By Randall Balmer
Well over two decades later, the event is still seared in my memory — the loud, insistent music, the energy, the expectation. The bishop had imposed a eucharistic fast on the catechumens, all 220 of them, in anticipation of their reception into the Episcopal Church. For most, it had been a long and unexpected journey from a perfectly respectable Assemblies of God congregation to the no man’s land of nondenominationalism and finally to the bosom of what their pastor — not yet a priest — kept referring to as the historic Church.
As I wrote in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory 23 years ago, Stanley J. White, the Assemblies of God minister and then a postulant for the priesthood, had pushed the envelope any number of times since succeeding his father as pastor of Evangel Assembly of God. His devotional readings had led him to the Book of Common Prayer, among other sources of spirituality, and he had already grown weary of evangelicalism’s endless quest for innovation. Some time after he initiated a liturgical procession — perhaps still the only instance in the century-long history of the Assemblies of God — some complaints alerted denominational authorities in Springfield, Missouri. White was quickly sacked, but, much to his surprise, a significant number of his congregants indicated their willingness to join him on his spiritual journey, wherever it might lead.
It led, finally, to the Episcopal Church and to that memorable Easter Sunday evening, 1990. The confirmands sought the structure and connectedness of historic Christianity, but they also had no intention of leaving their Pentecostal enthusiasm behind. The Rt. Rev. Harry Shipps, Bishop of Georgia, said that they did not have to, that in fact he welcomed their enthusiasm, though I don’t know that he was quite prepared for that Easter Sunday evening. After the confirmands queued up before five bishops and all the confirmations were completed, the congregation erupted in ecstatic celebration.
I was, I confess, a tad hesitant about returning to Valdosta. I was afraid, frankly, that the journey from Assemblies of God to Episcopal Church might have been a bridge too far, that pressures from within and without might have triggered a conservative backlash. I knew that the congregation’s name had changed from Church of the King to Christ the King, but that was a minor matter. The Episcopal Church has been buffeted over the past decade by controversies over homosexuality and the consecration of an openly gay bishop. I thought Christ the King might have jumped ship. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I caught up with Stan White in late September, our conversation turned almost immediately to that evening more than two decades earlier. “It’s pretty hard to sustain something like that,” he said. His smile was almost wistful. “We’ve gone through some changes. But we’re in a good place.”
Their setting has changed. About a decade ago, as the parishioners of Christ the King were considering moving from the boat showroom they had adapted into a church, they briefly considered buying property and constructing a building. They concluded, however, that a better use of resources, both financial and natural, would be to purchase a four-story building in downtown Valdosta, just across the street from the Lowndes County courthouse and the monument to Confederate soldiers. The move was transformative, both for the parish and for downtown itself. The bottom floor, called Hildegard’s, functions as a parish hall, including a glassed-in chapel with windows opening to the street. Hildegard’s (named for the medieval mystic) is also a coffee house, bookstore, and improvisational theater; earlier that weekend, the parish had staged a performance of The Laramie Project. Following the move to the center city, Hildegard’s quickly became a hive of activity, drawing students from nearby Valdosta State University and luring suburbanites downtown. The parish organized art walks, shops and restaurants moved in, and the tax base increased substantially with the sale and refurbishing of nearby buildings.
A county official, however, took it upon himself to close the coffee house (White suspects it has something to do with seeing pierced and tattooed college students working behind the counter). The protracted dispute ended finally in a settlement, but Christ the King clearly has exerted a salutary influence in downtown Valdosta.
The Sunday worship opened with “Morning Has Broken,” accompanied by organ, trumpet, drums, guitar, bass, and piano. The enthusiasm was a bit more muted than what I recalled, but no less affecting. The space is warm, with hardwood floors, warehouse-style fixtures that emit a lambent light, and a brick wall behind the altar flanked by shutters. White’s sermon touched on several themes, including the biblical notion of jubilee, the year after the seventh cycle of sabbatical years when debts are forgiven and servants freed. “I’m not sure there’s any other gospel,” White said. “That’s the one we’re authorized to preach.”
During the announcements, White welcomed another gay couple as new members of Christ the King. The congregation ranged from suburban matrons and businessmen to college students and elderly folks, some of whom I recognized from my visit long ago. If I had not recognized Bennett Thagard by sight, I would have known him by his legendary bone-crushing handshake; Thagard and his wife, Patricia, live on a farm nearly 50 miles away, but they’ve been faithful members since the Assemblies of God days. ”Bob Elder and his wife, Linda, on the other hand, are relative newcomers. “We didn’t think we’d find a place like this in Valdosta,” he said.
