Sunday, December 03, 2006

Conservative Anglicans in California Vote for Schism

What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
--Ecclesiastes 1:9

Welcome to Religion Retroblog -- where we always "did that story ten years ago." On December 2, 2006, the conservative Diocese of San Joaquin in central Califoria became the first diocese in the nation to vote to breakaway from the Episcopal Church over gay rights and the consecration of a woman as presiding bishop of the denomination. Moderate Episcopalians in the Central Valley saw it coming three years ago in this report first published on November 26, 2003.

By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle

Fearing a takeover by fundamentalist forces, moderate Episcopalians in the San Joaquin Valley have begun a campaign to keep control of church government following a long-feared schism over gay rights.

The moderate move pits five Central Valley priests and a growing number of lay people against Episcopal Bishop John-David Schofield of Fresno, who has emerged as a national leader in a breakaway group of conservative prelates upset over a liberal shift in the 2.3 million-member denomination.

"They are more fundamentalist," said the Rev. Rick Matters, the rector of St. John the Baptist Church in Lodi and a leader in the new moderate movement. "If schism happens, and the bishop and other priests leave, our goal is maintain the Diocese of San Joaquin in the Episcopal Church USA.''

Schofield and other bishops working with the conservative American Anglican Council were enraged by the Nov. 2 consecration of an openly gay man, the Rev. Gene Robinson, as the new bishop of New Hampshire.

Robinson's ascension into the Anglican hierarchy has been approved by a majority of the Episcopal bishops in the United States and voting delegates of the church's national policy-making body.

Nevertheless, it has angered leaders in conservative American dioceses and elsewhere in the worldwide 77-million-member Anglican communion.

Matters and other leaders in the moderate campaign have started a ministry and launched a new Web site called Remaining ECUSA (Episcopal Church of the USA).

"We affirm that we live in fellowship with one another and Christ even when we disagree with each other over questions of morality, such as homosexuality,'' Matters writes on the site,

Karen Gillian, a lay leader at St. Columba Episcopal ChurchKaren Gillian, a lay leader at St. Columba Episcopal Church in Fresno, was one of the few moderates who publicly opposed Schofield and a group of conservative priests at a recent diocesan convention.

"It was sad," she said. "They are so unable to hear the other side.''

Gillian said the convention "felt more like a Baptist revival" than a gathering of California Episcopalians.

And talking to Bishop Schofield, she said, was like "speaking to someone from 100 years ago.''

"Our bishop has still not ordained a female,'' Gillian added.

Schofield did not return several phone calls placed to his office on Monday and Tuesday.

But in an interview with The Chronicle earlier this month, the bishop said "the liberals have gone into schism" by allowing the consecration of a gay bishop. Schofield said he was awaiting a report, expected later this year, from a special commission set up by the Archbishop of Canterbury to study the matter before making his next move.

Schofield was referring to the 62 U.S. bishops who allowed the New Hampshire consecration to be held. Forty-three bishops opposed Robinson's elevation, and two abstained.

Nevertheless, Schofield said he and the clear majority of his priests "are standing with the majority of Anglican bishops around the world.''

Matters concedes that only five out of 30 rectors in the San Joaquin diocese have publicly aligned themselves with the moderate movement.

"Our real strength is with the laity,'' he said. "Ninety-nine percent of my parish is planning to stay.''

Schofield's sprawling, Fresno-based diocese includes Stanislaus, Inyo, Kern, Tulare, Madera, Merced, Tuolumne, Calaveras, Mono and Fresno counties.

The other rectors who have joined "Remaining ECUSA" are the Rev. Keith Axberg of the Church of the Holy Family in Fresno; the Rev. Mark Hall of St. Annes in Stockton; the Rev. Johnny Johnson of All Saints in Bakersfield; and the Rev. Joel Miller of St. Francis in Turlock.

Rectors (called "pastors" in the Roman Catholic Church) cannot be easily removed by bishops in the Episcopal Church.

But Matters said Schofield has taken what retribution he could by removing the rebel priest from teaching and administrative positions in the diocese.

"It feels like there is a persecution going on in the way Father Rick (Matters) was stripped of his duties,'' said Nancy Key, a member of St. Columba Church in Fresno.

Another member of that parish, Fresno dentist Dr. Richard Jennings, hopes the church can avoid a division into two warring camps.

"I was in Costco the other day, and someone came up to me and said 'Dr. Jennings. Which side are you on? Are you staying or leaving?' As mature Christians,'' the dentist said, "we need to realize there will be times when the church will do things we don't agree with. But to leave the national church will only isolate ourselves from our fellow churchmen.''

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"San Francisco Values"

What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
--Ecclesiastes 1:9

Welcome to Religion Retroblog -- where we always "did that story ten years ago." With U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi poised to become Speaker of the House, the Grand Old Party is tuning up its attack machine and going after "San Francisco values," whatever those are. Here's a piece published several years back, during an earlier outbreak of San Francisco bashing.

By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle

Our nation's self-anointed arbiters of public morality love to point their fingers at San Francisco and "the '60s." And many of us have gotten all too comfortable in this role as the hedonists and heretics of an otherwise God- fearing nation. OK, we're not perfect, and neither were those wild times, but can't the pundits of piety find another decade to bash and a new city to trash?

