By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
DES MOINES, Iowa, April 22, 2019 — The Lenten season just completed is probably the most spiritual period in my whole life.
In my later adult years as a “cradle Catholic,” I’ve not been one to “give up something” for Lent. Rather, I always tried to “do something more,” like, oh, saying the rosary daily, or adding extra masses and services, or committing to some church project.
But this Lent I indeed gave up something — Catholicism.
And I was welcomed right away into faith that seems fresh and inspiring at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ, here in Des Moines, where my wife Carla Offenburger has long been a member.
Plymouth Church in Des Moines, now with some structural repair on its bell tower.
I made the change after nearly two full decades of enduring news breaks about clergy scandals in the Catholic church, including the sexual abuse of children and nuns; all the denials and cover-ups; the rapid decline in the number of priests; the closing of parishes, and the reality that so many other good but discouraged Catholics are also leaving. Good God almighty, it just wore me out.
The saddest part of the Catholic church’s sorry condition is this — there is nothing wrong with the theology of it. And its mission of social justice, education, healthcare, assistance for the poor and relief of the oppressed is better than ever.
But the leadership model — all-male, unmarried, supposedly celibate — is a failure. For 25 or 30 years, I’ve been saying that publicly and in church meetings, too. The reaction I’ve received is overwhelming agreement from Catholic lay people, and from many of the priests I’ve known, too.
And I must say here that I have enjoyed great friendships with many priests and a few bishops. I would count a half-dozen or more of them being among the smartest, most insightful and eloquent people I’ve ever known. Their service to God and to their congregations has been exceptional. I think they’ve generally loved their work. That’s despite their financial compensation being lousy, their lives being lonely, and the psychological and emotional toll of their work being exhausting.
As the embarrassment for most Catholics has been building in recent years, I placed great hope in Pope Francis. I really believed he might become a liberator for Catholicism — that he would open the ordained ministry to women, to married people, to gay people as well as straight people.
I also thought in the past year that the change might indeed be coming soon. That was when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops were meeting in early January at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, followed in late February by the pope’s gathering in Rome of the leaders of the world’s conferences of bishops.
Both summits were colossal disappointments, in my view.
In fact, it was during the world meeting in Rome that news stories broke that the sexual abuse victims of priests and bishops have included nuns, some of whom had babies, some of whom even had abortions.
How much more of this can anybody stand?
That was certainly enough for me.
It was like I suddenly had a new clarity on what I think is the key issue.
The empowerment and glorification of men by the Catholic Church is so wrong that, after centuries of that being the status quo, it is now cannibalizing the church organizational structure and the faith itself.
The church’s men of power and position must sense that the time of the patriarchy is passing. Otherwise, wouldn’t we be hearing sermons or other explanations about why they think the all-male celibate clergy is still viable? Anybody heard anything remotely like that? I didn’t.
I think the only way the church is going to heal itself is if women are ordained, empowered and appointed at all levels of leadership, right to the top.
The requirements of theological study, training and commitment should be as rigorous as they are now. But that should be open not only to single men, but also to men and women who might like to marry, or already are married, and to men and women who are gay as well as straight. A loving sex life should not be denied the clergy. And a moral life should be required of all ministers.
If such changes are made in my lifetime, I may well be back as a practicing Catholic, for in my heart and soul, I still love and honor the real Catholic faith.
But at 71 years old, I’m not sitting around waiting for the Catholic liberation to happen.
When I told Douglas T. Bates III, of Centerville, Tenn., a faithful Protestant who has been my great friend since college, about my decision to leave Catholicism, he asked me if my late mother Anna Offenburger has made a visit back to me yet to discuss all this. She was as Catholic as they come. My explanation to her would start this way, “Mom, you know what? You’d have been a terrific priest — even with all of us in the rectory with you!”
No, I have not been haunted about all this, or really even worried.
For the 28 years I’ve been married to Carla Offenburger, I’ve been very close to her great church — Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ. She’s been a Plymouth member since the late 1980s, even though she was also active in the United Methodist Church when we lived five years in Storm Lake, and in the Central Christian Church in Jefferson the first 10 years or so we’ve lived outside Cooper in Greene County.
Plymouth is a big church, with a couple thousand members and a lot of others regularly attending and taking part in an amazing number of ministries and activities. The preaching is well-thought, researched and interpreted, then passionately delivered. The music and other arts must be the best among all churches in the Des Moines area. I’ll write more about it in coming years, I’m sure.
Transom window above the double doors on the west side of the sanctuary.
But for now, I want to tell you what, at least in my mind, the three biggest things are about this big church.
First, its motto: “We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.”
That traces to Rev. Stoddard Lane, the senior minister at Plymouth from 1929 to 1943. You see that motto in almost all of Plymouth’s publications. You see it in stained glass and on wood plaques at different places in the building. I felt lucky and blessed that during this Lent, just when I began my regular attendance at Plymouth, the current senior minister, Rev. Matt Mardis-LeCroy, did a 3-part series of sermons on that motto, and how relevant it still is 80-plus years after Rev. Lane came up with it.
The second big thing it’s important to know about Plymouth is a line of greeting we hear every service from the pulpit: “No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.”
And that is amplified by this passage on the front of each week’s church bulletin: “As an Open and Affirming congregation, Plymouth Church embraces diversity in our congregation and community. We affirm the dignity and worth of every person created in the image of God. We honor the guiding principle that discrimination is incompatible with Christ’s message of unconditional love. We welcome into full membership and participation in all aspects of our church life persons of every race, language, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, physical or mental ability, economic or marital status and faith background, and we affirm and celebrate all loving and committed relationships.”
The third big thing I like about Plymouth is actually a line from its denomination, the United Church of Christ: “God is still speaking.”
Like most of you, I’m just doing my best to hear and understand what God is coming up with next. And it’s getting more interesting all the time.
The “Resurrection window” on the east side of the sanctuary at Plymouth Church.
An important message in the fancy scrollwork on the back wall of the choir left in the altar area.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.