The congregation at the Abbey’s Sunday afternoon service in July was small: a family of five; a white-haired man; the priest, the guy at the organ; and me. The organist didn’t play; he worked the CD deck that filled the large Disciples of Christ Church with contemporary spiritual music. But the lack of crowd did not affect Father Severns’ pastoral style, conducting Mass and iterating announcements as if the sanctuary were full. I was interested in visiting The Abbey because I kept finding Catholic churches and monasteries throughout the Upper Midwest. So many states I thought of as Lutheran or evangelical are actually majority Catholic. Besides, The Abbey’s website indicated a Franciscan basis and liberal leanings without the phrase Roman Catholic. This Catholic-like group on the edge of the West intrigued me.
After service I met the group and then settled into conversation with Father Severns.
The Abbey is an independent jurisdiction within the Orthodox Church, founded in 1946 by a Russian Orthodox priest who escaped Bolshevik Russia and weathered World War II in a Franciscan Monastery. After the war, he came to the United States and teamed with a pair of Roman Catholic bishops working on behalf of displaced Latin Americans to found the order. The Abbey’s emphasis has always been to work with people shut out of other religions due to divorce, sexuality, or doctrine. It’s a social ministry. “We cannot have peace unless we have justice. A lot of what we do is apology. If we are really following Christ, how can we expel anyone?”
The Abbey does not believe there is one true way. Otherwise, Jesus would have put a seraphim or other all-knowing creature in command. Instead, Jesus put His Church in the hands of a human, a rock. Instead of a fixed doctrine, The Abbey considers Christianity a religion of responsibility. “We must love ourselves in order to love our neighbor, in order to love Christ.”
The Abbey hasn’t paid much attention to traditional institution building. The order has no buildings, congregations ‘nest’ within other denominations’ churches; the clergy must have outside jobs as they are not paid; and people who come to The Abbey after being spurned by their church often work themselves back to their religion of origin. Since 1946 there have been only 33 ordained priests. At one point there were seventeen. Now, Father Severns is the only one, and likely the last. “I’ll do this as long as I can, but there is not enough energy in me to reload this organization in my lifetime. I am working to merge our congregation with another group here.”
Given that The Abbey will likely dissolve, I ask Father Severns why liberal religions have such a difficult time sustaining and growing. “Liberal denominations don’t seek out what we have in common with main line denominations. We say, ‘men and women are equal and therefore we need equal clergy’, or ‘people blessed by love should be able to marry who they choose’. Instead, we should start with the basic tenant that ‘we all share salvation through Christ,’ and then acknowledge how that salvation is interpreted differently among denominations.”
Although I appreciate Father Severns’ ideals, his words strike me as Quixotic. People who seek out religion for social support may find value in his position, but people looking for answers will be unsatisfied. Unlike the religious left, the religious right is very successful without seeking common ground with mainline denominations. It offers clear, defined answers to people who crave security and direction. A religion that purports to know the answer has an advantage over one that admits there is no one true way.
And yet, Father Severns’ strength, his compassion, is rooted in the reality of accepting that the world is grey. He uses the current debate over capital punishment as an example. Nebraska recently outlawed capital punishment, even after the Republican Governor Ricketts’ veto. The Abbey is committed to restorative justice and lobbied on behalf of eliminating the death penalty. Now a citizen petition to reintroduce the death penalty is headed for the ballot this November. “Two vicious murders occurred in Scottsbluff. People are having trouble coming to terms with their belief in compassion and their emotional need for revenge.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“As Christianity keeps growing and changing to meet the challenges of tomorrow, we are going to see more and more interdenominational work. We don’t have to give up our identity to thrive. At one three-denomination center I know each group has their own service every week, but once a month they have a shared service, conducted on a rotating basis. This helps to diffuse myths about other denominations and builds on what we have in common.
“How do we get past identifying ourselves by our differences? We start by stressing the similarities. What do we have in common: Jesus, the Abrahamic tradition, and our humanity. It’s not just a Christian thing. As humans on this planet we have to start with what we have in common. Sometimes we have to set aside religion, ethnicity, and borders to allow our commonalities to emerge.
“Humans live up to the lowest expectations around us. If all we teach is hate, Satan, sin and evil, how will people learn to act out of love? No matter what side of the equation I am on, I have to initiate forgiveness. Christianity is a religion of responsibility.”