According to some evangelical observers, the youth of America came here in the '60s with flowers in their hair and lust in their heart. Infected with the sins of the flesh and the wisdom of the East, they went forth across the land to spawn the first "post-Christian generation." But don't worry. True believers across the Bible Belt are praying for the poor lost souls of all those "unchurched'' twentysomethings and thirtysomethings born in the late '60s and '70s. You know, the kids of the hippies, the lefties and assorted crazies - all those "baby busters'' whose parents never got around to taking their sons and daughters to the church or synagogue of their choice.

Their parents' choice was to reject their Judeo-Christian tradition and dabble in Buddhism, mysticism, shamanism, anarchism, atheism, hedonism and Hinduism. But they didn't want to lay their spiritual trip on the kids. Their children had to find their own path. Some did. Others are still stumbling down the road of grow-your-own religion.

In a national survey conducted in January 2002, pollster George Gallup found that one-third of Americans now describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious." These are not just spiritual seekers and Baby Boomers stuck in the '60s. Other recent surveys have found personalized spirituality even more common among the "Generation Xers." Jackson W. Carroll and Wade Clark Roof surveyed more than 1,000 Americans and found rising religious individualism in Generation X. Nearly 73 percent of the younger generation agreed with the statement "An individual should arrive at religious beliefs independent of church groups." That compared to 65 percent for the Baby Boomers (those born from 1945 to 1965) and 60 percent for older Americans.

For the past few years, I've talked to lots of "unchurched" Gen Xers and their Baby Boomer parents for a new book titled "Following Our Bliss - How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today." Among the questions we explore are how one lives an ethical life outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream. What are your guideposts if you don't want your rules etched in stone and placed in the Supreme Court building in Montgomery, Ala.? How do former fundamentalists decide what is right or wrong if they no longer fear God nor follow all 10 of the Ten Commandments? How do lapsed Catholics make moral decisions about sexuality without turning to the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church?

"The motivation for living an ethical life is not just intellectual or someone frightening you. It can be based emotionally on your sense of compassion and empathy. That's where soul and spirit come together," said Thomas Moore, a free-thinking Catholic and author of "Care of the Soul," one of the mega-selling spirituality books of the 1990s.

"That's very important in an ethical life. You realize that we're all in this together. We live in a diverse world and need to have empathy for people with diverse views and lifestyles. The church has tried to use fear, but it doesn't work."

Moore and I were talking about how people can be Catholic without obeying the edicts of the pope or their Catholic bishop. Back in the 1950s, when he was entering adolescence, Moore left home to begin the years of study required for ordination as a Roman Catholic priest in a religious order. Thirteen years later, just six months before he was to take his final vows, Moore opted out of the clerical life. It was 1967, and Moore was 26.

Today, Thomas Moore, writer, has influenced far more American Catholics than he would have as Thomas Moore, priest. "I'm still a monk at heart and the writing of these books is my spiritual practice,'' said Moore, who has two children. "It's not just a job. I realize how much of my Catholicism is involved in my life, but it's not the Catholicism that the church advocates. I don't care if I follow all the rules, but I have the spirit of it. In my own way, I do practice the faith. My Catholicism is part of my nature. It's part of me. It's a cultural thing and it makes no sense to me to disown it. So the alternative is to redefine it.''

Spiritual seekers of my generation - those of us who profess to be into "spirituality, but not religion" - are notorious for this personalized approach to finding faith and making moral decisions. If we are Catholic, we are "cafeteria Catholics,'' picking and choosing our spiritual and ethical nourishment from the Roman menu. We stand accused of moral relativism in our ethics and philosophy - believing that right and wrong and good and bad change with time and circumstance.

Not that long ago, sex between two men or two women was considered immoral, unnatural or at least unspeakable by the civic and spiritual establishment. Today, we have openly gay members of Congress, the Board of Supervisors and the Episcopal House of Bishops.

When it comes to sexual morality, many of us revel in relativism, also known as "tolerance." We no longer hide the fact that we live together and love together outside of marriage, or that we have a sexual relationship with a person of the same sex.

Since the sexual revolution of the '60s and '70s, Jewish and Christian denominations have struggled with the culture's conflicting concepts of sexual morality. And the debate shows no signs of abating. Earlier this year, conservatives in the worldwide Anglican communion threatened schism when the Episcopal bishops of the United States ordained an openly gay bishop. That was just weeks after the Vatican declared that civil recognition of gay unions was a "legalization of evil." At their big summer church conventions, mainline Protestant denominations like the Presbyterian Church USA argue about gay rights and morality of homosexual unions on an annual basis.

Meanwhile, millions of younger Americans - the ones who are actually having most of the sex - could care less what Episcopal bishops, Vatican officials or Presbyterian delegates think about all this. But that does not mean their sexuality isn't connected to their spirituality or their sense of right and wrong.

Take the story of Diana Chornenkaya, the founder of Woman's Temple and one of the Gen Xers profiled in "Following Our Bliss." Chornenkaya offers workshops on sex, on how the "unchurched" minions of her generation - and the one before it - can set sexual boundaries without consulting the Ten Commandments. "We teach people how to communicate when you want to be touched, and when you don't want to be touched - how to say 'no' with compassion and how to receive 'no' with compassion, or how to say 'yes.' It's getting in tune with other people's body language and checking with them if you are in doubt.''

