"The Episcopal denomination has always been one of the most inclusive denominations. We don't fight over doctrine. For example, in my church we have pro-life and pro-choice congregants. My preferences are for life, but the decision needs to be based on the circumstances," said Reverend Michael Russell of All Souls. Russell declined to provide circumstances in which he would endorse abortion. "Regardless of the circumstances, we wouldn't expel someone from our church for having an abortion. My job is to teach people how to think as Christians, not what to think." Russell said All Souls falls on the progressive end of Protestant churches. He summarized his church's stance on divisive issues, "In any gray area, we would rather include people than exclude them. We are not agents of God's judgment." Russell said that many All Souls congregants left Roman Catholic and Protestant churches where they were judged for their behavior. "People come to our church because we allow for divorce. Sometimes a marriage is causing so much damage to the people involved that it's best to get divorced. We are very welcoming to gays and lesbians. When looking at scripture on this issue, we believe the historical circumstances have changed. Tradition, current culture, what scripture says and whether it is still applicable as it was when it was first written are elements to consider on these matters," said Russell
The Episcopal denomination has been in the press lately because of the denomination's divide over the ordination of homosexuals. "It will be sad if churches leave over this issue. I think they are wrong to leave over it," said Russell. "We've always had a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy." Russell said that the departure would be primarily from churches in the third world. "These are the more evangelical churches that hold scripture as literal. We're not a church to divide easily. I don't want to become like most of the denominational-based churches that are constantly splitting. They end up with hundreds of denominations that split over the smallest of differences and interpretations."
Reverend Russell began service with a Progressive Instructive Eucharist to explain the components of All Souls' liturgy. "It is good to teach new people why all the parts of the service are there; the elements of service are not just random stuff we observe," said Russell after the service. "It also is good to remind people who have attended for years why we are doing these things. We hold a liturgy because we believe it embeds in people's lives a movement toward communion with God. We connect with our ancestors from reading the Old Testament. We read a passage in the New Testament and connect with the early church and how they encountered God. Our final reading is from a Gospel, which is the culmination of these readings and the peak of the service. The Gospel teaches us how to have a right relationship with God."
The liturgical service included several responsive elements, such as the Nicene Creed and the Prayers of the People. All Souls uses a Revised Canon Lectionary that follows Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches' weekly scripture readings. Russell said All Souls has more scripture reading than most churches. In the service, Reverend Russell provided commentary on the scripture readings from Exodus, Philippians, and the Gospel of Matthew. Service concluded with communion, a blessing, and benediction.
After service, people walked into an adjoining gymnasium and gathered around pastries, muffins, chocolate cake, juice, and coffee. "I'm a recovering Catholic. I like All Souls because the liturgy is very familiar to me," said Tom Gadzala, a congregant and member of the greeting committee.
Teshonne Harper and her family recently came to All Souls from a Catholic Parish. "I don't like the new Pope," said Harper about the move. "When the new Pope was elected, I knew it was time for us to move on. My biggest problem was that the new Pope was a member of Hitler's Youth. The Catholic Church is not moving in a progressive enough direction for our family."
I asked Reverend Russell what All Souls teaches about life after death. "We believe in heaven and some of us believe in hell," replied Russell. "But you'll also find universalists in our church." Universalism holds that all people will be saved and go to heaven. Russell said he believes in hell. "But I don't believe it is a smoking pit of fire. People will find in death what they expect. I believe Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims are going to be okay. God's not going to condemn people based on religion. The question people need to ask is, 'HOW did you incarnate love?'"
1475 Catalina Boulevard, Point Loma
Founded locally: August 10, 1948
Senior pastor: Michael B. Russell
Congregation size: 425
Staff size: 6
Sunday school enrollment: 25
Annual budget: $500,000
Weekly giving: $9615
Singles program: no
Dress: casual to business casual
Sunday worship: 8 a.m., 10:15 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour