Sanctifying bigotry: why the Episcopal Church is wrong to host Donald Trump’s inaugural prayer service

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The Episcopal Church has been my spiritual home for seven years now. It breathed new life into my faith at a time when I wasn’t sure I wanted any more to do with church.

Its liturgies, its willingness to engage the world, its ability to embrace orthodoxy without rigidity, its commitment to welcoming all people—these are just a few things I love about the Episcopal Church.

Add to this our presiding bishop, Michael Curry, who’s brought renewed passion for a big, robust gospel—for what he likes to call the Jesus Movement.

There is a lot to love about the Episcopal Church.

And yet.

My denomination is about to welcome Donald Trump into the presidency with a prayer service in his honor at the Washington National Cathedral.

We’re about to sanctify a man who exhales hate, arrogance, and greed. Whether we mean to or not, we’re about to legitimize a president whose conduct stands in direct opposition to the final words of our baptismal covenant: “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

I’m not OK with that. Here are three reasons why.

1. This will change the church more than it changes Donald Trump.

The Episcopal Church has always had a complicated relationship to power. We’re an offshoot of the Church of England, a state church whose supreme governor is a monarch, not a priest.

While the Episcopal Church enjoys no such formal alliance with the American state, 11 of our nation’s 44 (soon to be 45) presidents have been Episcopalians. We claim George Washington, James Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR as our own.

Many ceremonies of national significance have been held at our national cathedral, where the service for Trump will also be held this Saturday. The funerals of Eisenhower and Reagan. Inaugural services for previous presidents including FDR, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. The 9/11 memorial service.

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So who do you think is changed more by these entanglements of church and power?

Who do you think will be changed more by Saturday’s encounter between the Episcopal Church and Donald Trump? The 1,700-year history of church entanglement with the state doesn’t give much reason to be hopeful.

2. Hosting a prayer service in Trump’s honor will inevitably normalize him—and what he stands for.

The only impact the event will have on Trump himself will be to normalize him. I’m sure that’s not the intent, but it’s the inevitable outcome.

The Episcopal Church should play no part in legitimizing an unrepentant racist who boasts about sexual assault, demeans and threatens his opponents, and uses his rhetoric to incite violence against already marginalized communities.

There will be no sermon at the prayer service—at Trump’s direction. He will allow nothing that might make him the least bit uncomfortable. There will be no speaking truth to power.

There is nothing remotely prophetic about hosting Donald Trump at this gathering.

“The faith community should be a center of resistance against Donald Trump’s vision in America,” as the Rev. Gary Hall, former dean of Washington National Cathedral said. We should not be lining up to kiss his ring.

3. Hosting Trump undermines the Episcopal Church’s commitment to welcome all people.

Donald Trump has attacked and belittled Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, blacks, women, and others. The Episcopal Church, for all its flaws, has been a prophetic voice for respecting those of other faiths, for empowering women, for welcoming immigrants as the prophets commanded, for acknowledging and addressing systemic racism, and for embracing LGBTQ persons as full members of our community.

All of that is undermined by legitimizing the man who climbed to power on their backs.

Now wait a minute, you might say. “All people” has to include Donald Trump, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. That’s why many Episcopal churches will begin praying for him weekly, starting this Sunday. And rightly so.

The oppressed and the oppressor are both welcome—but not on the same terms.

God is always on the side of the oppressed, and we must be too. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Yes, God’s table is open. Good hosts, however, do not allow people to come to the table with the intention to destroy it.”

The oppressor is welcome, but only if he lays down his arms, only if he renounces oppression, only if he repents—something Donald Trump has never been a fan of doing, by his own admission.

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This is not about Donald Trump’s party affiliation or political platform. I would much rather the Episcopal Church got entirely out of the business of rubbing shoulders with presidents and hosting national events like these.

Pursuing power—or even just proximity to power—always ends up compromising the church’s prophetic witness.