Most of her Bay Area workshops are for women only. There are women who downplayed their sexuality in the 1970s and 1980s to compete in the corporate world, and are now trying to reclaim it. Some have suffered from sexual abuse, others are struggling with shame instilled by their religious upbringing. But whatever the reason, most are trying to regain the power of feminine sexuality.

Chornenkaya, a nurturing woman with soft dark hair and soulful eyes, was born in Moscow in 1971 and immigrated to the United States with her parents in the early 1990s. Her father was a physicist in Russia and a "passionate atheist," so her only religious traditions are faint echoes of the Russian Orthodox Church. "My mother was a kind of guilty Christian in her heart,'' she says, speaking with a Russian accent. "You just bury everything."

Many of the students at the regular Women's Temple workshops are Baby Boomers old enough to be Chornenkaya's mother. The workshops have that kind of amorphous spirituality one finds in the New Age movement. There are visualization exercises, and techniques to allow women to get in touch with their bodies. "We teach women how to pay attention to what is going on in their bodies," she says, "connecting to places that are numb."

Chornenkaya is sitting amid the high-rises in downtown San Francisco, on her lunch break from the corporate job she hopes to leave so she can devote more time to her Women's Temple. It's a cold, windy day, and Diana is bundled up in a big coat like someone ready for winter in Moscow.

"Some people might call our workshops 'homosexual,' even though the majority of women who come identify themselves as heterosexual," she says. "If you touch a woman's vagina and massage her to give her sexual pleasure, some people would call that a 'homosexual experience.' But we do it with other women so we can learn about each other's bodies. It's not like we're going to run off and get married."

"My vision in this work is about empowering women through their bodies," she explains. "God is inside them. I don't actually use the word 'God.' It's really their body that will tell them. To me, that's the deeper connection."

Chornenkaya opens her legs a bit, holds her hands in front of her and lowers them down to her lap, bringing them together to form a "V" between her thighs. "This is where every woman is plugged into the whole process of creation. To me, this is the definition of God.

There was a pause while I looked into Chornenkaya's lap, then back into her eyes. What do you say to a beautiful woman when she puts her hands between her legs and proclaims "this is my definition of God"? What do you say to that? "Hallelujah!" or "Amen"?

So I cut to the chase. "What do you base a sexual ethic on," I ask, "if not on religious tradition? How do you decide what sexual activity is right and what is wrong?"

There's a long pause. "What we teach in workshops for men and women is that you have to connect with yourself, with your own emotions and feelings, before you can connect to another person's feelings. I guess that's the guide. Are you hurting the person, or not? Obviously, with molestation or child abuse, the person does not really want to connect with the child. They want to rob the child of what they have," Diana says.

Chornenkaya's answer reminded me of another person I interviewed - someone closer to my age. Rebecca Ann Parker is an ordained Methodist minister and president of Starr King School of Ministry, a Unitarian-Universalist seminary and member of the Graduate Theological Union consortium on Berkeley's "Holy Hill."

We're sitting in her office talking about sex. She is a short woman, with an easy smile and gray hair cut in a short and simple style. Parker and I were both born in 1953, smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boom years, and we both came of age in the middle of the sexual revolution.

"I was just coming of age in the early 1970s and remember the sexual freedom of the time. There was a sense that old boundaries were oppressive and destroying the life spirit. In a lot of ways that was true. The old boundaries were not healthy, but not having any values was also unhealthy. It wasn't that good for women, it wasn't that good for children, and maybe it wasn't that good for men either.

"In the last 30 years we've been reconstructing an understanding of right relationship, or ethical boundaries," she said. "You had the women's movement deeply divided over pornography, or S&M. OK. Let's say 'Sex is good' rather than 'Sex is bad.' I'm for that. But that kind of either/or is not an adequate way of parsing the problem. It's more complex than that. Even when you say sexuality is good, you have to ask 'When is it good?' Sex is this wonderful thing, but it's a little like fire. It can warm you, or it can burn you.''

Then I asked Parker about sexual ethics - about the widespread disagreement in America today about what kind of sex is "good" and what kind of sex is "bad. " What's the connection between our attitudes about monogamy, homosexuality and our religious tradition?

"There is a connection between monotheism and monogamy. Being faithful to the one true God. You have images of idolatry and apostasy being articulated as adultery or sexual licentiousness. Your right relationship to God is monogamous. You have one God like you have no other loves. Then you've got the notion of God creating male and female to be right with God. Those are the orders of creation. So to follow God's orders is to be heterosexual. Actually, the Bible itself has many more complicated human sexual behaviors than that. But for those of us born in the '50s, the ethics of that era were monogamous heterosexuality was right, and sex outside of marriage was wrong. If you were a Catholic, you also had the idea that sex for pleasure was wrong. What evolved from the 1950s was the idea that, 'Well, maybe sexuality is good.' Then the idea that sexual diversity was good."

OK. So far, so good. But on what do you base a sexual ethic if you don't base it on God, the Bible or religious tradition?

