I am a priest of the Episcopal Church who sits lightly with my church and traditional religion. My father was an Episcopal cleric as is my brother. We were brought up in a conventional home, with grace at dinner, Bible stories at bedtime, Sunday School and church on Sunday. We celebrated Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving at church. I attended confirmation class and was confirmed when I was eleven. After public schools in Brooklyn, N.Y., I went to an Episcopal prep school as a day student. I often led one or more of the daily chapel services that began our studies. In summer we went to church camps where there were good discussions of God, Jesus and the sacraments. I went along with everything and questioned little.
It was at camp I discovered some of the clergy and lay leaders had very strong ideas about what one had to believe to be a real member of the church. Was Jesus a man or God? Was using birth control a sin? Was Jesus truly present in the bread and wine? Should boys and girls refrain from intercourse before marriage? I rather enjoyed the discussions and did not think about them very much. In the Episcopal Church there was and is no place where one is asked to be absolutely specific about one’s belief. For instance, it never was demanded of me that I had to believe in a specific view of the nature of God or Jesus. In the creed we say I believe in God, Jesus and Holy Spirit; but nowhere do we have to give a precise definition of what any of those mean.
But another dimension of the church’s teaching began to creep into my consciousness. The clergy who taught us had no truck with racial discrimination or anti-Semitism. They spoke of the outrage they felt to see African-Americans treated as second-class citizens or worse. They spoke of the horrors of the holocaust and the treatment of Jews in our country.
I went to New York University in New York City for my bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy. There were lectures and fierce discussions of “Does God exist?” On examinations I had to know the arguments for and against the existence of God. I was asked to give my own views at the conclusion and justify them. As long as my answers reflected that I had read and understood the material, I was graded for that, not on my specific belief. I really enjoyed that challenge to my conventional faith but never lost my desire to attend church and participate in the Eucharist. I thought more about the validity of traditional belief, but not enough to give up those beliefs.
In addition, the liberal Christian clergy who were chaplains to us college students helped others and me to a more mature doctrine of God. God was not a grandfather in the sky counting our sins. God was defined not as a being but as being itself. God was seen as the ground of all being. This is the working definition of God that serves me to this day.
In 1953 I matriculated at The General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, part of Manhattan. It was a three-year graduate school to prepare me to become a priest of the Episcopal Church.
The work was demanding, the conversation vigorous, and our beliefs challenged by our tutors and professors. We had to know the material and were tested on it. No one ever asked us exactly the specifics of what we believed. Some students found they could not accept the traditional doctrines and dropped out. I had begun to get the idea that religious teachings were a way of life, a way of looking at life. They were also dynamic and changing.
For instance, sin was simply a description of the way it is in a broken world… that has evil in it. A look around me convinced me that sin was true, it was just the way it was and is. The creation said that the world was good, beautiful and creative. Jesus’ emphasis on caring for the sick and needy and standing up to authority was an extremely exciting and important way for me to be in the world. These ideas lurked in my mind and heart when I later began to be in charge of a congregation.
In my first parishes I led Sunday services, visited the sick, worked with the youth and thoroughly enjoyed the work. In 1962 I moved to San Francisco and worked as an assistant to the Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike. He was a national figure known for bold stands urging the legalization of birth control, an end to discrimination against African Americans, was against the Vietnam War, and worked for changes in the worship forms of the church. He told other clergy and me to start speaking out in public on these and other issues.
I participated in civil rights demonstrations in San Francisco, marched in Selma, Alabama, and helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual in 1965. For me they were profound spiritual/religious experiences. I appeared on local and national radio and television programs on these issues. It was unusual for clergy to be so outspoken on controversial issues. I truly believe that participating in social and political movements that care for the oppressed, the sick and needy is exactly what followers of Jesus are supposed to do. I found myself more interested in being a follower of Jesus than being a church leader.
In addition, Bishop Pike openly challenged the traditional doctrines of the church – virgin birth, bodily resurrection of Jesus and the Trinity. He saw theology as a discussion, not a set of hard and fast positions that had no flexibility. I took on the idea that we think within a tradition. The ancient teachings of the church are just there. We are called to wrestle with them, find meaning in them, enjoy them or cast them aside.
In 1982 I became the rector of Trinity Church in San Francisco. During that twenty-year tenure, I began every sermon with a quote from the Bible and then related that teaching of Jesus, St. Paul or the great leaders of the Old Testament to the social, personal and political concerns of our daily and national life. I preached and taught the traditional doctrines, openly saying this is what the church has, taught; then I gave my interpretation and said this is what I believe and then said you are free to choose what you want to believe.
For instance, I would say on Easter that the church teaches that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. I personally do not believe in the physical bodily resurrection but believe that the disciples had some awesome and life- changing experience of Jesus after he died. They believed he had risen from the dead. Then I would say, now you as intelligent and mature people get to choose what you believe. I would add that Easter is the time of the year when we see new life emerging all around us in the spring. New life is always available to you to refresh and renew your own life. The Easter message for us is new life.
Most people liked what I had to say. Some people agreed with my view, some did not care and I suppose some people did not like my teaching, but I do not remember people leaving because of my views of doctrine. When I spoke supporting lesbian and gay rights or same gender marriage, then some people did leave. When I indicated I was a pacifist and against war, some people may have left.
I truly believe a lot of clergy believe the way I do but are too fearful to say so for fear that parishioners will leave. Some probably will. But I do believe “the truth will make you free.” I certainly felt free during my time at Trinity and now nine years in retirement.
I see the word God as a metaphor that stands for being itself, the ground of all being. It is hard to relate to those concepts. I feel fine referring to the words father or mother as representing those ideas. The parental terms are also the creative terms. When I pray “Our Father…” I know the word father relates to the ground of all being. Father or mother is more intimate and warm than “being itself.”
I still pray. I do not expect God to answer my prayers in ways that I want. I mostly give thanks for my wife, children, family, and friends. When I pray for the sick, poor and oppressed, it is my job to do something about them, not God’s.
I have faith. Faith is standing in awe and trust in the presence of the holy. Faith is the awareness of the holy, the sacred, the divine and the sheer otherness of life and the creation. Faith is standing in the presence of not-knowing, the mystery and the horror and delight of human experience. Faith is the opposite of religion, which attempts to confine and define the divine. Faith stands in “readiness…to confess its radical incompleteness and insufficiency–indeed its brokenness.” True faith “begets beside modesty, the courage to hope, and to work for change.” (Jaques Ellul)
For me, my faith is nourished by knowing the life of Jesus, attending church, receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion, enjoying the music and liturgy, participating in the religious community. I sit lightly with religion, doctrines, rules and the church. I am grateful that it has been through religion and the church I have learned faith.
Robert Warren Cromey is a priest of the Episcopal Church, retired and living in San Francisco.