Especially when the man in power is the embodiment of every value the church is called to resist—greed, pride, bigotry, exclusion, and authoritarianism.

So which will it be, Episcopal Church? Donald Trump’s puppet or Jesus Movement?

Because it can’t be both.

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UPDATE (1/18):

The dean of the Washington National Cathedral has issued a new response addressing criticism of their decision to host the inaugural prayer service. You can read it here.

I appreciate the spirit of their response—and that of earlier responses from Presiding Bishop Curry and DC Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde. But I disagree with the substance. In his latest response, the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith said:

“I believe our job is to work together to build a country where everyone feels welcome, everyone feels safe, everyone feels at home. We will need all people from across our nation to be a part of that process, and we cannot retreat into our separate quarters if we have any hope of accomplishing this task. We must meet in the middle, and we start through prayer and song.”

The problem is, you don’t make survivors of sexual assault feel safe by hosting an inaugural prayer service for an unrepentant perpetrator of sexual assault. You don’t make immigrants feel safe by holding an inaugural prayer service for someone who wants to deport them. You don’t make people with disabilities feel safe by hosting an inaugural prayer service for someone who mocks them. You don’t make Muslims feel safe by holding an inaugural prayer service for someone who slanders their religion.

The cathedral still seems to be operating under the assumption that this is all just normal politics—that Trump is a normal politician and that opposition to him is just normal partisan bickering. It’s not. And this assumption is a threat to our prophetic posture.

The bottom line is, we can (and should) meet in the middle with people of different political persuasions and party affiliations. But not all politics are equal. Not every political posture is reconcilable with our baptismal covenant.

And no, we do NOT “meet in the middle” with hate. We do not “meet in the middle” with racism or xenophobia. We do not “meet in the middle” with misogyny.

Some things are just too important.

Photos by Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0,  Daniel R. DeCook / public domain

42 thoughts on “Sanctifying bigotry: why the Episcopal Church is wrong to host Donald Trump’s inaugural prayer service

  1. Reblogged this on Russ Skinner's Blog and commented:
    Many good points here, but I’m not part of the Episcopal Church. And I find it interesting (and disappointing) that @realDonaldTrump asked for there to be no sermon.

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    • I have accepted the bishop’s and dean’s arguments about hosting the prayer service, but now that I know they have acceded to his demand for no sermon, I have changed my mind. It’s one thing to argue we Episcopalians are accepting, it’s another altogether to let someone dictate our liturgy.

      The real error that the bishop and dean have made is accepting the invitation for the cathedral choir to sing at the inaugural festivities.

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  2. I stand completely with you. I can’t accept “Tang” as my POTUS even though he apparently won an election to this office. I have to set an example of what we can do better and my example is non-acceptance in the manner that you outlined in your post. I can’t breathe legitimacy into this man who expouses most of the things that I embrace as a woman in the Episcopal Church. I know that I am compelled to forgive by the teachings of Jesus but I am not compelled to accept.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I tend to disagree. It’s a prayer service, and people are praying for him. That doesn’t mean agreeing with him does it? Nor do I think it means siding with his rhetoric and giving credence to his bigotry. It means recognizing that for some strange reason, this is the appointed President. And who knows, he might come out a changed man! (Let’s hope and pray that he does!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am not a member of the Episcopal Church, but I can see Irwin’s point: “We’re about to sanctify a man who exhales hate, arrogance, and greed. Whether we mean to or not, we’re about to legitimize a president whose conduct has been in direct opposition to the final words of our baptismal covenant: “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” It has something to do with the Church’s doctrine. Though Jesus was a radical in his day, he did stand for things that were righteous, that is how I am seeing this.

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      • I can see your point Steve, but I think it is a dangerous path to go down; and a judgmental one. Yes Jesus did stand up against evil and hate, but I think that was mainly directed at the religious leaders of the time. I don’t recall him coming out strongly against the Roman rulers and refusing to have anything to do with them.