"I would base it on what's good for children," Parker replied. "I think it's good for children to have adults who are committed to them without question."

It's hard to argue against parents being totally committed to their children - but here goes:

Today, the family has been raised up as the most sacred and sovereign unit of society. Many of the families profiled in "Following Our Bliss" paid less attention to the kids than the children wanted, but the neglect was mostly benign, the byproduct of social idealism or a life a bit too centered on self- improvement. One of the themes running through my interviews with people born into the spiritual counterculture of the '60s was this feeling that their parents were not there for them. It didn't matter that they were worshiping strange gods, following some messianic prophet or living promiscuous lives. It wasn't that Mom and Dad were out saving the world, or spreading Krishna consciousness, but simply that they were not available to the family. Many of these parents were more concerned about changing the world than raising their families.

Looking back on it, many of these adult children of the '60s retain some resentment about not being the center of their parents' universe. But those who inherited Mom and Dad's social idealism also see that there was a lot in the world that needed to be changed, and there still is.

"As kids, we felt second fiddle,'' said Anjali Browning, whose parents were devotees of an Indian guru named Swami Chinmayananda. "Our parents wanted to be involved in something larger. And you know there was a lot to change about the world, and here was this man (the swami) trying to make a difference. But it's easy to resent the lifestyle. We weren't raised with the mentality that you have to go to college and start a career. My parents had this free- floating, go-with-the-flow attitude. It was selfish to have goals. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. That's good in a lot of ways, but I was kind of a dreamer - not realistic about how the world worked.''

Browning is right when she points out that the world needed changing in the '60s, and it still does today. Too many of us have reacted - consciously or unconsciously - against the idealism of the '60s. We've retreated into our own private little worlds, our own version of "traditional family values.'' One child of the '60s - a man who grew up in a series of radical, communal homes - put it this way:

"One of the illnesses of the American nuclear family is that children are raised thinking they are the center of the universe, and the only other planets are Mom and Dad. That is unhealthy for the child, but it's also unhealthy for the adults. What I most appreciate about the counterculture upbringing that I had is that it gave me a critical stance. We learned to think critically. We were taught to question about how society was run.''

Sixties-bashing is facile. In the 1990s, those titillating times were subject to endless sniping by the talking heads of television, apostles of the ordinary and other neo-conservative pundits. For many Christian commentators, the '60s became a metaphor for the Fall From Grace. It was more convenient to blame drug addiction, poverty, teen pregnancy and the breakdown of the family on a past period of permissiveness. It was also a good political strategy. Criticizing the excesses of the '60s shifts attention away from the recent undoing of the vital social gains of the decade. It was easier to preach a narrow and regressive sexual morality than to look at other forces threatening poor and middle-class families in the late 20th century - like the desperate shortage of affordable housing and the grinding necessity for both parents to hold jobs.

Our appraisal of the '60s flows from our ideas about the '50s - and many of those ideas are wrong. Sixties bashers claim America's moral, religious and familial life reached shining heights in the '50s, then collapsed into a cacophony of selfishness and sin. America's "Greatest Generation," we are told,

saved the world in the '40s, then moved to the suburbs and set us on the path of peace and prosperity. In this fantasy, all began to unravel in the '60s, when a rebellious generation tore society apart and couldn't put it back together again. Our most grievous loss was said to be "traditional family values," three words that became the political battle cry of reactionary, post- '60s politics and religion.

In reality, there wasn't much about the faith and families of the '50s that were "traditional." If anything, the '50s was the aberrant decade, not the '60s and '70s. The post-World War II era saw an abnormal emphasis on piety, patriotism and the nuclear family. In fact, the decade was just a blip on the long-term charts of public piety. Our religious "revival" had more to do with demographics and politics than the hand of God. The Baby Boomers reached their Sunday-school years. This is when many families traditionally - and often temporarily - reconnect with church or synagogue.

Enough about "the greatest generation." It had its greatness, to be sure, but it is also the generation that built Japanese internment camps, saluted McCarthyism and mostly turned its face away from racism and anti-Semitism. Many of the problems we blame on the '60s - child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse - were no less prevalent in the '50s. We just didn't talk about it then. It was much easier to hide all that behind the walls of our now- separate homes out in the suburbs.

Sociologist Stephanie Coontz points out in "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" that the rise of the nuclear family came at the expense of other old-fashioned values - like the extended family's inclusion of grandparents and aunts and uncles in children's lives, along with the social ties of truly interdependent communities.

Powerful spirits moved the religious revolution of the '60s: idealism, innovation, empowerment and the search for authentic experience. They remain the hallmarks of the era. There was a thirst for authenticity, for telling it like it is. There was a turning away from materialism, greed and old roles. Many of us replayed Dustin Hoffman's role in the 1967 film "The Graduate," searching for our own life and our own set of values. Benjamin was right. You don't have to go into plastics. You can follow your bliss. There was a feeling of hope in the '60s that's hard for young people to imagine today.

