The Austin Chronicle

Church Fight

By Amy Smith, June 23, 2006, News

From time to time throughout their colorful careers, UT journalism professor Robert Jensen and St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church pastor Jim Rigby have come under attack for their outspoken views of the world. Jensen's biggest stir swirled around his post 9/11 remarks suggesting that U.S. policies provoked the attack. For Rigby, it was his ordination of an openly gay elder and his willingness to bless same-sex unions that once threatened his standing in the Presbyterian Church.

Now Jensen and Rigby have teamed up – this time as parishioner and pastor – to challenge the conservative wing of the Presbyterian hierarchy, which seeks to have Jensen tossed out on his atheist ear. Jensen grew up in the Presbyterian Church but later rejected organized religion altogether. He joined St. Andrew's late last year after striking up a friendship with Rigby. For the last two years, Jensen has led a monthly series of political film screenings at the church. "It's hard not to feel at home there," Jensen said. "It's a very welcoming church."

In November, St. Andrew's formally threw out the welcome mat for Jensen, who then wrote an op-ed article about his experience. The article, which opens with the provocative line "I don't believe in God," first ran in a December edition of the Hindustan Times, one of India's two largest English-language newspapers. The item barely created a ripple in India, but when the Houston Chronicle picked it up in March, conservative Christians went bananas. "I hadn't received this much of a reaction since 9/11," Jensen said. "It really got people going."

Rigby tried to quell the uproar with an opinion piece titled "Why We Let an Atheist Join Our Church." Religion, he explained, "is not about groveling before a savior, it's joining in the work of saving our world." (A subsequent article Rigby wrote on the same subject is playing to appreciative audiences on the left-leaning Web sites of AlterNet and The Huffington Post.) Rigby's defense of Jensen further fueled the anger of conservative Presbyterians across the country. In response, a regional governing body, the South Texas Mission Presbytery, assigned a "listening team" of pastors to study the matter and recommend action. The case then went before the entire Mission Presbytery at a June 9 hearing in San Antonio. After several hours of debate, the group voted 155-114 to instruct the church to remove Jensen from the "active" membership roll and assign him to the "baptism" roll – a spot usually reserved for children awaiting confirmation. For now, Jensen's active membership remains unchanged pending the church's appeal to the next level.

Rigid thinkers expressed dismay that at least 114 of those among the governing body favored allowing a self-professed atheist's membership to stand. One opponent, the Rev. Toby Brown of Cuero, immediately took to his personal blog and mocked the entire St. Andrew's congregation. "What [Rigby] has as a congregation is nothing more than the spiritual arm of," he fumed.

Rigby and Jensen were equally discouraged by the turn of events. At the hearing, Rigby was only given 15 minutes to argue his case. "I knew there would probably be tantrums as a result [of Jensen's op-ed]," Rigby said. "But I didn't see this coming at all." Jensen attended the hearing, but the Presbytery rejected his request to speak. "It was a rather surreal experience, to sit in the pews of the church and listen to people discuss the state of my soul," he recalled. "This is not the first time I've been condemned by people, but this had a weird edge to it, which seemed to me to be fear-driven."

Rigby and Jensen first became acquainted over lunch a few years ago, not long after Jensen's 9/11 hubbub. Rigby invited him to visit the church. As Jensen became more active in political and spiritual discussions with members, Rigby said he noticed a growing exchange of ideas among parishioners. "I witnessed a vibrancy within the community," he said. "It was never an issue of converting him, but an appreciation of what the communities could do together." While St. Andrew's opens its doors to free thinkers, atheists, and the GLBT community, other Presbyterian churches seek to turn the institution into a gated community, Rigby observed. "To me, faith is in the questions, not the answers."

While the church hierarchy ponders the state of Jensen's soul, life at St. Andrew's remains pretty much unchanged. Jensen is leading a new series of film screenings at the church, with Jesus as the central theme. This month's feature, Jesus Christ Superstar, will be followed next month with The Last Temptation of Christ.

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