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      • This is for Denizl’s quote: “I don’t recall him coming out strongly against the Roman rulers and refusing to have anything to do with them.”

        I’d suggest rereading Mark 10:42-43 “So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

        I’m sure you’ll point to examples of Jesus healing a Centurion’s slave (Matt. 8:5-13) or the so-called confession of the Centurion at the foot of the cross (Mk. 15:39) as evidence that Jesus had no beef with the Romans. But that would be…an oversimplification. To call Jesus “Messiah” in light of his words and deeds was to see him as a royal figure, and thus a rival to the Emperor and threat to Roman rule in Judea and Galilee. Of course, you’ll say that Jesus rejected that understanding of the role of “Messiah,” that he talked only of a “spiritual” kingdom, only brought a “religious” good news, and that he was a “Savior” and “Son of God” in a wholly unique, “spiritual” sense that had no political implications at all. Certainly none that challenged Roman rule. But again…that would be too simple.

        Or maybe you’ll bring up “Render unto Caesar” and say something about how it recognizes, or at least anticipates, “the separation of church and state.” After all, Jesus said its ok to pay taxes to Rome, probably because his own kingdom was not of this world (see Jn 18:36), right? Again, too simple. Or rather, too easy. It’s too easy to read our own, modern, Protestant views about religion and politics, individual spirituality and voluntary community, back into the gospels. Instead, we should see the gospels in light of their historical moment, a moment that saw literally handfuls of prophets and messiahs pop up in the decades before and after Jesus of Nazareth. More importantly, they appear over the course of more than century of Roman rule. And in direct response to it.

        It was also a context of intense apocalyptic expectation. The God of Israel was in control of history, Jews believed, but present circumstances contradicted that conviction: a foreign power ruled in Jerusalem, demons and sickness ruled the land, corrupt leaders lived hypocritical lives, and ordinary people were lead astray as a result. All of these things were linked together, as Jesus’ exorcisms suggest (see Mk. 5:1-20, especially if we hear a reference to a Roman military unit in the name “Legion”). More importantly, Jesus’ announcement of the “kingdom of God” provided an answer. To every aspect of this situation. That included ending foreign rule by the Romans. When the Son of Man brought that kingdom to earth at The End it meant that God, not Caesar, would rule.

        No, Pilate executed Jesus for a reason. And not because he argued with some religious leaders over some arcane religious ideas. It was because he denounced those leaders, who owed their power and status to Rome, as wholly illegitimate. By extension he said Roman rule was illegitimate, too. There was only one true God, only one true Son of God and Savior and only one legitimate kingdom or “empire.” And it was not the emperor or the empire of Rome.

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    • I am not of the Episcopalian Church but I am clergy. I think I might agree with you IF there had been a “No,” to his request that there be no sermon.

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  4. It is always appropriate to pray for our local and national leaders, just because they are our leaders. Sermon-why would we need that? The Book of Common Prayer has so many good prayers for our leaders. This does not mean we like our leaders, or think they are doing good things. It does mean we are asking God to guide them in their governance of our community, state and nation. Indeed we are also asking how we can be alert and ready to speak truth to power as needed.

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  5. Too many voices crying out in judgment: that is God’s privilege alone. Pray instead for the man, the office, the country, yourself and for transformation into a more Christlike life.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I must agree with Catherine above. We should all be praying for him! Perhaps being in the cathedral will speak to his heart & soul. Perhaps he will become the man & president that will make every Episcopal and all Christians proud! Our doors are open to everyone!

    Liked by 2 people

    • The issue is not whether we should pray for Donald Trump. As I wrote above, “Many Episcopal churches will begin praying for him weekly, starting this Sunday. And rightly so.” The issue is whether we use our sacred spaces for ceremonies that lend legitimacy to a leader like this—and more broadly, whether we should reconsider our relationship as a church to institutions of power.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I have been hearing this for a year. Perhaps T will grow up, change, act more “presidential.” Oh gosh, it will happen after he gets the nomination. Then, it will happen when he wins the election. Now it’s, Oh, seriously it will happen after he goes to the prayer meeting or after the swearing in ceremony. Suddenly whammo! T will change when he puts his hand on the Bible and understands the enormity of his responsibility.

