a performance. The sound of laughter in church is holy to me.

Bishop John Robinson influenced me for starters, or I wouldn't be coming among you. And Hans Küng, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Barbara Brown Taylor, Reinhold Niebuhr, Frederick Buechner, Joseph Sittler, Fred B. Craddock, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and lately, Pope Francis.

Books? Honest to God; Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain; Gilead by Marilynn Robinson, for starters. 

My father influenced me a great deal. He was a superb professor and eloquent preacher. My wife, for insisting that I stay grounded and not take myself too seriously; Fred B. Craddock, my preaching professor and mentor, for astonishing me with the power of the human voice.

I was born in Oklahoma City, and raised in Wichita, Kansas, the son of a Congregational minister and professor of English Victorian Literature. Oklahoma City has been home for 29 years, living in the same house and pastoring the same church.

I've been married for 38 years to Shawn Meyers, a professor of art who teaches metal-smithing and fine jewellery design at the University of Central Oklahoma. We teach in different universities. And we're the parents of three children: Blue, who is 36, Chelsea, who is 33, and Cass, who is 20. We have one three-year-old granddaughter, Iris, and another, Hazel, on the way.

We have a small cabin on the side of a mountain in Colorado, Pike's Peak region, and that's where we spend much of the summer. Shawn teaches jewellery workshops, and I write. We're not good at doing nothing, but we're trying to get better. 

Favourite sounds? A child humming to herself in another room, unaware that anyone is listening. Fat raindrops against the windowpane. The rumble of distant thunder. The choir warming up in the sanctuary.

I pray that I will know how to pray, so as to move with transcendence, not try to bargain with it.

My first thought, honestly, was what surpassingly gorgeous woman I might choose to be locked in a church with. Then my more mature side, the one that likes being married, took over and said "President Obama." I would like to help himbe less accommodating and more Machiavellian.

Professor Meyers was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

His visit includes a conference at Gladstone's Library, Hawarden, "The Community of Resistance", 20-22 March, and the Robinson-Spong lecture on 22 March.
www.gladstoneslibrary.org

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