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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.