PASTOR Jim Rigby
ADDRESS 14311 Wells Port Drive, Austin
PHONE 512-251-0698
MAIN SERVICE Sundays at 10:45 a.m.

AFTER SILENCING A NOISY congregation by striking a bowl gong three times, David Marks, a large middle-aged man with a long ponytail, welcomed us to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. He then turned to ask Pastor Jim Rigby, “We are still Presbyterian, aren’t we?” The question drew a laugh, but not because it was absurd. One of the most openly liberal churches in Austin, St. Andrew’s was locked in a struggle for its Presbyterian life as a result of such offenses as hosting non-Presbyterian theologians and, more famously, for extending full membership to the controversial University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, an acknowledged atheist and unsparing critic of the Bush administration.

In an op-ed piece that the Houston Chronicle published on September 14, 2001, Jensen argued that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were no worse than “the massive acts of terrorism—the deliberate killing of civilians for political purposes—that the U.S. government has committed during my lifetime.” That assertion triggered a firestorm of criticism and serious attempts to rescind his tenure at UT. But Jensen, who joined the church in 2005, did not come to St. Andrew’s in search of protective cover. On the contrary. In an article posted on the church’s Web site, he explained that he came in search of a moral and political community that might serve as a counterforce to “a sophisticated system of domination achieved through the unholy alliance of a powerful state and predatory corporate capitalism.” He told the congregation that he did not accept the divinity of Jesus, but he did endorse the core principles in
Jesus’ teaching and pledged to be a responsible member if they would have him. That was enough for the folk at St. Andrew’s.

It was too much for some members of the Mission Presbytery, which governs Presbyterian churches in South and Central Texas. In June 2006 Presbytery delegates instructed St. Andrew’s to remove Jensen from its roll. The church appealed the decision to its regional body, the Synod of the Sun, and at the time of my visit was awaiting a ruling that could result in its expulsion from the denomination and seizure of its facilities.

St. Andrew’s describes itself as “an inclusive, progressive church” whose members approach God through the life and teachings of Jesus but “recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us.” An invitation printed in the church bulletin explicitly welcomes “believers and agnostics, conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, those of all races and cultures, those of all classes and abilities, those who hope for a better world and those who have lost hope.”

Signs of this progressive orientation were abundant, from a simple banner outside the building proclaiming “Torture Is Wrong” to a broad, sloping lawn filled with crosses, Stars of David, and rainbow cutouts memorializing people who had died of AIDS. The congregants themselves were mostly dressed in “NPR casual,” and 150 of them occupied about half the chairs in the octagonal concrete-floored sanctuary. They seemed pleased to be in one another’s company and welcomed a man whose remarkably grizzled appearance removed the surprise from his self-identification as homeless.

After the call to worship and other preliminaries came “Time With the Children,” featuring Mr. Monkey and the St. Andrew’s Puppets, with Marks and Rigby serving as reverend puppeteers. Marks first asked the children what costumes they would be wearing for Halloween, responding positively to each report. The puppet ministers then began holding conversations with Mr. Monkey and his colleagues. Obviously familiar with the cast, the children quickly recognized that the voices they heard did not match the puppets they saw. The ministers then removed the outer puppets to reveal smaller ones concealed inside. The lesson: We cannot and should not judge people by their outward appearance. I found this a refreshing contrast to the trend in recent years for some churches to denounce Halloween as a sinful celebration of the demonic. Of my childhood friends, nearly all of whom donned costumes and went trick-or-treating, only a handful are still active devil worshippers.

Given the church’s reputation and ambience, Rigby’s sermon did not surprise me, but it did make clear why more-traditional Presbyterians might think he has strayed from the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Noting that Luther and Calvin thought that those who believed what Copernicus said about the earth’s circling the sun should be killed, he said, “When we learn new things about the world, our faith has to change or we become dangerous … We need to think about theology in new ways.”

The topic to rethink for this day was a big one: the Resurrection. Rigby said that it “is a symbol to illumine from your own experience, your own life, what it is that does not die.” Acknowledging the pain involved in giving up long-held convictions, he insisted that “science has made certain views of life impossible, and at some level you and I know that. If we are willing to go deeper with our symbols, we could have a religion that actually works … For our children and our grandchildren, I believe, we have to have the courage to go through the agony of understanding what these symbols mean at a deeper level.”

“The Resurrection,” he asserted, “took place when the community was born. What rose was the body of Christ. Maybe a body got up; I don’t care. That’s not the point … It’s a symbol of something deeper. Something beyond place and time. What the great saints and sages have discovered … through prayer and meditation, is that the deeper you go into your awareness, the more universal it is. And what they discover is that they are not just one little life; they are the Big Life and so are you. And they set up ways of understanding, through rituals, through Communion, through baptism, to teach you that you also are the One Life … What these symbols are talking about are not things that happened; they are things that are always true. The Resurrection is happening now.” Similarly, “heaven is not another world someplace else. It’s a profound understanding of this world, of that which is not born and that which does not die.” And Christ is that which we discover “when we gather in community on behalf of the whole world.”

The sermon was not a polished gem, but I found it fascinating to watch Rigby “doing theology,” reinterpreting hallowed concepts for people who are no longer able to accept them literally. Whether the Presbyterian leadership agrees to tolerate the congregation or cast it into outer darkness—or at least across Interstate 35 to nearby Pflugerville—St. Andrew’s is never likely to attract great numbers. Open wrestling with doubt and ambiguity finds it tough to compete in a market saturated with certainty. That said, such churches, though few in number, are a valuable part of the religious economy, offering a haven to those who seek to be honest to God and to themselves and are less concerned with affirming what the classic creeds say about who Jesus was than with listening to what he said and behaving as they believe he did.