All Saints Episcopal Church
Eleven o'clock Sunday morning, and the parking lot at All Saints Episcopal Church, a landmark for more than 100 years in downtown Pasadena, California, is full.1
A number of Porsches, Audis, Jaguars, Mercedes-Benzes, and Volvos stand fender to fender. Several sport bumper stickers, but they are not slogans of traditional piety such as "Jesus Is Coming Soon" or "Smile God Loves You." The All Saints crowd prefers messages like "Question Authority," "Stop Apartheid," "Boycott Shell," and "Support Greenpeace."
If the parking lot tips off visitors to the essence of this growing upscale parish, its buoyant rector, the Reverend George F. Regas, leaves no doubt that the church's emphasis during the more than twenty-four years he's been at the helm has been on liberal social causes.
"I felt my job was to lead the congregation into the battlefronts of Christian social justice," the sixty-year-old clergyman recalled as we talked over tea and scones in a fancy hotel.2
The Regas touch has been well rewarded: All Saints has become
the largest Episcopal parish west of the Mississippi River. In fact, All Saints, tucked between the Moorish-style dome of city hall and a new twelve-story hotel, is one of very few growing liberal congregations within mainline denominations.
No wonder other congregations are eyeing its leadership profile as a model for the 1990s.
With the decline of denominational loyalty, church "shoppers" are congregating wherever they can find what they're looking for, says Robert Franklin, who served a stint as visiting professor of Afro-American religion at Harvard Divinity School. For many, that means "an exciting worship experience with good music, intelligent, socially prophetic preaching, and a variety of social ministries in which young professionals can employ their skills and knowledge," Franklin said.3
That's a pretty good summary of All Saints. Its success particularly in balancing strong social action and creative forms of worship provides a pattern for church strategists.
"Perhaps," says Donald E. Miller, a professor at the University of Southern California's School of Religion and an All Saints member, "the success of All Saints is that it is liberal in emphasis on social justice ministries, intellectual challenge, and openness to many diverse people and life styles, but it is also deeply conservative in its recognition of the importance of worship, pastoral care and personal spiritual disciplines."4
During the final years of the 1980s, net growth was about 750 people; there are now more than 6,300 baptized members, representing about 2,300 households. The church's annual operating budget doubled in five years to $2.4 million in 1990.
"There are enough Christians in the west San Gabriel Valley who want to take their Christianity seriously and combine it with liberal political causes so that this [church] appeals," says Peter Wagner, professor of evangelism at Fuller School of World Mission in Pasadena. "And George Regas is a good leader and preacher."
Mary Alice Spangler, a former Methodist who's been at All Saints since 1976, confirms Wagner's assessment. "It's the balance between strong social action, strong liturgy, and George. It's taking Christianity out into the world."
That hasn't always been easy, Regas is quick to admit.
All Saints has struggles over taking various liberal stands on such things as the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars, racism, disarmament, U.S. involvement in Central America, urban poverty, and acceptance of gays and lesbians into the congregation.
"Twenty years ago, people stayed in spite of All Saints' involvement [in liberal issues]. Today, they come because of it," Regas says with a smile.
Profile of All Saints
A survey taken in 1989 reveals All Saints to be a predominantly well-educated, wealthy, and white parish. Ninety-eight percent of the members have attended college, and 58 percent have education beyond a bachelor's degree. More than half the members earn more than $50,000 a year; 12 percent of the households have an income between $100,000 and $150,000, and a full 10 percent earn more than $150,000 annually.
Almost half the members are professionals and nearly 90 percent are white. Women make up 60 percent of the congregation; gays and lesbians account for 10 percent, and 15 percent of the members are divorced or separated. Less than a third (31 percent) were reared as Episcopalians; 15 percent were reared as Presbyterians and 10 percent as Roman Catholics. Half the members have lived in the area for at least twenty years.
"Most parishioners are extremely proud of the church's commitment to social activism," a report accompanying the survey said, "and the programs and sermons dealing with these issues are praised widely."
Despite general approval and high morale, there is disagreement and even disharmony on some issues. In fact, almost every survey question elicited negative responses from about one-third of parishioners who complained about such things as the church is too big, too rich, or too impersonal and elite.
Said Barry Jay Seltser, who prepared the parish survey: "It is not meant as a criticism of this church to suggest that most of the wonders and weaknesses of late twentieth-century liberal religiosity may be played out within its parish life."
