Progressive Presbyterians


John Shuck, a progressive Presbyterian pastor and blogger, has written this about his congregation:

We are to the left of center of most churches in Holston Presbytery. We certainly aren't the most progressive in the country, by any means.
Okay, that comment has got me curious. Since his congregation seems fairly progressive at first glance, that statement makes me wonder what are the most progressive Presbyterian churches in the US.

The main research tool that I have used for finding progressive churches in general is the website for the Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC). I realize that this is a limited tool for at least two reasons: some progressive churches are not affiliated with TCPC, and not every church that is affiliated with it interprets "progressive" in the same way. Regarding the first point, one interesting but small congregation that I know of in San Francisco is not affiliated with TCPC, and yet is every bit as progressive, if not more so, than many of those that are. That particular church conducts sessions based on the "Living the Questions" DVDs, and its pastor is interested in process theology, and is involved in interfaith issues, among other things.

Three Presbyterian churches in my neck of the woods are affiliated with TCPC. Of those three, I would venture a guess that perhaps Sausalito Presbyterian might have a chance of making John's list of the most progressive churches in his denomination. It is pastored by Jim Burklo, a leading figure in TCPC, and one look at the church web site reveals a strong self-identification as a progressive church; according to the web site, the church "measures itself by its deeds than its creeds", and it "drops the dogma that gets in the way of the love that is God." All of which resonates with me.

Coincidentally, just yesterday while visiting a used bookstore I happened across a book by Jim Burklo, Open Christianity. I immediate snapped the book up. It was written a few years ago, when he as a UCC pastor at a progressive church on the San Francisco peninsula. I don't know what led him to switch denominations.

The other two Bay Area Presbyterian churches that are TCPC affiliates (Noe Valley and Seventh Avenue) are more of an open question, as far as I am concerned. Visiting a web site is not the same as actually visiting the church, of course, and I have considered paying both of those churches a visit. I'm sure they are wonderful churches in many ways, but are they progressive? I think the big question is what the word "progressive" really means. Both of these churches are certainly progressive on the subject of sexuality, for example; but that in and of itself doesn't necessarily tell me anything. A church can be progressive on sexuality and still be quite orthodox on other matters of theology, for example insisting on Trinitarian doctrine as an essential of the faith, or on the resurrection of Jesus as a literal, historical fact. While I doubt that anyone would bat an eye over my heretical views over at Sausalito Presbyterian, I'm not so sure whether that would be true at the other two churches. There are, of course, a host of other Presbyterian churches in the area, many of whom I know little or nothing about, and which I am not able to discern much about via their web sites (some don't even have web sites.) One Presbyterian church, Mission Bay, has a very active web presence, and portrays itself as a church for young hipsters. But I'm neither a hipster, nor young, and besides, hip doesn't necessarily equal progressive.

One thing to bear in mind with this whole process is that, a) denominations may have a great deal of theological diversity among their congregations, and b) congregations themselves may have members with quite different views. What matters to me is not that everyone in a congregation thinks like me--an obvious impossibility, and not really desirable anyway since I no doubt have much to learn from other people's perspectives--but whether it is a place where a heretic like me can feel welcome, and where progressive theology is at least respected and openly explored. The aforementioned "Living the Questions" DVDs, for example, represent not a dogmatic teaching exercise, but, as the title suggests, a starting point for personal and group exploration. For me, a church is part of a journey, rather than a destination.


Heather W. Reichgott said...

Time for the obligatory word from the person who works at Noe Valley ;)

Here there are Jesus-proclaimers, Higher Power devotees, interfaith families, and atheists who come because they love the community. I think the progressive politics serve as a unifying factor for this congregation--say whatever you believe theologically, it's fine, but if you think the Iraq war was a good idea, uh, you'll be in the minority. (maybe a minority of one.)

The theological pluralism around here sometimes makes things odd for first-time visitors. Depending on the day, you might hear the senior pastor talking about how she sees the church as the resurrected body of Christ; or me giving a very orthodox interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity; or a deacon sharing her views on the links between UFOs and the Bible.

Consider that either a warning or an invitation--whichever way it strikes you. :)

John Shuck said...


Thanks again for the mention! I used to have a list of progessive Presbyterian congregations on my blog, but when I had to switch to new blogger or whatever it is, I lost it.

As you can guess from the heat I get from the faithful, being openly progressive is a bit of a risk. Many are under the radar.

Many of the most progressive Presbyterian congregations are listed under the directories for More Light or the Covenant Network.

Those are organizations who affirm THE GAY. I am somewhat unique in that I tick off most everyone because I am not only socially and politically progressive but theologically as well.

Noe Valley is cool little spot, I have to say. I visited there a few summers ago with our youth group from Montana. Lisa was a most gracious host.

Dammit, Seeker, get involved with them. They could use you. Enough seeking, find already!

You know I am teasing, kinda....

You are the best!

Mystical Seeker said...

Heather, thanks for that insight into your church. It is interesting that politics would act as a sort of congregational glue there. I don't think the Iraq War was a fine idea, by the way. :)

John, you are way too kind!