Yet conservative evangelicals look at the signs of the times in San Francisco and tell us all signs point straight to hell. We are the mecca of alternative lifestyles, and as the Bay Area goes, so goes the nation. Take, for example, the following paragraph from a recent book by sociologist Alan Wolfe called "Moral Freedom: The Search for Virtue in a World of Choice." Wolfe surveys the populations in places like Tipton, Iowa, and San Antonio, Texas, and comes to San Francisco only to find the counterpoint to all that is right and true in America.

"The most notorious events of the dreaded 1960s - the Free Speech Movement, violent resistance against the military draft, the rise of the Black Panthers, and the drug and music scene with its ground zero at Haight-Ashbury - happened either in San Francisco or across the bay in Berkeley and Oakland,'' Wolfe writes. "In the next decade Castro Street would become the main street of gay America, not only a direct confrontation with traditional American morality but also, by the end of the 1970s, a disease that seemed to vindicate the wrath of God. With a climate and scenic beauty too good to be true, San Francisco came to represent a repudiation of the self-discipline and delayed gratification that once constituted the core of both capitalist and Christian virtue. Political and theological conservatives therefore find in San Francisco everything that goes wrong when people believe that they can somehow live without obedience to firm rules of moral authority, handed down by tradition, tested by centuries of experience, and inscribed in the great moral and religious texts of the West."

And you thought we were just having a good time.

Don't get me wrong. Being a child of the '60s was not easy. Divorce is hard on families, and from 1960 to the mid-1980s, the divorce rate tripled and the number of children in one-parent homes doubled. Meanwhile, the percentage of teenage mothers who were unwed jumped from 15 percent to 61 percent. None of those are healthy trends, but it's too easy to blame the bogeymen of the counterculture and '60s permissiveness. Most people who divorce remarry and form new and extended kinship networks. Back in the '50s, pregnant girls got married, but they produced a lot of unhappy marriages and unloved children. Bad marriages are not necessarily better than good single-parent homes.

The leaders of today's Christian Right respond to the 1960s and women's liberation with fire-and-brimstone rhetoric. Pat Robertson, the televangelist and former GOP presidential candidate, proclaimed in a fund-raising letter in the 1990s that feminism was inspiring women to "leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."

It's hard to decide which part of Robertson's rant is most shocking, especially from a man who claims to be a follower of Jesus, but let's just consider the parts about leaving husbands and destroying capitalism. According to the Bible, Jesus said his true disciple must reject his earthly life to follow the Master - he must "hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters." As for capitalism, the Savior advises the rich man to "sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me." So much for capitalism and family values.

So what would Jesus do? What would he find good and bad about the spiritual legacy of the '60s? Search the Bible for clues about the Savior's worries about sex, wine and celebration, and you won't find much. And the Nazarene does not appear to have been a great advocate of traditional religion or traditional families. He inveighed against the accumulation of wealth and talked instead about voluntary simplicity, peace, justice, love and communal living. He was much more interested in saving the world than raising a family. Sound familiar?

Then, and now, we need to watch out for those who use sexual morality and "traditional family values'' as smoke screens for selfishness. Sexual ethics and family values are important, but no more important than social ethics. It's time for us to stop buying into the reaction against San Francisco and the '60s, and find our way back to what was best about that time and this place. .

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Mormon Polygamists of San Francisco's Past

What has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
--Ecclesiastes 1:9

Welcome to Religion Retroblog -- where we always "did that story ten years ago." Polygamist prophet and San Francisco native Warren Jeffs was arrested this week in Utah, but the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is not the first Mormon sect leader to make headlines in the City by the Bay.

By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle

History has not been kind to Sam Brannan, the hard-drinking Mormon who put San Francisco on the map.

Shunned by Mormon historians embarrassed by his less-than-saintly life and unappreciated by secular scholars who downplayed his role in San Francisco history, Sam Brannan is finally being celebrated in a week of festivities marking the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Brooklyn.

San Francisco was just a tiny outpost named Yerba Buena when the Brooklyn sailed into the bay on July 31, 1846, with 230 Mormon immigrants Brannan had gathered together on the East Coast.

They were an industrious lot who immediately

doubled the population of Yerba Buena, constructed 100 to 200 buildings and laid the foundation for the boomtown that would come two years later with the Gold Rush.

Brannan ran San Francisco, starting the city's first newspaper, cashing in on the Gold Rush and becoming California's first millionaire before he fell from Mormon grace and eventually slid into alcoholism, poverty and death.

``If Brannan and the Mormons hadn't built San Francisco into a trading center, the Gold Rush ships might have sailed right by. . . . They were in such a hurry to get to the gold, they wouldn't have made any unnecessary stops,'' said William Homer, a Mormon historian from San Jose and co-author with Richard Cowan of the recent book ``California Saints.''

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have decided it's time to own up to Sam Brannan.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the Brooklyn's arrival, the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir will appear at Davies Hall for two sold-out performances Monday and Tuesday night.

On Tuesday, the eve of the actual anniversary, Bay Area Mormons also will re-enact the Brooklyn's arrival when a reproduction of the three-masted, square-rigged cargo ship sails from Sausalito to the Hyde Street Pier.

California was still Mexican territory when the Brooklyn set sail from New York harbor on Feb. 4, 1846, carrying 238 Mormon pioneers. Ten would die -- and two would be born -- on the epic six- month journey around Cape Horn.

