Last night I gathered with around 500 progressive Christians to honor Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, to learn about PCU's latest campaigns, and to be inspired by keynote speaker Diana Butler Bass, author of "A People's History of Christianity: the Other Side of the Story" (Harpers 2009).
I've been so busy I almost forgot about this event, but a "little bird" (the Holy Spirit?) reminded me to check the website yesterday morning and I immediately emailed PCU to make a reservation. Fortunately, a few seats were left. (See http://www.progressivechristiansuniting.org/file/Progressive_Christians_Uniting.html)
I have been a fan of Mary Ann Swenson ever since she became "our" bishop in 2000. Kathleen and I admired Mary Ann's deep commitment to peace and social justice and her irresistible enthusiasm and love for people and for Christ. She also had a Quaker quirkiness and integrity that I found very appealing. For many years she gave up her car and rode only by bike--a very Quakerly quirk--as a way to testify to her environmental concerns/
In March of 2003 Kathleen and I went with Bishop Mary Ann on a cruise ship to places associated with the Apostle Paul--Athens, Corinth, Thessaloniki, Phillipi, Ephesus, and also a couple of place where Paul never set foot, namely, Istanbul and the Island of Patmos. During the cruise we got to spend time with Mary Ann and her husband and became good friends. The shadow of war loomed over our journey, with the US invasion of Iraq taking place on the final day of our cruise, just as we were visiting the Island of Patmos. Being the only Quaker on board, I was often seen by the Methodists as the prophetic voice of peace.
I was not only peace activist on that boat, however. Mary Ann has been a powerful and compelling voice for peace and justice throughout her life. As it says in the PCU program booklet, she championed radical hospitality, civil rights, ecumenical and interfaith relationships, LGBT inclusivity, labor rights, an end to war and violence, women in ministry, the renewal of Creation, etc. I have been always been proud of the Methodist church for having such an enlightened leader.
I was also deeply impressed by new and ongoing work of PCU: the ongoing campaign to end torture, local community projects in Echo Park and other areas, and the newly launched "Believe Out Loud: A Creative New Campaign for Advancing LGBT Advocacy."
Finally, I was blown away by the keynote speaker--a charming, witty, and brilliant scholar activist named Diana Butler Bass. A Episcopalian (born Methodist), Bass interprets church history and tradition from a progressive perspective and helps us to connect with our past in creative and empowering ways. (See http://www.progressivechristiansuniting.org/file/Blog/Entries/2009/11/12_All_Saints_Day__A_Progressive_Call_to_Remember.html
I am thoroughly enjoying her book, which is worthy of its title (an allusion to Howard Zinn's tome, which I am also reading once again).
During the PCU banquet, I connected with many old friends--George Regas, Louis Chase, Sara Dickens, Mary Larson, Peter Laarman, etc--and made some new ones.
The only thing that troubled me was the lack of Quakers. Why am I the only Quaker to be present in a gathering of progressive Christians? I am certainly not the only "weighty" Quaker--there are other Friends in our area far weightier than I am, who have served as clerks of our Yearly Meeting and in other positions of responsibility. But I was the only Quaker present.
A few months ago I riled up the executive director of a certain national Quaker organization when I accused Friends of being parochial and sectarian. I said that just as Friends had to learn to admit their racism, Friends also need to recognize their parochialism. Unless we play an active role in our local interreligious community, we run the risk of becoming an obsolete and irrelevant sect.
By the way, it was not only progressive Christians, including a large contingent of Mennonites and Seventh Day Adventists, but also progressive Jews and Muslims who showed up on this occasion.
The fact that only one Friend bothered to show up at this important progressive gathering underscores our need to get out of our bubble and to join the progressive choir. The Quaker voice needs to be heard, along with the voices of others seeking to follow the way of Jesus and the great prophetic tradition.