Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
Love Kindness. Do Justice. Change the World ... Right Now!
The Rev. James Rowe Adams, an Episcopal priest considered the father of contemporary progressive Christianity, died Sept. 13 in Cambridge, MA, after a long bout with brain cancer. He was 77.
From his birth in Nebraska in 1934 to a pastorate in the shadow of Capitol Hill power, a recitation of the facts of James Adams' life as a minister and author comes nowhere near expressing his impact on thoughtful Christians over the past 50 years. Had he done little more than write influential books and retire from an extraordinary Episcopal congregation, his place in church history would have been assured.
However, Adams did something even more extraordinary. He discerned a new spiritual reality and gave it visibility and momentum, identifying the transformation he saw as "progressive" Christianity.
As a pastor, Adams wrote, he was deeply disturbed by the continued drain of people from Christian churches. He said he determined that a major reason for this ongoing exodus was the cognitive dissonance between centuries-old pre-scientific dogma and ecclesiastical hierarchy on the one hand, and the growing movement toward egalitarian society and scientific worldviews on the other. In 1994, his experiences and scholarship from nearly 30 years as rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, gave birth to The Center for Progressive Christianity.
Adams' vision of a theological transformation that ran through much of mainline Christianity emerged from his pastorate at St. Mark's. In his own curriculum vitae posted on the TCPC website, Adams wrote:
"During my tenure, St. Mark’s acquired a reputation for being a place where people could improve their capacity for leadership in a diverse community by practicing in the congregation. Emphasizing the nature of community as the collaboration of equals, the parish offered [to] people the opportunity for working in teams of men and women, gays and straights, believers and skeptics. St. Mark’s tradition of supporting the arts gave the parish an appreciation for the value of racial and ethnic diversity. The dance studio, the St. Mark’s Players, and the music program included participants not always found in an Episcopal church. The building itself became a working symbol of inclusion by providing space for artists to display their work, for self-help groups and neighborhood organizations to meet, and for pastoral counselors to have offices."
The Washington Post once called upon Congress to preserve St. Mark's as "a citadel of enlightened Christianity."
Adams' books also opened new windows on Christianity for countless numbers of people. Most prominent among them were his 1989 book, So You Think You're Not Religious? A Thinking Person's Guide to the Church (Cowley), issued in a second edition in 2010 and From Literal to Literary — The Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors (Rising Star Press, 2005; 2nd edition, Pilgrim Press, 2008).
Adams also collaborated with the late Episcopal scholar Verna Dozier, known for her championship of the ministry of the laity, on a 1993 book, Sisters and Brothers: Reclaiming a Biblical Idea of Community (Cowley). The concept of biblical community held such importance for Adams that he was reluctant to use the word "God" to describe anything other than the living spiritual network fostered among believers and seekers alike. God for him was not a supernatural being that sometimes intervened in history, but the interaction of humans in relationship working toward a fully just and loving society.
In 1994, Adams founded The Center for Progressive Christianity, a non-profit organization that, in his own words, "encourages churches to focus their attention on those for whom organized religion has proved to be ineffectual, irrelevant, or repressive." The organization's website says that Adams' goal "was to keep the churches from drying up and blowing away." Now known as Progressive Christianity.org, the organization has a mailing list of more than 3,500 people, more than 300 affiliated congregations and associations and includes a dozens denominations along with independent and ecumenical groups. Internationally the organization links with autonomous progressive Christian associations in South Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, and Canada.
Gretta Vosper, founder of the Canadian Center for Progressive Christianity headquartered in Toronto, described Adams' influence in a note sent for his memorial service:
"Jim’s invitation to start a network for progressive Christians in Canada has changed not only my life, but also the lives of hundreds if not thousands across the country. On a weekly basis, I hear of one or two or a group of people who finally feel they have been heard, validated, welcomed, and affirmed as Christians. I also hear from non-theists, atheists, and those who don’t want to call themselves anything but who yearn for a place of spiritual nourishment that can help them grow and offer themselves more deeply into the world. They, too, feel affirmed and heard. Jim made that not only possible, he blessed it into being even though the iterations of progressive Christianity around the world – most of which were brought into being through his touch and invitation – are each, some more, some less, different than what he had first envisioned. It is a big man who can share a vision and celebrate the varied ways it is brought into being, even those that build a skyline differing from the one he had in mind."
Adams was similarly generous in 2006 when approached by this publication's then-editor Stephen Swecker to ask his permission to rename the magazine The Progressive Christian. Adams agreed cordially, acknowledging that the movement he envisioned and inspired had grown beyond him.
A public memorial is being planned for Oct. 8 at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, according to Fred Plumer, president of Progressive Christianity.org. A memorial service for his family and friends was held Sept. 17 at Christ Episcopal Church in Cambridge, MA. His wife, Virginia Mann Adams, three daughters and five grandchildren survive, along with thousands of spiritual kin in the form of progressive Christians worldwide to whom James Rowe Adams gave new faith and hope.
Thomas Bleser, a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Cambridge, MA, contributed information for this article.