Monday, March 23, 2009

religion: a memoir

The post The First Amendment and The Ambiguity of Marriage in Philosophers' Playground prompts the questions

     What's a church? Who's a minister?

— as far as state and national governments are concerned, that is. "Touchy" issues at the "wall of separation". (Can there be "churches" and ordained ministers in "denominations" that have no "Supreme being" — legally speaking?, for example.)

These questions made me reflect on and wonder what happened to the two neighborhood churches I "grew up in" in the late-50s-through-60s Winston-Salem. North Carolina.

There, "everyone" was a Protestant, of course, of one sort or another. Southern Baptists, of course — they were the "holy-rollers" — and Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and so on. There was a Catholic church downtown (I think they might have even called it a "cathedral"), but whoever went there were pretty quiet about it, as the Catholic church was looked at a being some sort of cult, with a guy called the Pope swinging a smoking ball and doing other strange things. There was a Jewish church ("synagogue", they called it), and Thalhimers (founded by a Jewish merchant in Richmond) was Winston-Salem's Macy's [1958 photo]. (Jews — there were none I knew of in our neighborhood, but a few in my high school — were "cool" — "just watch your wallets" — since they were in the Bible, and they read the Bible — part of it anyway. Catholics, we were were told, were forbidden to read the Bible on their own, unlike Protestants.) That's just the way it was.

The church I was baptized in was Messiah Moravian Church. The Moravian denomination came from a pre-Luther Reformation history, with its founding father, John (or Jan) Hus being burned at the stake by Catholics. American Moravians, based secondarily in Winston-Salem (I'm not a descendant of these Moravian settlers, though) and primarily in — no surprise — Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, are mainline Protestants now sharing the "controversies" that beset these denominations. What I was surprised to learn is that the current pastor — of the church I was baptized in! — Rev. Truman Dunn, is perhaps the leading "radical" of the denomination: asserting that Jesus isn't the only way to salvation, for example. (See Messiah Moravian minister whose statements sparked controversy will keep his pastorate, and also The Ward letter on "welcoming homosexuals into the Moravian church".)

Who knew?

That's the early part of my upbringing. The second was when my parents then transferred me to a newly established St. Thomas United Church of Christ in 1959. The denomination was only created in 1957 from two Reformed Protestant denominations: the New England Congregationalists (a Pilgrim legacy) and another Reformed denomination. (This particular church, I think, was eventually closed and its congregation merged into the Parkway United Church of Christ. I saw its first pastor, Josh Levin, before he died at a retirement home where my father lived, fifteen years ago.) The UCC is the leader of Reformed-tradition Protestant denominations in establishing gay clergy and gay marriage rights as a national policy in the US.

Who knew?

I think that all of this — the progression (women pastors and in leadership positions, gay clergy and marriages, an "open-ended" theology) in traditionally-Reformed but now progressive denominations — is merely a logical consequence of Protestantism*.

In 1971, the fifties and sixties were over, I left Winston-Salem to go to Brown in Providence, RI, where there were lots of Catholics and Jews. And atheists — of course. And that was that.

* logical consequence of Protestantism — I remember, I think, Bertrand Russell wrote that his agnosticism was this, but I need to find the reference.