05/29/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

Is the Underground Church Dead or Alive?

My most intimate experience with the underground church came in the summer of 1965. Four young black men of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and I were volunteers to assist local African Americans in Mississippi defeat a campaign to deny their legal rights in voter registration.

As a white Episcopal priest working for racial justice in a highly charged racist environment, I could not attend a church service in either a local white or black congregation. I'd have endangered lives by publicly seeking to break the racial barrier in a formal religious setting. Opposition and retaliation could have been both instant and deadly. Yet I wanted to receive Holy Communion in a setting of honesty and authentic community.

My companions were willing to participate with me in worship. We were staying with a poor family in their rural shack. On a shelf I found a loaf of musty, stale bread covered with mold. An open bottle of warm beer was also there. They could replace the wine and communion wafer or bread ofa formal mass or eucharist. As a matter of fact they did. That is when I most directly experienced the meaning and reality of the underground church. I wonder, what would you have done under the same circumstances and conditions?

This experience deeply touched my life and motivated me when I first used the phrase "underground church" publicly in a meeting of the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches in Dallas on Feb. 24, 1967. "The game of church-as-usual isn't sufficient now," I said. "This is a time of open crisis personally and collectively. Increasingly, people feel there is a neon-lit, Muzak-filled vacuum at the pit of their lives where there used to be at least a clear memory of faith. These people will tell you they are experiencing a desperate need for raw, unvarnished honesty if faith is ever going to be possible for them again. More and more people are finding reality of experience in new forms and settings which bring a feeling of authentic community."

Reaction was immediate and enormous. Often there was shock. I edited a book "The Underground Church." An older officialdom, accustomed to obedience, was literally dismayed when that was no longer forthcoming. The ecumenical movement and the example of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II provided an impetus. Of course, throughout church history certain individuals have stood out in this vein -- a Francis of Assisi, a Luther, a Wesley, a Bonhoeffer, a Simone Weil.

We're talking about times of deep change. Rules and customs are altered. Spirituality finds expression in more contemporary forms. This is an honest attempt to preserve the content of the gospel over against cultural interpretatiions under a number of labels. However, some sincere and well-meaning people may be seriously wounded in the process when the church stands in need of reform. Take, for example, a young, outspoken, idealistic male or female cleric who is silenced and sometimes removed under cover of night. This can be accomplished without visible sweat or public scandal "decently and in order." Yet was truth violated and honest dialogue stifled? Price tags on the gargoyles! Alas, the church became a chaplain of the status quo.

Let's take a look at a couple of real situations. If a church seems to worship male leadership and makes women feel like second class citizens, I think justice and truth require an entirely new look at the role of women in the church. Pope Benedict and the Vatican recently offered extremely ungenerous criticism of faithful and highly dedicated nuns. One might say: Enough!

Or, if a church has long shone signs of racism, the moment has come (maybe a couple of centuries ago) to get over it. Or, if a church continues to pillory gay people, denying dignity and equal treatmnt, refusing hospitality and expression of God's love, well, don't preach love until you show a little.

People can change. When people do -- honestly, deeply -- the rest of us can change too. Anger can give way to mutuality and openness. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. Then the question becomes: do we want to tango?

I do. Neither the established church nor the underground church is dead for me. I live and move and have my being in both. I cherish the yearning and truth and possibility of both.