Some Mormon historians believe that Northern California -- not the basin of the Great Salt Lake -- was to be the new Mormon mecca, the place where ``the Saints'' could practice their controversial religion and polygamous lifestyle in peace.

Following the murder of their founder and fears of further persecution, these ``exiles from a wicked land'' renounced their allegiance to the United States and secretly planned to meet up with an overland party organized from Nauvoo, Ill., by Mormon prophet Brigham Young.

Under the leadership of Sam Brannan, the East Coast contingent reached San Francisco Bay a year before Young reached Utah, but three weeks after the Stars and Stripes was hoisted over the central square of Yerba Buena during the Mexican-American War.

Sailing through the Golden Gate, Brannan squinted through the summer fog at his new home, reportedly muttering, ``There's that damned flag again.''

Brannan was born on the southern coast of Maine on March 2, 1819, to a hard-drinking father and ``somewhat kinder'' mother. When he was 14, he moved to Ohio with his older sister and her husband.

There, Brannan fell under the sway of the 5-year-old Mormon sect and helped build the Kirkland Temple with other early followers of the charismatic sect leader, Joseph Smith.

After a failed marriage, land speculation losses and an unsuccessful attempt to start a newspaper in New Orleans, Brannan found himself back with the Mormons in New York City in 1844, serving as editor and publisher of the Prophet, a church newspaper.

In December of that year, Brannan was excommunicated by church leaders for ``false doctrine and immoral practices.'' According to church historians, Brannan taught the doctrine of ``spiritual wives,'' the idea that women could have sexual relations with any men they favored.

``Spiritual wives'' was an unauthorized twist on the 19th century Mormon practice of ``plural families,'' whereby men were allowed more than one wife.

Brannan traveled to church headquarters in Nauvoo to appeal his excommunication and soon found himself back in the good graces of the church.

On Sept. 15, 1845, he was back in New York and received a letter from Brigham Young: ``I wish you together with your press, paper and ten thousand of the brethren were now in California at the Bay of St. Francisco,'' Young wrote. ``We will meet you there.''

Brannan took the prophet's advice. Among the items unloaded from the Brooklyn was a five-ton press. In a matter of months, he began publishing the California Star, the first newspaper in San Francisco and the second in California.

But there was fierce infighting among the band of Mormons. Many fell away, while true believers were disappointed when Brannan failed to convince Young that San Francisco Bay was a better place of gathering than the Salt Lake Basin.

Brannan also refused to send Young a cut of his Gold Rush riches, reportedly telling emissaries from Salt Lake that he would ``turn over tithing money if they showed him a receipt from God.''

Meanwhile, Brannan was heading the infamous vigilante movement that rounded up and lynched alleged criminals in San Francisco during the wild days of the Gold Rush.

Church leaders excommunicated him in 1851, accusing him of ``un-Christian life conduct and neglect of duty.''

Brannan remained in San Francisco, expanding his business into banking and land speculation, and founding the resort spa of Calistoga. His most visible monument in San Francisco is the long South of Market street that still bears his name.

But his biographers say a series of bad business moves, failed marriages and demon rum led to his demise. There were reports of him sleeping on a bench on a street he once owned in San Francisco and selling pencils on the streets of Nogales, Mexico, before he died in San Diego in May 1889.

Mormon Apostle David Haight, one of the 15 men in the inner circle of Mormon power in Salt Lake City, says there's a lesson in Brannan's life.

Haight, 89, a former mayor of Palo Alto, was born just 17 years after Brannan died and will be back in the Bay Area for next week's festivities.

``Sam Brannan got too big for his britches,'' said Haight. ``And he died a penniless man.''

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, July 26, 1996.

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Does Geoge Bush Have a Prayer

Three years later, we are still bogged down in Iraqi. Once again, the Lebanese and Israelis are burying the dead and clearing away the rubble. Now, more than ever, our President needs a new prayer...

It was written by the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, but the Serenity Prayer is best known as the mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

If the Serenity Prayer can work for ordinary drunks, perhaps it can also be a source of wisdom for the recovering alcoholic in the White House.

What this country needs, writes Roland S. Homet Jr., is a Serenity Prayer for the military and political leaders of the world's sole remaining superpower.

God, grant us the serenity to tolerate conduct that does not threaten us, to focus on real threats as priorities for response and to understand what motivates other people.

Homet offers that up in a little book titled "The Wisdom of Serpents -- Reflections on Religion and Foreign Policy," published last year by Forward Movement Publications, a nonprofit agency of the Episcopal Church.

In that same vein, Skylight Paths Publishing is just out with a timely collection of essays titled "Spiritual Perspectives on America's Role as Superpower." It reminds us how we can also get drunk on power -- and very drunk on superpower.

American Muslim writer Kabir Helminski of the Sufi Mevlevi Order writes: "As America, now the only superpower, appears to be embarking on its own unabashedly imperial phase, it appears to be incrementally betraying the values upon which it was founded. Amid a flurry of self-righteous rhetoric about 'protecting our way of life,' it is shocking how much of our freedom, economic well-being and environment are under assault. One needs to propose no hidden conspiracy other than the inevitable coercion ensuing from the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few, arrogantly and ignorantly obsessed with their own short-term advantage. It is a failure of justice and love."

