By the Book

A biblical, African safari in the heart of Newport Beach

Photo by Matt OttoAs you gaze over Lido Isle, a vanilla-white tower rises above the boutiques and white-flight supermarkets of Via Lido. The tower, topped by a cross, keeps watch over the SUVs and Spanish-named streets of the exclusive neighborhood and announces the presence of Uganda in Newport Beach, quite possibly the only thing remotely African in the entire city.

The tower belongs to St. James Church, which recently seceded from the Episcopal Church of the United States and placed itself under a bishop in Uganda. Their former masters, it seems, were not "orthodox" enough, what with naming an openly gay man bishop and forcing the parish to interpretthe Bible instead of simply taking every word literally.

The spokeswoman for the tortured St. James faithful has spoken about the horrors faced under such a regime, saying, "The Bible is clear. There is no need to adapt." Likewise, Kathy Abbot defended St. James' secession in a letter to the Daily Pilot, writing that "Churches that obey the whole Bible are growing."

Those are sweeping statements since the Bible is loaded with laws and commands that seem to not only contradict one another, but are also ignored by even the most faithful Christians. Heck, even Jesus refused to "turn the other cheek" when he angrily drove the moneychangers from the temple.

Still, the statements from St. James suggests they believe Christians really should follow the Old Testament and the New and that they can and do obey everything: Old and New; "as is." But is this possible? Well, let's take a Sunday spree and find out. I've always wanted to go on safari.

This is no pauper's church. The bland exterior contrasts sharply with the lavish interior. A sumptuous altar is framed by graduating sizes of burning candles, intricate stained-glass windows, and a magnificent pipe organ that slams an exclamation point into this opulent sanctuary. There is, however, no six-branched "lampstand" with buds "shaped like almond flowers," nor are there "10 curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn" or a golden "ark" fastened with four gold rings. Exodus requires these. For all its grandeur, the altar does not live up to the whole Bible's requirements.

Newcomers quickly learn that the members of St. James really are quite welcoming and friendly. They smile broadly at the door and even offer carnations to unfamiliar faces. They are so friendly, in fact, that it is difficult to believe any of them approve of slavery or that they kill either the first-born sons or followers of other religions, as Exodus commands. It also is a large congregation, one that raised more than $20 million to build their place of worship. With those numbers, it's not a stretch to assume that some members work in the banking industry and, as part of everyday life, charge interest on the money they lend. Exodus 22:25 forbids interest.

The service begins. An inspiring, white-clad choir rings out in reverent tones. The Reverend Praveen Bunyan rambles a sermon. This one is a piecemeal tour of both books of the Bible, not the Episcopal Church-mandated sermon about Jesus imploring his followers to seek out all lost sheep. After St. James' officials' public statements that members who disagree with this flock's rebellion should just go somewhere else, the change of topic is understandable.

Lest you think St. James is a backward-thinking bunch, it's important to point out that the deacon at this service is a woman, though a woman who seems to flaunt St. Paul's instruction that females cover their heads in church. And what about Jesus proclaiming, in Mark, that his followers will "drink poison" and "pick up snakes with their hands"? The communion chalice contains not poison, but unspiked wine. As for reptiles, there isn't one in sight, well, you know, depending how you feel about lawyers.

The service ends, and the congregants head out to the parking lot to their various Lexi and Mercedeses even though Jesus commanded his followers to sell their possessions and not be concerned with material things that would seem to include Rolexes and finely cut European suits—the folks out here in the religious hinterlands are doing much better than those back in the beloved Ugandan Motherland.

The Episcopal Church has sued St. James and threatened to take control of the church. The folks at St. James say they will defend themselves and their literal taking of the Bible. Of course, with Jesus' command against swearing to tell the truth (Matthew 5:34), the road will be tough.

 
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