A Proud Skeptic in the Pew

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- James Kelley doesn't believe in God - Father, Son or Holy Spirit.

Kelley doesn't believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection or any of the miracles the Bible says happened in between. Kelley doesn't believe in heaven or hell. He isn't a Christian. He isn't even a theist. But Kelley is an Episcopalian and proud of it and he thinks that more skeptics should sign up - just as they are.

"I pay my pledge. I've taught Sunday school and been on the vestry," said the former Justice Department lawyer, who is now a full-time writer. "This is my church. I belong here."

It's been 14 years since Kelley and other members of his confirmation class faced the bishop of Washington, D.C., and took their vows. In his new book, "Skeptic in the House of God," Kelley recalls many details of that scene - but not how he answered the pivotal question: "Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?" He was supposed to respond: "I do, and with God's grace I will follow him as my Savior and Lord."

"I honestly don't remember. ... I might have said nothing. I might have just mumbled," he said. "Then again, I might have said what was proscribed. But if I did that, then I did what I always do. I just translated it - line by line - in my head. I do that all the time with the creed and the prayers. ... I just do the agnostic's translation. But it doesn't really matter. They let me in."

Kelley knows that there are legions of Episcopalians who want to see a link between church membership and some basic Christian doctrines. That's fine. He also knows that there are plenty of bishops, priests and laity who are just as unorthodox as he is. Kelley is an active member of an historic parish - St. Mark's on Capitol Hill -- in a prestigious diocese. He's safe.

These kinds of clashes are common in the "seven sisters," of liberal American Protestantism -- the American Baptist Churches, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church. Year after year, they make news with their heated debates - usually about sex. Meanwhile, fights over the nature of God, biblical authority, salvation and many other crucial subjects continue behind the scenes.

The crucial question: What provides unity in churches in which members and even clergy are free to reject the basic doctrines of the faith?

Based on his own poll data, Kelley believes that 10 percent or more of the members of his home parish are skeptics. In his confirmation class, the priest wrote out the phrases of the Nicene Creed on newsprint and asked people to vote yea or nay. There were no wrong votes. Kelley said he signed up "expecting it to focus on the theology of the Episcopal Church. Coming from a Catholic background, I assumed there was such a thing."

Truth is, the sources of this parish's unity are its identity as an "open" community and its commitment to using specific rites - even if the clergy and worshippers have radically redefined or abandoned the conventional meanings of the words they recite. This has led to an inevitable side effect that could be seen in another recent parish poll. The least satisfied members were the few who hold any traditional Christian beliefs. It is the orthodox who are the heretics.

Kelley said he hopes they choose to stay, but he will understand if they choose to leave. Meanwhile, his years at St. Mark's have convinced him that pluralistic churches can survive and even thrive in urban areas close to universities, government complexes and other centers of skepticism and progressive lifestyles. They have something to offer.

"We all love the incense, the stained-glass windows, the organ music, the vestments and all of that," he said. "There will always be people who love that. ... It's drama. It's aesthetics. It's the ritual. That's neat stuff. I don't want to give all that up, just because I don't believe in God and all that."