The Underground Church

Malcolm Boyd looks back at his experience of the underground church that existed on the front lines of the civil rights movement and wonders if the underground church can still exist today.

The Huffington Post:

My most intimate experience with the underground church came in the summer of 1965. Four young black men of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and I were volunteers to assist local African Americans in Mississippi defeat a campaign to deny their legal rights in voter registration.

As a white Episcopal priest working for racial justice in a highly charged racist environment, I could not attend a church service in either a local white or black congregation. I'd have endangered lives by publicly seeking to break the racial barrier in a formal religious setting. Opposition and retaliation could have been both instant and deadly. Yet I wanted to receive Holy Communion in a setting of honesty and authentic community.

My companions were willing to participate with me in worship. We were staying with a poor family in their rural shack. On a shelf I found a loaf of musty, stale bread covered with mold. An open bottle of warm beer was also there. They could replace the wine and communion wafer or bread ofa formal mass or eucharist. As a matter of fact they did. That is when I most directly experienced the meaning and reality of the underground church. I wonder, what would you have done under the same circumstances and conditions...?

Let's take a look at a couple of real situations. If a church seems to worship male leadership and makes women feel like second class citizens, I think justice and truth require an entirely new look at the role of women in the church. Pope Benedict and the Vatican recently offered extremely ungenerous criticism of faithful and highly dedicated nuns. One might say: Enough!

Or, if a church has long shone signs of racism, the moment has come (maybe a couple of centuries ago) to get over it. Or, if a church continues to pillory gay people, denying dignity and equal treatmnt, refusing hospitality and expression of God's love, well, don't preach love until you show a little.

People can change. When people do -- honestly, deeply -- the rest of us can change too. Anger can give way to mutuality and openness. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Then the question becomes: do we want to tango?

I do. Neither the established church nor the underground church is dead for me. I live and move and have my being in both. I cherish the yearning and truth and possibility of both.

Comments (3)

Now, this is interesting. I'm Episcopalian, but I'm not attending church right now as I am not drawn to the traditional, 1982 Hymnal-style worship. To be clear, it is NOT a matter of social injustice. I am NOT persecuted. It is because I don't think the musical style speaks to people of my generation (to be blunt, it's weighted towards old dead White folks). And it is because the language in '82 is very, very God as King oriented, a theology I do not share. I prefer John Bell and Taize, and I'm still looking for other liturgies that really speak to me.

And I was once at a Taize service where we, all lay people, just broke the bread ourselves, said whatever private blessings we did, and had Eucharist. I am more sacramentally-oriented now than I used to be, growing up Evangelical. But while it was not an Eucharist by the technical rules of the Episcopal Church, it was still Eucharist.

And if you really were in an underground situation, like the author above, or there's one LGBT-friendly non-denominational church in Singapore whose name I've forgotten and all the established churches are generally disapproving or actively hostile, then whatever. In that case, heck yes, Christ is there and He will consecrate the Eucharist Himself if He has to.

And at other times, I've fantasized about holding an underground-style service. No choir. Guitar or a capella. Simple songs. A song* in place of the Nicene Creed. Sermon by a layperson, preferably on a rotating basis. Or if no sermon, a short reflection. Or a prayer. Or something. Maybe something edgy, maybe not.

Episcopalians can be too buttoned down for their own good imo. I'm not saying become a bunch of hipsters and do underground-style church because it's hip or ironic. I'm saying we have to shake things up a bit.

* like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpHP8TcpDc0

Aren't there enough different churches in American Christianity to satisfy every need and interest? Most of our communities have churches that cover the theological, political, social, and aesthetic gamut, so I wonder if there's really a need to create another alternative to the alternatives.

I've got a dear friend who is a ratty jeans and t-shirt guy. Cue-ball shaved head, kinda looks like Aleister Crowley. Filthy mouth. Fights with the cat. ComicCon attendee, and metal (music) enthusiast. One day, in my car, I had that John Rutter "Sing, Ye Heavens!" album playing. He asked me about it, I told him that this is the kind of music I do at church, ideally anyway. He was surprised, said he didn't know church music could sound like this. He ordered the album for his mom, told me a month or so later that he cleans the house with John Rutter playing on YouTube. Said he would like to come and hear my choir, or Nolan's (my boyfriend's) choir some morning. I told him he should come to Evensong at St. Paul's (Cathedral OKC) in the fall, when the season starts. He really wants to, very excited. Says he loves it when the sopranos come in above the melody with their own melody, what is that called again? (It's a descant, Kelley.)

But the musical style doesn't speak to people of our generation. Except Kelley. Or those that make up 60-65% of attendees at the High Mass on Sunday, at the church were I direct the music. Or that pretty girl with the music theater voice who cantors over at Nolan's parish, who told him after the "student mass" that she wants to drop the [David Haas] Mass of Light, why don't we do the mass that Clint wrote, like at the other masses, and just do it on the organ, it sounds more churchy.

I want, I did, I prefer, I'm looking for, speaks to ME, Our generation, etc. First person is so 80's. Get over it. Being Episcopalian is about being accountable to our history, present and future, and trusting that Tradition carries the faith forward in ways that experimentalism only rarely does, and usually only does in dialogue with Tradition. It is about Them, and Common, and Those, and These, and where do I fit in with That? And a big part of That was brought to you by...Old Dead White Folks. But I guess They don't matter, because they're Old, Dead, and White. They need to stay in the grave where they belong, I guess it's too bad that all this Anglican stuff(-iness) didn't die with them?

The Underground Church is born of necessity, and is no more or no less authentic than your traditional parish church as it's been for centuries now.

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