In recent years America has seemed to lack the sort of bold churchman who is willing to put his penny-loafered foot down and say enough is enough. But according to recent press reports, the shoe has dropped. Even in these degraded times, there is a limit—a line you just can’t cross.
What is that line?
It’s the border between Jerusalem and Mecca. A March 15 headline in USA Today breathlessly introduces this tale of clerical intolerance: “Bishop orders Episcopal priest to renounce Islamic faith.”
The priest in question is The Rev. Ann Holmes Redding, the dreadlocked daughter of Louis L. Redding, who helped to argue on behalf of Brown against the Board of Education before the Supreme Court. In June 2007, Miss Redding, then-director of “faith formation” at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral, Seattle, announced that she had converted to Islam.
“It’s still a mystery as to why, on March 25, 2006, which happens to be my ordination date and the annunciation, I felt called to say the Shahadah with the intention of becoming a Muslim,” she admitted.
But don’t worry—she insists she’s still a Christian. “I am both Muslim and Christian, just like I’m both an American of African descent and a woman. I’m 100 percent both.”
Now, I am both white and male, “100 percent,” but I still must admit that I cannot understand how A can also be non-A. Miss Redding? “I have reviewed the vows of the baptismal covenant and the vows I took as a priest many times since I entered Islam,” she said in an online chat with readers of the Seattle Times. “I am not violating those vows by my own estimation.” On the contrary, we should learn from her. After all, “The two religions illuminate each other.”
Now, before you pull out your Athanasian Creed and start firing, realize that the Seattle Times has already polled some noteworthy theologians from both religions in question, and their assessment of Miss Redding is “mixed.” What matters here is that, from the beginning, this priest of more than two decades has stated her willingness to accept the judgment of her episcopal superior.
Miss Redding’s bishop (who, through a strange twist of jurisdictional fate, is the bishop of Rhode Island), suspended her priestliness for one year, during which time she was supposed to think things over. Miss Redding then spent 2007-08 teaching at Seattle University, a school run by Jesuits. (“A Jesuit education,” notes the school’s helpful promotional material, “challenges students to think clearly, think for themselves, and test commonly accepted knowledge.”)
Miss Redding thought for herself, and concluded that she was still right. Thus, in October 2008, Bishop Wolf (no relation) lowered the boom—or the pre-boom. As reported by the Diocese of Rhode Island, the “Standing Committee has determined that Dr. Redding abandoned the Communion of the Episcopal Church by formal admission into a religious body not in communion with the Episcopal Church. The bishop has affirmed that determination.” If Redding doesn’t un-join the Dar al-Islam by the end of March, the bishop will have no choice but to depose her from the priesthood.
Wait a minute. What is Redding’s sin again—“formal admission into a religious body not in communion with the Episcopal Church”? What about denying the Trinity? The divinity of Jesus Christ? Well, Bishop Wolf sees where we’re going with this: “The [Episcopal] church wants to be diverse and inclusive, but we’re decidedly Christian. We’re Christ-followers.”
So what, in Bishop Wolf’s estimation, is a “Christ-follower”? Does the bishop mean it the way megachurch pastor Bill Hybels (who popularized the term) means it? Apart from its usage, Christ-follower seems like a hole big enough to ride a magic carpet through. Doesn’t Miss Redding consider herself a “Christ-follower”?
Yes, she does, and that has made things difficult for Bishop Wolf. Miss Redding “is a very bright person, and I cannot say enough about the depth of her integrity. Hers is not a superficial decision, and this is why I been very deliberate and have taken over a year to talk things through. We’ve been in dialogue since June, 2007.”
These are busy times for the bishop of Rhode Island; when Geralyn Wolf began her dialogue with Miss Redding, she was a newlywed. And that right there is a story all by itself. When her future husband, financier Thomas Charles Bair, Jr., asked her out for some barbecue after the service one magical Sunday, “I thought he wanted to talk about the church, but he really wanted to get to know me,” she told the Providence Journal. For Bair, it was love at first homily: “When I heard the bishop addressing the congregation that morning, I just found her to be very loving and very interesting to listen to, so I was attracted.”
Now, why would Bishop Wolf think that this parishioner would want to talk about church business and not amour? Because she was appearing at St. John’s in Newport, Rhode Island, of which she is ecclesial shepherdess, in order to smooth relations with the disgruntled congregation. And why were these folks disgruntled? Because the Episcopal Church had ordained the homosexual homewrecker V. Eugene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire; St. John’s had even taken “Episcopal” off the sign and replaced it with “Anglican,” in protest.
Bishop Wolf, by the way, was a vocal supporter of the ordination of the “openly gay” Bishop Robinson. So her understanding of “Christ-follower,” then, must mean a disciple of the imaginary Jesus who never, no never, discriminates—at least not against female and homosexual clergy. Perhaps that sheds some light on the meaning of her gentle ultimatum to Miss Redding: “I believe that Islam and Christianity have enough differences to make it impossible to adhere to them both with integrity.”
Sodomy is, to put it mildly, frowned upon by mainstream Islam—not to mention female imammery. Does this mean that Miss Redding, of all people, is the conservative in this sordid tale? Not likely. In reaction to Bishop Wolf’s tender scolding, the scion of the civil-rights movement prophesied, “If we want to survive as a Church, and be faithful witnesses of Christ, I believe all the people of the world must be in communion.”
Not so fast, Miss Redding! There are some lines you can’t cross.