As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as a good and compassionate people. But in his essay, evangelical Christian Tony Campolo says we may be lying to ourselves about that. "Americans do not realize that the wealth we have gained since the middle of the twentieth century has slowly made us into a very selfish people," Campolo writes.

"We know that after World War II we helped rebuild Europe under the Marshall Plan, and we still think that the same kind of generosity marks our present-day foreign policy. That is not the case. Of the twenty-two industrialized nations of the world, the United States is dead last in per capita giving to the poor peoples of the world. On a per capita basis, for every dollar that America gives to the poor of the world, the people of Norway give seventy."

Catholic feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether writes about how Sept. 11, 2001, "gave the Bush administration the new global enemy it needed to justify its global imperial strategy." "Terrorism" became the new incarnation of evil. The war against Iraq, Ruether writes, is depicted as "one more episode in an apocalyptic drama of good against evil, the angels of Light against the forces of Darkness, America as God's chosen people against God's enemies."

Matthew Fox, the former Catholic priest and founder of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, writes about how many of President Bush's supporters in the Christian Right misread the Bible when they see the United States as the hero in the spiritual and military battle against the forces of darkness.

Today, Fox notes, the United States is more like Egypt in the Old Testament and the Roman Empire in the Christian Bible.

"In the Hebrew Bible, one superpower is Egypt, and the Pharaoh is its arm," Fox writes. "Neither comes off looking very good in the eyes of God, whose power alone we are instructed to admire. Anything else is called a major sin, idolatry or the worshiping of false power objects."

Originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle on May 4, 2003. E-mail the author at

Thursday, June 29, 2006


Welcome to the Religion RetroBlog --
Where we always "did that story ten years ago."

Those traditionalist Episcopalians were back in the news again in June 2006. Here's a piece from one of the many earlier times they have threatened schism.


California Episcopal churches split over gay bishop
Walnut Creek pastor pained by divisions

Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

At St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Walnut Creek, the Rev. Phil Brochard and his flock have been watching the infighting over the gay bishop with a mixture of embarrassment and pain.

"This is not the way we want to show ourselves to the rest of the world," Brochard said. "We need to go back to being a church and to deal with other issues, like hunger and injustice."

Amid charges of "inappropriate touching" and countercharges of character assassination, the bishops of the Episcopal Church confirmed Tuesday the Rev. Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Conservatives in the 2.3 million-member U.S. church have threatened a schism once Robinson is installed as the new Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire.

And around the world, from Africa to England, other traditionalist leaders in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion predict varying degrees of chaos.

In reality, the Episcopal Church -- along with such other U.S. denominations as the Presbyterians and Methodists -- is already split into opposing camps.

There are those fighting for spiritual tolerance and those crusading for Christian tradition.

Homosexuality is the issue that pushes the buttons and gets the headlines, but these fractious communions have been struggling with sex and the slow- growing schism since the 1960s.

The battle lines are drawn around theology (how one reads the Bible) and geography (whether one lives in the city or the country).

On one side, traditionalist Christians and conservative evangelicals take a literal approach to the Bible. Scriptural condemnations of man-on-man and woman-on-woman sex, they say, forbid church blessings of homosexual unions and the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.

In the other camp, liberal Christians and Protestant reformers stress the compassion and tolerance of Jesus. Equal rights for gays and lesbians, they say, are a question of social justice.

Geography is another source of division.

Some would argue that religion, as well as politics, has its red states and its blue states. You've got your Chardonnay-sipping coastal Christians, then you've got all those God-fearing folks in the Bible Belt.

In California, we have it all.

Take, for example, the Episcopal diocese in the Bay Area and the Episcopal diocese in San Joaquin County.

San Joaquin Bishop John David Schofield, based in Fresno, is so conservative that he won't even ordain women -- something the vast majority of Episcopal bishops have done for decades.

Schofield was at the Episcopal convention in Minneapolis and unavailable for comment.

But back in Fresno, his assistant, the Rev. Bill Gandenberger, defended Schofield's opposition to the ordination of homosexuals -- let alone the confirmation of an openly gay bishop.

"We agree with the vast majority of the churches in Christianity that say scripture and the church only condones sexual relations between a married man and woman," Gandenberger said. "We are a conservative, traditional diocese."

In the Bay Area, church officials in San Francisco have been quietly ordaining gays and lesbians for decades.

"Most of the women clergy in the Bay Area are lesbian," said the Rev. Robert Cromey, a recently retired Episcopal priest in San Francisco. "They are also good solid priests."

Cromey, who is heterosexual, led the early fights for gay rights in the Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

Later this week, Episcopal Church leaders in Minneapolis are scheduled to vote on proposed church liturgies for same-sex blessings.

Nothing new there -- at least in San Francisco.

Cromey was conducting gay weddings at Trinity Episcopal Church back in the 1980s.

He's tired of conservative Episcopalians threatening to leave the church if they don't get their way.

"Church unity is a myth perpetuated by bureaucratic bishops trying to keep their organizations together," Cromey said. "The church has been divided since the disciples fled the foot of the cross."

Perhaps, but the issue is not so clear-cut for priests like Phil Brochard, the associate rector out in Walnut Creek.