All Saints' large membership, budget, and staff make it possible
to provide ninety separate activities, reflecting the church's involvement with its people, the greater Los Angeles community, and the world. And that is exactly what draws many parishioners and keeps them coming.
"All Saints is a place that integrates your life," says Sue Sprowls, a member since 1985.
A Multitude of Ministries
Among its many activities are these urban ministries:
Union Station and the Depot, a hospitality center that offers free food, emergency shelter, counseling, and friendship to several hundred of Pasadena's most needy.
The Office of Creative Connections, a network joining area leaders and resources to attack urban problems.
Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center near Skid Row in Los Angeles that has helped more than 1,500 immigrant families relocate. Directed by the Rev. Alice Callaghan of All Saints, Las Familias is supported by individuals, corporations, and the church.
Genesis Hotel, a thirty-unit residence, one of three downtown flophouses renovated in a $7-million project. It is run by a nonprofit corporation formed by members of All Saints and the Jewish Leo Baeck Temple of West Los Angeles.
AIDS Service Center, with more than ten support groups in the area; it's the nation's largest, parish-based AIDS program.
Every Sunday on the church lawn, All Saints volunteers staff an AIDS information table one of more than a dozen programs presented in a colorful potpourri of banners and booths to challenge the church family to get involved in everything from choirs to feminist agendas to peace and justice groups.
One of the best-known ministries is the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, founded in 1979 by Regas. The center underlines All Saints' 1987 commitment to be a "peace church" and encourages protests at nuclear test sites and boycotts of goods produced by corporations making nuclear weapons.
All Saints declared itself a "sanctuary church" early in the 1980's
sanctuary movement, disobeying U.S. immigration laws by pledging aid to undocumented persons and refugees.
Other ministries advocate justice for refugees in Los Angeles and the oppressed in Central America; the struggle against apartheid in South Africa; relief of world hunger; the advancement of environmentally sound life-styles; the promotion of U.S.-Soviet relations. And more.
"In short," observes Don Miller, "All Saints is an 'activist church.' It proclaims the Social Gospel vision of a hundred years ago, but with a modern understanding of the importance of coalitions, manipulation of the media, and social service projects that are funded by foundations as well as the church."5
There are welters of groups for those with special concerns or interests: (1) the Pro-Choice Task Force, whose mission is "to secure the right of procreative choice for all women"; (2) the All Saints Mastectomy Support Group; (3) a women's potluck discussion called "Sleep and How to Get It," on insomnia, dreams, and healthy rest; (4) GALAS (Gays and Lesbians All Saints); (5) EDEN (Environmental Defense of the Earth Now), and (6) SAFE, a support group for those being sexually harassed at work.6
Lest a visitor conclude, however, that All Saints is all works and no pray, a newcomer's information packet points to a plethora of "conventional" parish programs: family ministries, Christian education, youth classes and retreats, healing services with "the laying on of hands," a Bible study, "covenant" groups, and prayer fellowships.
On a recent Sunday, Associate Rector Denis O'Pray (his real name) devoted his sermon to "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and Other Simple Thoughts About Prayer."
O'Pray's advice on prayer? "Just do it."
Services at All Saints are rich and varied, and a printed order that often runs to twenty-five pages details every aspect.
"There's a tremendous diversity, and it's not stuffy worship," says Regas. "We may go from an elaborate expression of classical repertoire one week to all Hispanic music the next and black gospel after that."
There are also periodic "Rock Masses," a throwback to the 1970s when young people packed the sanctuary for monthly Sunday-night events of contemporary music coupled with anti-war demonstrations.
A Rock Mass in March 1991 was a "supplication for peace" in the Persian Gulf as well as in America. The program featured music of The Who, Bob Dylan, and Tracy Chapman, among others.7
Regas, a theological liberal, says All Saints is "an open community" with "no theological straightjackets on anyone." Only 15 percent consider themselves "born-again" Christians, and 57 percent say they read the Bible or devotional literature "seldom or not at all."
Nevertheless, Regas says, "We're a Christ-centered church. We believe in the power of the living Christ to change lives."
At Easter, Regas preaches that the resurrection of Jesus, "the greatest story ever to break across the Earth," is the bedrock of Christian faith. "You take that away and the structure of the New Testament would collapse."
