What will an atheist find when he attends services at a conservative Christian church in South Carolina?
Editor’s note: Church Invitation is an occasional series at OnFaith where we ask people of various backgrounds to attend houses of worship and write about the experience.
On Sunday, March 30, I visited St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, just outside of Charleston where I live. The church’s stated visionis to re-evangelize our society and transform our culture. My intention was to learn more about this church that was established in 1827 and now has more than 3000 members. So I attended both the 9 a.m. contemporary service along with several hundred young and old congregants, and then the 10:45 a.m. traditional service with fewer than a hundred people, mostly older.
Both services began with music (guitar in the first and organ in the second), followed by the minister reading Bible passages. The homily was titled “TODAY: How Should I Read the Bible?” I translated that in my mind to “How Should I Read the Bible TODAY?” However, the homilies were specifically about reading the Bible without concessions to modernity.
Rev. Chris Hancock, who led the contemporary service, was dynamic and sometimes humorous. After a little trouble with his PowerPoint presentation, he riffed off the Lord Acton quote, “Power corrupts, but PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” He told us to read the Bible “humbly, prayerfully, thoughtfully, expectantly, and obediently.” No mention of reading it skeptically. He warned of scorners (like me, I guess) who use difficult passages to undermine the Bible’s authority, and quoted 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”
Rev. John Burley had a more serious demeanor at the traditional service, though he made the same points. He warned of cultural biases that might lead us to follow only some parts of the Bible, saying that if any parts offend us, it’s because we don’t understand them. He also made the only reference to atheism, claiminginaccuracies in the film Noah were to be expected because the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, is an atheist. Burley added that we must trust only Jesus rather than those who appear to be good and moral. (Hmm . . . should congregants then not trust Rev. Burley?)
He told us to read the Bible “humbly, prayerfully, thoughtfully, expectantly, and obediently.” No mention of reading it skeptically.
I might have put money in the collection plate if the minister had said it was for a good cause, like helping the poor, but the first minister merely quoted Acts 20:35, “It is better to give than to receive,” and the second asked for an offering to God. So I kept my money.
Each service ended on a nice note when we were asked to turn to our neighbors and say, “Peace be with you.” Some hugged, while others shook hands. I was a shaker. A prayer team was available to meet with those who came forward to receive Communion. I would have enjoyed a discussion with the prayer team, but I knew that was not an option.
After each service, I waited until the minister finished shaking hands with departing congregants and then introduced myself to the minister and we had a brief conversation. Both ministers were polite, although I could see that this was not the time to discuss issues. But when a third minister, Rev. Rob Sturdy, took time to talk with me between services, I asked about St. Andrew’s Church transition from Episcopal to Anglican affiliation in 2010, several months after The Episcopal Church (TEC) voted in favor of gay ordination. Neither he nor other representatives at St. Andrew’s gave gay ordination as the reason, saying rather that TEC had lost its way because it no longer follows scripture. Rev. Sturdy referenced retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who disavowed the Nicene Creed that St. Andrew’s maintains as part of its liturgy.
Written By: Herb Silverman
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