White told me later that one of the challenges of ministry in a place like Valdosta, a mid-size city, was turnover. When people are promoted, he said, they move on to places like Atlanta and Jacksonville. In addition, the ranks of leadership in the parish have been depleted by the large number of priests — 15 or 16, by his count — who have been ordained from the parish and who now serve parishes elsewhere.
During the ten o’clock Sunday-school hour, White took me upstairs to a warren of classrooms. His assistant rector, the Rev. Galen Mirate, was conducting class next door, and White was teaching a series on Matthew Fox’s Letters to Pope Francis. Fox, whose name is associated with creation spirituality and its emphasis on Original Blessing, was silenced by Joseph Ratzinger for one year during the papacy of John Paul II, and he was expelled from the Dominican order in 1993.
“Why don’t we pause and center,” White asked rhetorically, “calm our bodies and slow down and rest our minds and open our hearts?” A dozen parishioners and a couple of visitors were seated in a circle. The pope’s recent remarks about homosexuality, abortion, and contraception excited considerable interest within the group.
In his observations about Fox, White recounted that the theologian had run afoul of the Vatican because he declared that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were essentially schismatic popes in that they circumvented the council of bishops. They silenced some liberation theologians and interpreted Vatican II (in which they both participated) differently from other leaders in the church.
Why is White so interested in these matters? “Most of the patron saints who have influenced me are Roman Catholic,” he said, “so I love the Roman Catholic Church.” He lamented the similarity between conservative evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics on political matters.
What I did not know until my return to Valdosta was that my chapter all those years ago had sparked a flurry of interest in White and his congregation. He received letters and fielded phone calls both from Pentecostals and from evangelical Episcopalians around the country. The head of one group flew to Valdosta, promised to set White on a fast track to becoming bishop, and then promptly ran through a checklist of theological and ideological matters, including biblical inerrancy and matters that worry social conservatives. White protested: “That was the stuff we were trying to get away from” in joining the Episcopal Church. He told the suitors eager to enlist him in their causes: “We’re not what you think we are.”
White traces his interest in Fox and creation spirituality to those early days as a rector. He detected in Fox the same blend of mysticism and pentecostal fervor that he sought to emulate, and Fox provided a vocabulary for White’s theology and spirituality. White found that the “language to hold it together was the medieval mystics,” especially Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, and even Thomas Aquinas. Fox, he believes, “draws out the wisdom of ancient traditions.”
White studied for a time with Fox in a doctoral program in Oakland, though he never completed his dissertation; the demands of a parish derailed that ambition. “I think being a parish priest is really quite monastic in many ways,” he said. “There’s been days when it’s just been hard work.”
White reported that the consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003 created nary a ripple at Christ the King. “So much of the culture is out in front of the Church,” he said. “We’re facing a major decline unless there’s renewal.” But White believes that the revitalization he seeks will not come from those who identify as part of the renewal; he worries, in fact, that the “renewal-type folks are pulling away from the richness and depth of the Episcopal Church.” Renewal will come when Episcopalians, especially younger priests, find their prophetic voices. “You are a prophet,” White tells postulants. “You’re called to speak to the culture — not just knowledge about God but experience of God.”
How comfortable is White with the label evangelical these days? “I would consider myself an evangelical,” he said, “because I really love Jesus.” He regularly preaches strong repentance sermons, and many of them culminate in altar calls.” He edits a page on Facebook under the title Confessions of a Post-Evangelical Priest.
“I have a real appreciation for Holy Scripture, though not in the literalistic sense of my Baptist colleagues,” he said. “I think we need to let it breathe.” White paused and looked out the window. “The power of preaching the word is what keeps Christ the King alive,” he added. “We have the experiential element, but the preaching promotes substance.
Despite its colorful history — from Pentecostal to Episcopal to prophetic, and yet still fully all three — Christ the King is a parish of ordinary folks who dare to believe that the gospel has something to say to the culture, whether it’s their presence at a gay pride event or a covered-dish supper in the parish hall. “In many ways,” White said, “we still behave like an old-time country church.”
Randall Balmer, an Episcopal priest, is Mandel Family Professor in the Arts and Sciences and chair of the Religion Department at Dartmouth College. The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America will be released next year.