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  7. The Bully pulpit can be a tool for good. We can’t talk and express our dismay and displeasure with only the pious in the pews. The service should be packed with his opponents, welcoming him and letting Mr. Trump know I/we don’t support his brand or his morals. just as the actors of the play Hamilton let Mike Pence know of their concerns at their work place. We should let him know we don’t support him if his hotels/ golf courses are attacked, because they are his, and not ours, and if he is attacked for his morals then we are doing onto him as he has done onto us.

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    • If that’s how it were being staged, it would alleviate a number of my concerns. But there is to be no sermon—at Trump’s directive. It is to be a closed event (for security reasons), meaning his opponents and, more importantly, those who have been abused, harassed, and victimized by Trump will be allowed nowhere near the event. In short, the bishop and dean have allowed Trump to deprive their bully pulpit of its power, as the price of holding the service in their cathedral.

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      • then I agree in the most Saul / Paul sense, though that isn’t Christ thoughts on the matter is it. For me it comes down to choosing comfort. Trumps comfort or mine, and I’m going to give Mr. Trump as much of this government as he can stand, in defense of all those who he has transgressed, until he can stand no more. If the priests wont then I will. He’s serving to masters, his money and “we the people” he wont succeed, and therefore in a sense we fail, but after all the dust is settled and he’s out of office, and the next President is in. will you sit next to him in the pew? I will, even though I will be uncomfortable.

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  8. I agree with Ben. It is one thing for us to pray for our state leaders, including Trump. It is another thing entirely to host a prayer service in the Cathedral at his, or any other president’s, inauguration. Even if there were a sermon. It unavoidably conveys legitimacy and support.

    Why? Because it makes no demands and speaks no word *to* the incoming president. It barely invites him to participate *with* the church and other faith traditions. Instead, it merely speaks to the nation and the church. Speaks *with* the state, and in this case with and on behalf of a person who is not only manifestly unfit and unqualified for his role, but seems bound and determined to ignore the social (and perhaps even legal) norms of that role.

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      • Thanks! I think you and Diane Butler Bass and others are on to something here. I’ve been thinking more about it, and I think it is not just that Trump acts, speaks, and has policies that seem determined to contradict everything the Church teaches. That is certainly the case. But it’s more than that, too. After all, how many Presidents have had less than exemplary personal lives or political goals–and still enjoyed some kind of co-operation with the Church?

        I think part of what makes Trump different is that he has undermined almost any notion of the “common good” that the Church could claim as common ground with the State. In other words, it is not just that he fails to live up to even minimal Christian norms in his personal life or in his public rhetoric or political goals. More importantly as the President elect, he has consistently undermined the democratic norms necessary for the health of political institutions and shown no interest in the commitment to public service that defines the office he will hold. Do not even the gentiles do at least that much?

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I disagree. Prayer is not an endorsement or a condemnation. It is a handing over of something into the hands of God for God to shape and mold as God sees fit. Also it has been the tradition of The Episcopal Church to pray for elected leadership since the foundations of the American Church. Also to withhold prayer for anyone because they are “so bad” is arrogant, frankly. Is Donald Trump beyond the grace of God? And if so, how did you come to that determination? So much of this controversy is “liberal outrage” that is being couched in theological terms, and that is, to be honest, more dangerous to the Church than this prayer service.

    Liked by 3 people

    • me agree….shame shame on those who by their statements…have judged by press reviews…n 7 years into your “new church” you have the right to ur opinion as a bigot…

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  10. We have had the MOST racist and divisive president in the history of time and space for the past 8 years and you liberals are still whining about Trump? I don’t necessarily “support” Trump, but he is definitely not all the extreme and dramatic things people claim. It has been blown up out of proportion to an insane degree. And while I dis not vote for Trump I am also very thankful that Hillary did not win the presidency. I cannot imagine the nightmare that would have been.

