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Cathedral invites evangelical, triggers firestorm

by TERRY MATTINGLY | February 20, 2021 at 2:58 a.m.

Halfway between Norway and the North Pole, scientists have buried a million seeds and crop samples under a mountain in the Svalbard archipelago -- in case an environmental doomsday comes to pass.

That strategy rings true during "this crazy, chaotic season," when so many are anxious about the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, lost jobs, surging debts and the bitter state of public life, said evangelical megachurch leader Max Lucado in a recent sermon streamed online by the National Cathedral in Washington.

"Most of us can't hide out in a bunker, yet threats of calamity may make us try to do so," he said. "If the wrong person pushes the wrong red button -- it's enough to make a person purchase a plane ticket to Svalbard."

But there was a problem. While pre-service publicity stressed that Lucado's books have sold more than 120 million copies and Christianity Today has called him "America's pastor," this invitation alarmed legions of Episcopalians opposed to his history of orthodoxy on sex and marriage. His sermon about God offering comfort in the midst of chaos avoided hot-button topics, but his cathedral appearance triggered an online storm.

Before the event, the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith linked the Lucado invitation to the cathedral's history of hosting a variety of religious leaders. This has included evangelicals such the late Billy Graham, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and megachurch leader Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Southern California.

"When we only engage with those with whom we agree on every issue, we find ourselves in a dangerous (and lonely) place," wrote the cathedral's dean. "That means this cathedral, and this pulpit, are big enough and strong enough to welcome pastors, rabbis, imams, clergy of every faith. ... It does not mean we agree with everything they might believe, but it does mean that we exhibit and inhabit a sense of open-handed welcome."

However, Hollerith issued a formal apology in response to the online backlash, noting: "In my straight privilege, I failed to see and fully understand the pain [Lucado] has caused. I failed to appreciate the depth of injury his words have had on many in the [LGBT] community. I failed to see the pain I was continuing. I was wrong."

While Lucado is known as an evangelical moderate, Episcopalians were outraged by a 2004 sermon and online commentary stating that he "categorically opposes" gay marriage, as well as his conviction that "homosexual activity" is a sin. Lucado wrote he believes sexual behaviors can be changed "with simultaneous compassion and conviction."

"Nothing can separate us from the love of God," he wrote. "This includes homosexuality. Jesus loves his gay children. He made them ... and died for them."

Bishop Mariann Budde of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington also issued a statement, stressing that she had assumed "Max Lucado no longer believed the painful things he said in 2004." To those hurt by the cathedral's actions, she said: "I made you feel at risk and unwelcome in your spiritual home."

The bishop's apology included samples from the many protest letters she received, such as this one: "If you are not hearing and seeing the [LGBT] Episcopalians and allies who are saying, 'I'm not sure I'm safe, I'm not sure I belong, I'm not sure I can trust the leadership of this denomination, I'm not sure I should keep sharing my gifts in this institution' ... then perhaps you need to do some prayerful looking and listening. ... What people see and hear is that Episcopal church leaders claim to have their backs, but do things that hurt them."

In an additional peacemaking move, Hollerith contacted retired New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson -- the first openly gay Episcopal Church bishop -- and asked him to preside, in person, at the Feb. 7 cathedral worship service that included Lucado's recorded sermon.

During the announcements, Robinson told the online flock to focus on the positive.

"The world isn't perfect yet, and there's a lot of work to be done," he said. "There are a lot of conversations to be had with people like Rev. Lucado. But we know how it's going to end. And at least for me, it gives me permission to be just a bit gentler, to be an instrument of God's grace. I know we've won."

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.

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