Jim Pinto was hooked on drugs and shacked up with his girlfriend when his life was changed by a soul-shaking conversion experience.
So he quit his job as a bartender, got married and went to tell his local bishop that God wanted him to become an Episcopal priest. This was 1977 and, since Pinto lived in New Jersey, that meant visiting the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong.
"I told him all about the miracles that God had done in my life," said Pinto, recalling his encounter with a bishop now known as a global trendsetter among liberal Protestants. "He looked at me and, I'll never forget it, he said: `I believed like you do when I was a little boy. But I grew up.'"
Pinto found another diocese. But he never forgot Spong's warning that he wouldn't be at home in the Episcopal Church.
A few weeks ago, Pinto and most of his interracial church near Birmingham, Ala., decided it was time to go. Christ Church is located in an impoverished neighborhood and had 30 members when Pinto arrived in 1980. Recently, its 300 members completed constructing $2 million worth of buildings to house their work with the poor. The Diocese of Alabama kept the buildings, which is business as usual when a church leaves a mainline denomination.
Pinto is known as a moral traditionalist, including high- profile work in crusades against abortion. So it wasn't a surprise that this priest left a church whose national leaders promote progressive theology and social causes such as homosexual and abortion rights. What caught many off guard was the setting for this story. It isn't news when a traditionalist exits a liberal diocese. This one jumped ship in the Bible Belt.
As described in last week's column, the "seven sisters" of old-line Protestantism face issues more complex than national clashes between left and right. Some parts of the American Baptist Churches, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church are more conservative or more progressive than others. Tensions also exist between local conservatives who clash with liberal regional leaders and between conservatives who differ on how to respond to national trends.
People in orthodox regions are affected by events in progressive regions. People camped in orthodox regions are touched by the decisions of the orthodox who feel trapped in progressive regions. This tune has countless variations.
Some stress hope, others holiness. This painful tension keeps growing as the ecclesiastical pie shrinks.
"We're trying to get people to stay and fight for the faith, rather than walking out and handing things over to the people who want to change everything," said David Stanley, a layman in Muscatine, Iowa, who has been active at all levels of United Methodist life. "We have to keep asking: Does God still have a propose for our church? If he does, then God must be planning to revive our church. We have to have faith that is still possible."
Others stress the sacred ties that bind -- here and now. Week after week, Pinto found himself trying to explain why the Gospel preached in his church differs so radically from that proclaimed by progressives such as Spong. It's all one church, one communion, gathered at one altar, stressed Pinto.
Nevertheless, it's hard to make painful choices about local realities, such as paychecks and property laws, based on decisions in national bureaucracies or even ancient church councils. But, sooner or later, everyone will face choices.
At the moment, many local churches are like airplanes, said Pinto. Even if the planes work fine, and most of the pilots are trustworthy, thousands of passengers remain at risk.
"The problem is with the air-traffic controllers, with the people who run the whole Episcopal Church," he said. "They no longer seem to care when planes keep crashing into each other or flying into mountains. ... Things are out of control because the people in the planes can't trust the people in the control tower."