What we have here is a story with two acts, but it’s a drama that James Davison Hunter would completely and totally understand. If you need help with that reference, please click here.
This is also a drama with a prologue. GetReligion readers may recall that the late Dr. George Tiller, a specialist in late-term abortions, was murdered while serving as an usher in his Lutheran congregation in Wichita, Kan. You may also remember that our ever vigilant Lutheran, MZ Hemingway, found that some journalists — as always — forgot that there are different kinds of Lutherans.
Tiller had been a member of a Missouri-Synod Lutheran congregation, but was excommunicated from that conservative body because his work violated centuries of Christian teachings against abortion. He then joined a parish in the more liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. MZ made the perfectly logical observation that a church that welcomes a high-profile, enthusiastic abortionist has a different set of doctrines than a church that turns one away.
This brings us to Julia Duin’s A1 piece in the Washington Times about the local-church fallout in Bryan, Texas, linked to that decision by Planned Parenthood clinic director Abby Johnson to resign her job and start working with a pro-life agency a few doors down the block.
Again, let me stress that this is a story with two acts, one act that will make some people on the left very uncomfortable, but also an earlier act that will make many conservatives nervous (or it should). Here’s a chunk of the story, picking up after the isolated headlines that greeted Planned Parenthood’s effort to silence Johnson with a restraining order, which has just been thrown out by a judge in Bryan.
Now she is facing a different kind of music at her parish, St. Francis Episcopal in nearby College Station, the home of Texas A&M University. Whereas clergy and parishioners welcomed her as a Planned Parenthood employee, now they are buttonholing her after Sunday services.
“Now that I have taken this stand, some of the people there are not accepting of that,” she told The Washington Times. “People have told me they disagree with my choice. One of the things I’ve been told is that as Episcopalians, we embrace our differences and disagreements. While I agree with that, I am not sure I can go to a place where I don’t feel I am welcome.”
The rector at St. Francis refused to comment on the charge of nonacceptance.
“I do not intend to be dismissive,” the Rev. John Williams wrote in an e-mail, “but my pastoral responsibilities to this faith community preclude making public comments. I am sure you understand how important it is for me to foster healthy communication around this emotional issue – that is only possible, as I said, in the context of my pastoral ministry to all.”
Among other complications, another Planned Parenthood employee who attends St. Francis has stopped attending. Johnson says that the employee was told to stop attending the parish. Planned Parenthood says that the employee made that choice on her own and that Johnson, once again, is not telling the truth about the organization.
Meanwhile, there is the simple question of whether Johnson and her family are welcome to stay.
The couple made St. Francis their home. They were confirmed Episcopalians, and their daughter, now 3, was baptized there. A photo on the front page of the church’s Web site, stfrancisonline.org, shows her seated at the right end of the front row, holding a girl dressed in pink. Her husband, dressed in an orange shirt, is to her right.
“Chief among our values,” says a statement below the photo, “are service, tolerance and understanding of the people and events that God has put into our lives.” …
Mr. Williams “made it clear we were welcome” at St. Francis, Mrs. Johnson said. “I have gone to some churches in the past where they have said, ‘You can’t go here because you work at Planned Parenthood,’ ” she added. “That’s not right. What kind of ministry is that? It’s been very difficult for us.”
And there is the other part of this drama that Duin included in the story.
You see, Johnson was raised Southern Baptist — a church affiliation that would certainly become complicated when a young woman decides to go to work for Planned Parenthood.
“I was raised Southern Baptist but didn’t find the Southern Baptist community was very accepting of my work at Planned Parenthood,” she said. “It felt there was a spiritual conflict in what I was doing, but you just begin to rationalize it. I didn’t want to leave these women without options, so you begin to think you are doing the right thing, although it doesn’t feel right.”
As a result, she and her husband, Doug, “had been told by a couple of churches,” one being Baptist and the other nondenominational, “that because I worked at Planned Parenthood, we could not be members.”
In other words, the Southern Baptist church could not tolerate a woman who was violating the church’s stated teachings while working at Planned Parenthood, even while she struggled with the moral implications of that.
But Johnson’s local Episcopal Church is struggling to honor what it claims as its approach to issues of this kind, open arms and tolerance. Of course, the parish leaders also need to salute a national denomination that is openly — and in a few high-profile cases strangely doctrinal (note the “blessing” reference in this speech by a seminary dean) — pro-abortion rights.
Meanwhile, Johnson has moved on and found a job managing a nearby obstetrician-gynecologist clinic. She is also doing lots of public speaking about her now famous career change.
But her attendance at St. Francis remains up in the air.
“We really, really love that church,” she said. “We don’t want to leave.”
Much to think about here, for Southern Baptist leaders as well as for Episcopalians.
Photo: Part of the current front-page photo at the St. Francis Episcopal Church homepage.