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  11. I understand the frustration, and no, the Church cannot be Trump’s puppet and the Jesus’ movement at the same time. Obviously. The issues involved here, however, are more complex than the writer suggests. PB Curry has already explained some. I don’t think we should say that the prayer service at the National Cathedral next Monday is “in Trump’s honor”. The historical involvement of the Episcopal Church with political power (real or imaginary) cannot be easily severed, BUT the prayer service could be what it is supposed to be, i.e. in honor of God, and with petitions and supplications that the next cycle of the political life of the U.S.A. will be carried on fairly, with a focus on the common good and the plight of the poor. The scandal is not that we pray for political authorities (in their presence or not) but that we accept their diktat, that the dean of the Cathedral and Bishop Budde have accepted (apparently) Trump’s request that there will be no sermon!! This is NOT acceptable. Equally strange and unacceptable that the choir of the Cathedral will sing at the inauguration on Friday. There are all the reasons to be mad. Here Anglicanism seems to display its worst side, with regard to its penchant for power, while it could show its best side by holding a dignified prayer service that makes clear what God’s intentions for the world are and what is the position of the Church on wealth and the poor. I will watch the service in hope that it is better than I expect it to be.

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    • Thank you for sharing. I’m in agreement with much of what you wrote here. The reason I characterize the service as being “in Trump’s honor” is, quite simply, because if it were otherwise, it would be open to all. But it’s not.

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  12. I love my Church. I endorse our opportunity to set an example for others by praying & not judging. The reading of appropriate scripture is as illuminating as a sermon. If others take this service as an endorsement then clearly they are forgetting that God and God alone has the power to judge. I pray that the Holy Spirit will come in power to rain down on the congregation and our nation the healing power and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. I pray for hearts and minds to be forever changed. I pray that all fall on their knees in the presence of Almighty God. The Episcopal Church worships no man or woman, only God. Remember the work of the Episcopal Church is not politics. Please stop trying to turn our prayers and worship into something they are not.

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    • I hope you are right—though given how Trump has been allowed to dictated what can and can’t be done Saturday, I doubt that surprise will come from the service itself.

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  13. I was okay with the prayer service, as it has taken place of other Presidents–until I found it that he demanded, and got, the sermon removed. Please remember that even though this church in DC is nicknamed “The National Cathedral,” it in no way represents all Episcopalians or Episcopal parishes.

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    • Thanks Mary. I appreciate the reminder that the National Cathedral does not represent TEC as a whole. The reason I addressed my post toward the denomination, though, is that the National Cathedral is the seat of the PB—it seems to me a decision of this importance could not have been made without some engagement/input at the denominational level. That still does not mean it represents Episcopalians as a whole—I’m just noting that’s why I framed my post the way I did.

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  14. A number of issues come to mind for me. 1) Should any denomination have this kind of connection to the government? It seems a last vestige of establishment to me. 2) If you believe prayer services honor those in attendance you may need to rethink your theology. The audience of a service is God not those in the pews or those conducting the services for that matter. 3) If the ECUSA is to be this involved with government, should it only be for those whom the elites in the church agree with or simply for whoever holds the office? Jesus admonishes us to pray for our enemies, yet you would suggest that praying for Trump is out of bounds? Is it not the tradition in the Book of Common Prayer to pray for those who hold the office of President regardless of who that person is? I find the President-elect as concerning as does the author of this piece, but, I am equally concerned with the content that would create a litmus test for those with whom we pray and pray for.

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    • John I don’t think you read carefully enough. Nowhere do I suggest that praying for Trump is out of bounds; in fact, I explicitly say the opposite: “That’s why many Episcopal churches will begin praying for him weekly, starting this Sunday. And rightly so.”