His 600-member parish is on the conservative side but also has members who are strong advocates of gay rights in the church.

"There is a lot of passion on both sides of this issue, and both sides think they're right," he said. "We won't change the hearts and minds of people with church legislation.

"For hundreds of years, we've prided ourselves on maintaining unity. Only time will tell if the threats from the rest of the Anglican Communion will come through.

"But as a whole," he added, "I think the church just wants to move forward."

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# # #

Another Take on Judas

Judas was back in the news just before Easter 2006. Here's a piece from April 1994.

By Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer

Christians are told his story every year around this time, but his name - unlike Mary's, Matthew's, Mark's or John's - is rarely given to their children.
Judas, the mysterious apostle who allegedly betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, may have gotten a bad rap.

In fact, some Bible scholars say, he may be no more than an ancient, anti-Semitic myth.

"Judas" is a Greek way of spelling "Judah," the ancient Jewish kingdom.

"Everything about Judas just screams out that this is a late-developing legend to transfer the blame of Jesus' death from the Romans to the Jews," said Episcopal Bishop James Spong, author of the new book, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality."

Spong's work is among a flood of books about "the historical Jesus," many of which portray Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, peasant revolutionary or social critic - but not the resurrected savior and Messiah talked about in most churches.

As the church gathers to remember the crucifixion of Jesus, Spong and others are suggesting that Christians take another look at the story of Judas Iscariot.

"It is highly unlikely that there was ever a traitor named Judas," said Spong, a popular author and the Episcopal bishop of Newark, N.J. "And this is a tragedy of enormous dimensions."

Spong delivered these remarks at a recent meeting in Santa Rosa, Calif., of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars re-examining the Bible and other ancient evidence in an attempt to separate the historical Jesus from the theological savior.

After discussing Spong's theory, the scholars concluded that the story of Judas probably arose about 40 years after Jesus' death.

During that period, which saw the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, the early Jewish-Christian sect was struggling with other Jewish leaders over whether Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah.

"Judas became the symbol for all Jews who rejected Jesus," said Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar. "The story subsequently served as the basis for gentile anti-Semitism."
Funk's band of scholars has recently published "The Five Gospels - What Did Jesus Say?" It concludes Jesus actually uttered no more than 20 percent of the sayings attributed to him.

Many conservative evangelicals are not impressed with the spate of new Jesus books and what Christianity Today called "the new, unimproved Jesus."

"If nothing happened after Jesus' death, then any first century Jew would have said what many have said since: He was another deluded fanatic," scholar and evangelical N. Thomas Wright wrote in a recent cover story for the respected evangelical monthly.

"That is why, as a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him."

In recent years, conservatives in the church have blasted Spong for his liberal views on gay clergy, biblical fundamentalism and such cherished Christian doctrines as the virgin birth.

Spong insists that he "really cares about the Bible."
"I acknowledge Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior," he said. "The trouble is, how do you talk about that in 1994? How do you proclaim a premodern faith in a postmodern world?"

The answer, Spong says, is to stop worrying about whether the Bible is literally true and to start searching for the symbolic meaning and historical motives of the early believers who actually wrote what we now call "the Bible."

From the Gospel stories, it is never exactly clear why Judas betrayed Jesus.
Mark simply says that Judas sold Jesus for money. Luke says Satan entered him. John says Judas also was a thief and had stolen money from the disciples.

According to Matthew, Judas approached the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and offered to help them apprehend Jesus in exchange for 30 pieces of silver.
Later, Matthew charges, the traitorous apostle led authorities to Jesus.

This account ends with Judas being distraught over his betrayal, returning the silver and hanging himself.

According to the Book of Acts, however, Judas bought a field with the money, fell down in it and killed himself.

In addition to contradictions in the Gospel accounts of Judas, Spong said, the stories leave many unanswered questions.

Why did Judas do it? If Jesus was so dangerous, why did the high priests of Jerusalem need Judas to point him out?

When the Gospel stories were being composed, Spong said, Jews were the enemies of the early Christian movement. Early Christian leaders may have been trying to curry favor with the Romans by blaming the Jews for Jesus' death, he said.

It was been claimed for centuries that Judas was the only apostle who was "of Judah," the only one who was not from Galilee.

In his "Guide to the Bible," Isaac Asimov says, "strongly anti-Semitic individuals have argued that only the Judeans were the true Jews in the modern sense and that the Galileans were converted Jews."

Thus, they argue "that Galileans are virtuous and that Jews are wicked and that no further reason is needed to explain Judas' betrayal."
Calling that argument "beneath contempt," Asimov also points out that it is based on the questionable assumption that "Judas Iscariot" means "Judas, man of Kerioth," which the Old Testament lists as a city in the land of Judah.

Asimov speculates that "Judas Iscariot" was a misreading of "Judas Sicariot," or "Judas the Terrorist," and that he was upset with Jesus for not becoming a political revolutionary.

"Or, it might be that Judas still felt Jesus to be Messiah, but one who was, unaccountably, backing away from the showdown," Asimov writes. "Perhaps by placing him in danger of arrest, he could force Jesus to take what Judas would have considered appropriate Messianic action."

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