by Hal Taussig
(Published in The Fourth R, 19-3, May-June 2006 p.3-8)
In Chicago a Tony Award�winning piano player improvises a jazz tune while some thirty church members dance and another hundred sing . . . in Phoenix a congregation can hardly wait for new scholarship on who Jesus was as a first-century Galilean . . . in Boston the United Methodist bishop, a woman, appointed a pastor to the new church formed explicitly to affirm the full participation of gays and lesbians . . . in semirural Washington some nuns are entering the twelfth year of their "Earth Ministry" dedicated to a new ecological consciousness ... in Decatur, Georgia, a group of women that started worshipping in the late 1990s in each other's houses has now settled into life together as a feminist congregation.
In Manhattan the thirty-year-old woman associate pastor preaches about urban poverty the morning after she was a stand-up comic in the church-sponsored night club . . . in Delaware the visiting leader of the Center for Progressive Christianity helps a group of churches examine the relationship between science and religion ... in Wichita, the second largest United Methodist church in Kansas baptizes a child of an openly lesbian couple . . . in California's wine country hundreds of clergy gather to hear leading biblical scholars from around the country . . . in a Capitol Hill neighborhood Episcopalians form a communion circle of more than one hundred people of different races, sexual orientations, and classes . . . in Philadelphia's ultraconservative Roman Catholic diocese hundreds gather in an urban neighborhood parish church each week to challenge each other's and the archdiocese's racism .. .
In Alabama 700 people gather to hear an Episcopalian author talk about why Christianity must change or die ... in Rochester, New York, an entire parish decides to break with the Roman Catholic hierarchy and ordain a woman to the priesthood . . . in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a local Mennonite church which proclaims itself as a refuge for divorced people, gays, and lesbians has grown so much in the past fifteen years that it has gone through two building programs ... in countless cities,. "faith sharing groups" have challenged Roman Catholic prohibitions by having eucharists in their homes without priests.
New voices celebrating a lively, open-minded, and
open-hearted Christianity are emerging at the grass roots across
A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity
Emerges at the Grass Roots, my most recent book just published by Polebridge
Press, is about these new voices and their new movement. It describes,
celebrates, and assesses them. Less a proposal for some new dream of
Christianity, this book is the product of a yearlong research team having found
some astonishingly new developments with promise for a very different future.
Indeed, what the nationwide re-search shows is that a similar and new kind of
Christianity has emerged at the grass roots across
These new voices do not make up the majority of Christians. But they are refreshingly confident about a new lease on Christian expression that is strikingly different from both the fundamentalism and the flailing denominations often featured in the American press. Rarely self-aware on regional or national levels, this new momentum is just discovering itself. Only within the last six or seven years has it gathered on more than the grassroots level. Because it is both within and outside ordinary Christian denominations, this phenomenon has no clear leadership. Like most grassroots experiences, it is bubbling up in a variety of forms. Like the seeds growing secretly in the gospel parable, the new voices, once identified, surprise us with their fullness.
Nor are these new communities� the research has discovered literally thousands of them �a result of some national program or initiative from above. Although they exist clearly within all denominations, including Catholicism, their emergence is not in response to an overarching collaboration among the various religious bureaucracies. Nor are they a product of some popular and charismatic national preacher. Rather, in their similarity, they come from an unorganized but broad-ranging kind of Christian response to felt needs for vital spirituality, intellectual integrity, new ways of expressing gender, an alternative to a Christian sense of superiority, and a desire to act more justly in relationship to the marginalized. This is a dispersed grassroots phenomenon across a wide range of denominationalism.
The Term "Progressive Christianity"
I am calling this emergent movement of Christianity
Other terms might be used, but have distinct disadvantages. To a certain extent the term "liberal" might apply. Certainly the commitment to intellectual open-mindedness and to acting for social justice has been at the center of the self-understanding of Christians who think of themselves as liberal over the past fifty years. However, many of "liberal" churches still exist with this focus and without having developed the new excitement about spirituality and expressive worship I have discovered across the country in so many other socially conscious and intellectually stimulating churches. So I do not use the term "liberal" for the vital new movement I want to describe. Rather, I consider a "liberal" church to be one that has not changed much in the past twenty years and has maintained a strong intellectual openness, an emphasis on social justice, a traditional worship with a lot of preaching and very little participation or expressiveness by the people, and not much attention to feminism, gay and lesbian issues, spiritual renewal and experimentation, or other religions. The new nationwide trend profiled in A New Spiritual Home emphasizes creative worship, feminism, gay-friendliness, and new attitudes toward other religions. In this regard, "progressive" seems preferable to "liberal" in designating the new movement, while "liberal" is a convenient term for the churches with an older mix of traditional piety, intellectual rigor, and emphasis on social justice.
