Planned Parenthood goes to church, maybe

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.

JohnsonBryanChurchMeanwhile, 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,, 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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Much to think about here, for Southern Baptist leaders as well as for Episcopalians.

    That’s an important point and is more general than that. Simply stated, the question is how do you treat those whom you consider to be sinners? Do you shun and reject them or do you welcome them into your midst hoping that offering them fellowship will help them renounce what you consider sin? People have a great many different answers to that question, but it’s a most important issue.

  • Pingback: Strength & Weakness: An example of the former becoming the latter

  • Philip

    The real question is why she had a chance of stance. Where is that dealt with? Nobody has told us what changed her mind. Isn’t that the important fact that nobody has discussed? Did she “Get Religion?” Why did her opinions change? That’s what I want to know.

    The other thing that’s interesting is something a seminary professor once told me, “Liberals are not so liberal.”

  • Chris Bolinger

    …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.

    That’s not accurate, or fair, unless by “tolerate” you mean “allow to become a member”, which I doubt that you do. Churches with conservative, traditional theology “tolerate” everyone but do not grant membership to those who clearly do not agree with the theology.

    Words mean things.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Interesting ins and outs in this story.

    One quibble–both Orthodox and Catholic Churches would say “MILLENIA [not just centuries] of Christian teaching against abortion.” Indeed, Christian records from the apostolic era exist condemning abortion.

    Phil — I saw Johnson interviewed on one of the news channels and apparently it was seeing babies on ultra-sound that made her re-evaluate her position. There should be more in the media on the roll ultra-sound pictures have played in the recent slow rise in opposition to abortion in our country. ….

  • chris g


    I actually liked how the stories didn’t focus on the why of her opinion changes. The unique story was how various religious traditions grapple with boundary issues.

    Adding a third juxtaposition, how the quasi-religious secular left handled the boundary shift, would have been icing on the cake.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    As a conservative I don’t feel nervous at all about the latter part of the story. I’m *glad* that the Southern Baptist church did not accept Abby’s candidacy for membership *because* of her work at Planned Parenthood.

    Are you kidding me? It would be an absolute farce. The Southern Baptist church did the right thing in denying membership.

  • tmatt


    OK, fine. But what does that have to do with the press coverage?

  • Wilton Heyliger

    This is very interesting, For more than 30 years of my adult life I believed the Episcopal church was open, tolerant and accepting that was until I was in the process of becoming a priest. I found that they had no place for anyone who do not agree with them on some social issues(homosexuality and abortion). My traditional views denigrated as narrow minded, fundamentalist and bigoted. So I left the church I loved. Thank God for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod which still adheres to the Scriptures, the historical teaching of the church and has the historic liturgy.

  • Northcoast

    I learned of Mrs. Johnson’s conversion from abortion provider to abortion apponent through the lens of Fox News, and the ultrasound experience was always included in that story.

    The Baptist congegration’s action sounds like it could be in line with St Paul’s instructions. One would hope that they could love the sinner while hating the sin. Of course the media are generally unlikely to be sympathetic to fundamentalists.

    There has been no mention of the new Anglican Church in North America as a traditionally oriented alternative to the Episcopal Church.

  • Jody+


    It seems to me the real story here is about the way in which the different Christian traditions dealt with Johnson’s involvement with Planned Parenthood before and after her change of heart. Traditionally, Anglicans who have taken a geographical view of ministry and seen themselves as ministering to all within that boundary regardless of whether those people thought of themselves as Anglican or even Christian, have had a different standard of participation and even membership–but not necessarily leadership–than churches coming out of a free-church/believer church tradition. Southern Baptists have a long tradition of the latter, and it would be interesting to see some expansion on these differences, which predate modern culture war divisions.

    But these differences, as far as the story goes, would seem to only be important insofar as they had an impact on the *personal experience of Mrs. Johnson*, in other words, there’d be no need to mention the existence of the ACNA as a traditional alternative to TEC (and, one might ask, traditional in what way?) since the story is not, at it’s heart about denominations, but about the way these two particular traditions reacted to Mrs. Johnson. It might also have been helpful to highlight official statements on abortion from both the SBC and TEC to get a sense of whether the personal conflicts Johnson has experienced since changing her stance are the result of an official pro-abortion position on the part of the whole Episcopal Church (which I do not believe they are) or whether they are instead the result of the polarization that has occurred within denominations because of the culture wars. What I mean by that is that the traditional openness exhibited by TEC, as a result of it’s different perception of what the visible church is, and who can be part of it, has meant that it has attracted quite a few political/social liberals who have the same tendency to confuse church doctrine with their political beliefs as fundamentalists do on the other extreme.

    Has anyone actually taken the time to compare the official statements of TEC and the SBC on abortion, or is everyone going from a knee-jerk culture war perspective and allowing their assumptions to drag them along?

  • MJBubba

    I heard this story from Christian talk radio. Two programs from separate producers both included the detail that Ms. Johnson had stated that watching on an ultrasound monitor as an abortion was performed was the specific event that caused her to quit, and to do so publicly.

  • Mark the Zealot

    It’s very telling that the photo of the Episcopal Parish (presumably the entire parish membership) shows only three children. In one generation the Episcopal Church will be dead.