In his 1991 Easter message, he proclaimed, "In the magnificent triumph of life over death, we live in Christ's presence today. Take the victory of Easter into your soul and let it strengthen you for life anew."8
Regas studs his sermons with quotes from a wide gamut of sources: Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy, Carl Sandberg, and Agatha Christie to "New Age" Dominican priest Matthew Fox, Peanuts cartoon characters, and Los Angeles Times sports columnists. These citations are at least as numerous as references to the Bible. That doesn't mean the Bible is unimportant at All Saints; it just doesn't play the central role it does in most conservative churches.
A condensation of Regas's controversial sermon espousing a pro-choice view of abortion was published in The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers. Subsequently, the church's elected lay leaders approved a pro-choice policy statement defending abortion from a religious perspective, saying that "no law should be enacted to force an unwilling woman to give birth to an unwanted child."
Regas made international headlines with his November 11, 1990, sermon announcing that he would begin performing "church blessings" for same-sex couples. "I strongly reject" the Episcopal Church's official policy opposing such recognition of gay and lesbian unions, he asserted. "[H]uman sexuality is the test case for communities of faith in our time," Regas said, putting his finger on what most likely will be the most explosive issue of the decade for mainline churches.
"Every human being has a God-given right to sexual love and
intimacy," he declared "a right to be lived out in a way that is compatible with the spirit of Christ."9
Soon after the sermon, All Saints formed the God, Sex & Justice Task Force to discuss and plan for the blessing of same-sex unions.10
An "Honest to God" Greek
The son of a Greek immigrant, Regas attended a Greek Orthodox church as a youngster. He graduated from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was ordained a priest in 1956. He first served "a little bitty mission" of fifty members in Pulaski, Tennessee, before spending seven years as rector of an 800-member church in Nyack, New York. He came to All Saints in 1967, where he now directs a staff of forty-five, including five full-time priests and seven professional lay associates.
Regas pursued graduate studies with his longtime friend and mentor, Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson, the late "Honest to God" theologian whose book by that name questioned most traditional Christian concepts. In 1972, Regas earned a doctor of religion degree at the School of Theology at Claremont.
Active at diocesan and national levels of the church, Regas was a key strategist in the denomination's 1976 vote permitting women priests. And in 1988, Regas was among finalists seeking the influential post of retiring liberal Bishop Paul Moore of New York.
USC's professor Miller thinks Regas is a "genius as a prophet" because he can "anticipate (and in part create) the consensus which then defines the view of many liberal clergy." This positions Regas as a leader, Miller wrote, "who is not crying in the wilderness, but who has a large and powerful congregation standing behind him."11
Regas's 1990 base salary was $70,000. He drives a church-leased BMW, and with his $30,000 housing allowance he is buying the All Saints' rectory. Regas also receives income from a family real estate enterprise, and his second wife, Mary, owns and operates a jewelry-making business. The couple gives $14,000 a year to the church and have pledged another $32,000 to the church building fund.
Many in the All Saints family also give generously. According to the parish survey, 40 percent of pledging members in 1989 gave $2,000 or more a year; almost a quarter gave more than $3,500; and
10 percent donated more than $7,500 to the church. In the spring of 1991, All Saints embarked on a $10.8 million building project to add 22,500 square feet of space and to upgrade the existing facilities, including the 900-seat Gothic stone sanctuary.12
Ironically, the church's most attractive feature strong preaching and commitment to social issues was also singled out in the survey as the thing that made parishioners the most uncomfortable.
About a third of the All Saints family would like more balance between social activism and spirituality, with greater attention to worship, theological reflection, and spiritual depth.
"In some superficial respects," concluded Seltser, the survey analyst,
All Saints fits the stereotype of the large, white, wealthy, mainline Protestant church: uncomfortable with dogma beyond the platitudes of peace and love; unafraid to speak out against racial or sexual discrimination but terrified of alienating members by taking theological positions and drawing lines about belief; open to diversity in membership and supportive of a pluralistic society but unable to identify precisely what makes it distinctively "Christian."
Presbyterian scholar John Leith writes, "the denominations that appear to be most optimistic about changing the policies of great nations, as well as economic and social systems, seem less concerned and optimistic about the possibility of significant transformation of the life of individuals in the congregations."13
Liberal mainline congregations that grow in the new century, then, will likely be sociologically strong rather than doctrinally strong. Somehow, they will demythologize the supernatural aspects of biblical faith while, at the same time, providing deep mystical experiences. They will have to maintain a precarious yet creative tension between the poles of worship and social action.
That will be a neat trick for the few that can do it.
Chapter Twenty-seven || Table of Contents