"Open-minded" and "open-hearted"
as a combination has much to commend it in relationship to this new movement.
In contrast to the way I am using "liberal," it connotes the new
spiritual vitality of this new movement. Unfortunately, this combination is
part of the new denominational motto of the national
Something also needs to be said about the term
"Christian" in the descriptor "progressive Christianity."
Although the emergent movement I am describing does not think of Christianity
as better than other religions, that does not mean that the participants in
this movement are not Christians. Some of those described in this book are
somewhat uncomfortable with the self-designation "Christian." And,
they do seem quite different from the majority of Christians in the
Even though forms of conservative or reactionary Christianity may dominate the American scene and even embarrass some participants of the new movement, I am quite sure that it is not only accurate, but also important to call this new movement "progressive Christianity." This distinguishes progressive Christians from evangelical Christians, cultural Christians, New Age adherents, mainline Christians, Jews, Muslims, and many Quakers and Unitarians. Just clarifying these differences helps to identify the rather spectacular new promise this movement brings into view.
The Five Characteristics of Progressive Christianity
1. A spiritual vitality and expressiveness. The
wide-range of churches and groups in this movement�in contrast to the
traditional liberal Christians�are not just heady social activists and
intellectuals. They like expressing themselves spiritually in meditation,
prayer, artistic forms, and lively worship. It is astonishing how similar these
spiritual and worship expressions are, even though they come from widely
different denominations and parts of the
2. An insistence on Christianity with intellectual integrity. This new kind of Christian expression is devoted to and nourished by a wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and critique. It interrogates Christian assumptions and traditions in order to reframe, reject, or renew them. God language, the relationship between science and religion, and postmodern consciousness are the major arenas of this intellectual rigor.
3. A transgression of traditional gender boundaries. These groups are explicitly and thoroughly committed to feminism and affirmation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. The feminism is regularly a part of new kinds of family and child-rearing dynamics. The extent of gay-friendliness is illustrated by at least seven national Christian movements devoted to support of GLBTs and rooted in thousands of local churches.
4. The belief that Christianity can be vital without claiming to be the best or the only true religion. In contrast to mainstream Christianity's lukewarm "tolerance" of other religions, progressive Christianity pro-actively asserts that it is not the best or the only. Progressive Christians take pains to claim simultaneously their own Christian faith and their support of the complete validity of other religions.
5. Strong ecological and social justice commitments. The longstanding Christian interest in aiding those who suffer or are poor is continued in progressive Christianity. Similarly, this new movement is committed to old style liberal social justice programming and peace advocacy. In addition, however, there is a passion for environmental-ism, including explicit attention to changing life style and consumer patterns in order to lessen the human footprint on the Earth.
Where to Find Progressive Christianity
One of the most surprising aspects of my team's
research was the breadth and depth of this new phenomenon of progressive
Christianity. We found it in all geographical sections of the country and in
urban, small town, and sub-urban
The research found over one thousand local churches
which fit the five characteristics described above. Some fifty of them are
profiled in the book, A New Spiritual Home. They include some of the churches
mentioned at the beginning of this article. Another is the
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, which marches in the city's annual gay pride parade, has a weekly worship service intended for people who have never developed a church affiliation or who may have left the church because they no longer felt comfortable or connected or because "organized religion" no longer seemed relevant to their lives. This Sunday evening, called "Engaging the Questions," bursts the regular Episcopal bonds. The service includes active discussion of questions such as, "What does it mean to be a person of integrity?" "What is a person of faith?" and "Is there a purpose to human life?" "Engaging the Questions" is not, however, a mostly cerebral engagement. It integrates discussion of big questions into dramatic performances, eclectic music, and artistic expression of biblical texts.