      The question is not who we pray for, but whether we should hold a service to commemorate Trump’s inauguration.

      To your specific points…

      1) No, I don’t think any denomination should have this kind of connection to the government.

      2) If it is a service to God, then it must be open to all. The fact that it is not tells you who this service really is for.

      3) It’s not a question of who we disagree with politically or whose party affiliation we share. The issues with Trump go well beyond that. And, as I noted at the end of my post, “I would prefer it if the Episcopal Church got entirely out of the business of rubbing shoulders with presidents.”

      Thanks for engaging.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Unfortunately and fortunately, as difficult as it is, everyone has a place at the table. They don’t have to do anything to earn it but be human. I don’t like that the church is doing this and if i were singing in the choir i would be perplexed as to what to do. This is not just “our” national cathedral, it’s the country’s national cathedral. I can respect their decision but not agree with it. Christ accepts people as they are and love does the rest. You don’t have to change first, none of us do. In my mind this is the possible equivalent of hitler becoming leader. Should this presidency really be in place and it looks like it is, we have to hope for the best. So supporting in love is better than retreating in reactionary hate. Over and over in scripture we are told to welcome the tax collectors the criminals etc…

    MLK quotes… gandhi… christ. It’s all about love overcoming hate. You can’t do that by hating. It’s the only thing the nation’s national cathedral can do. respect the transition of power which unfortunately is legal. And in this case this decision is the correct moral one. We may not like it but symbolically in a very real sense this is the nation’s cathedral. They have to do it.

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  16. All of this would be important IF the Episcopal Church was at all credible in the face of the past 20 years of compromise in the name of “pastoral sensitivity.” The theological base and authoritative polity of the Church have been so eroded by the lopsided dependency on “being relevant” and “accessible,” that it is surprising that anyone can get upset about the Episcopal Church doing anything. Your displeasure caused by this event is just the latest in a long string of events that you didn’t disprove of so you were ok, but in fact this event is just the latest on the list. No worries though, the Episcopal Church will soon be unrecognizable apart from the Trumps of the world because Christ, proclamation and truth are just not as important as “Butts in the seat.”

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  17. “Yes, God’s table is open. Good hosts, however, do not allow people to come to the table with the intention to destroy it.”

    Not to quibble, but you might want to look again at the Gospels. I distinctly recall an infamous person welcomed to the most famous table of all–and fed by the host he would later betray.

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    • There’s a difference between Jesus doing so as an act of self-sacrifice and allowing someone who is intent on destroying others who are coming to the table for solace and strength.

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  18. Next thing you know, they’ll be telling stories of Jesus breaking bread with tax collectors. And Jesus would never trigger a taxpayer like that.

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  19. Get saved, then read your Bible. First, no one is perfect, no not one. Second, just because we AGREE with God’s Word does not mean we are xenophobic, mysogenist & all the other ‘ists’ the liberal progressives label us with. AND remember, God used men like King David, who was a murderer & adulterer. Paul, who murdered Christians. Rahab, who was a harlot. These are exactly the types of sinners Jesus can use.

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  20. I’m late in the game. I did not watch the service. However, what bugs me is the allowance of the “prayer only” format. The Episcopal Church is all about liturgy. If you choose to have a wedding in the Episcopal Church, it follows the liturgy of the BCP. It is a complete service with all the scriptures and homily. Same with a funeral. It’s not an option, we are first and foremost a Church completely obsessed with liturgy.

    I do support opening the doors to Donald Trump. God made Donald Trump. Just as God made Barrack Obama. We are all beloved children of God. I believe in an Open Table (something as a recovering fundamental evangelical is a new and beautiful thing to me.)

    However, I do not support the church in allowing Trump to manipulate the church by picking and choosing, a la cart style.

    My diocese has made multiple, formal stances against his behaviors, rethoric, and policies. I have signed many strong letters written by our bishop. We must persist to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with a god.” (Micha 6:8)

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