Proudly proclaiming itself as "an alternative
to church as usual,"
The great majority of Extended Grace Faith Community
(Lutheran) in Grand Haven,
The second main form of progressive Christianity can be called "the Roman Catholic resistance." Although official Roman Catholicism in America has in the past twenty-five years come increasingly under the control of centralized and reactionary hierarchy, two factors have come together to form a significant faction of genuine American Catholicism. These two factors are: 1) the foundational reforms to Catholicism articulated in the Second Vatican Council; 2) a network of sub- or extra- parish communities committed to the same five characteristics evident in the progressive local churches sketched above.
This network of Catholic resistance is astonishingly
widespread and persistent. Although rarely existing as an official or entire
parish, it appears in almost every part of the country. There are two main
populations of this network. The first is what has come to be called
"Small Christian Communities." These groups (
Commissioned and funded by the Lilly Foundation in
1996, Bernard Lee, S.M., of
The other major population of Catholic resistance is a significant proportion of American nuns (or, as they prefer to be called, "women religious"). These women are the one part of the American Roman Catholic Church that is still working hard to implement the Vatican II Council's call in the 1960s to aggiornamento (an Italian term for "updating" that refers to the task of bringing faith to con-temporary expression). Although one can still find some conservative orders of women religious, the vast majority have made earthshaking shifts in their lifestyle, outlook, self-understanding, and appearance. Most American women religious no longer wear habits and so are almost invisible to the public. But they are nearly everywhere.
Today the great majority of American women religious live in small communities. The leadership is rarely hierarchical and governance tends to be relatively democratic. These women continue to lead celibate lives, have little or no private property, and pray communally at least once a day. Their professions vary widely within the helping professions. It is not unusual for such groups to have professors, social workers, elementary school teachers, therapists, and church workers living together with a strikingly simple lifestyle.
The Leadership Council of Women Religious (LCWR) is
the national clearinghouse for this astonishingly strong movement. LCWR
provides major resources for the thousands of communities of women religious
across the country. LCWR's official self-understanding corresponds in major
ways to what my book portrays as progressive Christianity. LCWR's 2004 official
declaration of goals for the next five years starts with the ongoing commitment
to vital spirituality, vowing both to "ground all our actions in
contemplation" and to "welcome . . . new ways of living into the
future of religious life." LCWR, which represents about 1,000 different
orders of women religious in
Perhaps one of the surest indications that LCWR belongs to the implicit progressive Christian movement in the past fifteen years is the strong opposition to it by conservative Catholic organizations. "Catholic Culture," a conservative watchdog organization, advises the public against LCWR's "radicalization coinciding with the rise of feminism and the post-Vatican II confusion." It worries that in 1979 Sister Theresa Kane, then "head of the LCWR" had "chided the pope for not ordaining women." This conservative attack on LCWR accuses it of "antagonism toward the hierarchy and Church teachings," promoting "the causes of dissidents," and being "loaded with liberalism's terminology."
Progressive Christianity is observable in other places. A New Spiritual Home has chapter-length treatments of two other phenomena: some similar developments in relatively new denominations like Unity and the Metropolitan Christian Church and what I call�with gratitude to Bishop John Spong for part of the term, "the exiles" and their books. The exiles, as Bishop Spong describes them, by and large do not belong to a community, but are active in their hope for alternatives, often through their devotion to a new dose of books over the past decade, often published by Polebridge Press.
It is my hope that this portrait of emerging progressive Christianity may interest those disillusioned souls who think that the only Christian shows going these days are the reactionary evangelicals or the frightened mainstream institutions. I also wish that those many different creative, progressive Christians who have courageously hammered out new ways of being together in the past two decades might realize that they are not alone. Finally, it seems that the research this book reports may spark some new regional and national conversations among progressive churches so that they may emerge more clearly as the eloquent new national Christian voice they are.
It is clear to me that this new vibrancy at the
grass roots will not become a majority phenomenon in
Grassroots progressive Christianity is cross-denominational in character. That is, it is emerging organically from the grass roots across the country without denominational impulse or charismatic national leader. Its strength lies in the integrity of its search for more authentic Christian expression and articulation.
In many ways, this new and widespread impulse can be
compared to the renewal of portions of Christianity in the Dark and Middle Ages
through the establishment and flourishing of monasticism. Monasticism emerged
Visiting Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in