01/16/2013 03:35 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2013

Underground Religion

Author's note: My 90th birthday will be June 8, 2013. Should I call it a lifetime experience? I'm in pretty good shape. A retired Episcopal priest (ordained in 1955), I remain very active, spending quality timel offering spiritual direction to a fine mix of people and continuing my lifetime of writing. My ears perked up when the thought surfaced that I might write quite personally about a few crucial American religious moments in which I'd particiipated.

What is underground religion? It brings to mind a tangle of associations ranging from early Christians in catacombs to freedom fighters resisting Nazis. At present it means, among other things, radical transformation of many existing structures and practices. One observer has suggested that "invisible" would offer a more apt description. Yet, clearly, underground possesses too much feeling and passion ever to be simply invisible. In a curious way underground religion resembles a dinner at eight originally designed for a dozen guests. But two hundred people show up. They ask for different menus.

Author Malachi Martin caught this when he wrote a book "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church" in 1981. He was reflecting the enormous impetus given underground religion by Vatican II's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" and the dynamic leadership of Pope John XXIII. Should the church be seen as a hierarchical and monarchial society or a community of believers sharing the spirit of Jesus? Reactions to this question have been global and intense. In his book, Martin presented a list of religious personalities whom he perceived were striving to link past and present in a sort of stewpot. Here is his list: Hans Kung, Malcolm Boyd, Andrew Greeley, Billy Graham, Marcel Lefebvre and Teilhard de Chardin. My presence on this list has never made sense to me. I find it dismaying in its scope. Yet the list speaks for itself and raises questions. Precisely what kind of changes does underground religion suggest or seek? In the ensuing worldwide dialogue, who represents whom?

I've known underground religion best in terms of people engaged actively in it. So many of them! A former Roman Catholic priest, now marriedd and the father of three children, working as a community organizer and, this afternoon, celebrating a quiet eucharist in his backyard in St. Louis. An Australian woman who formlerly administered metropolitan church youth programs in Detroit and now works with rural poor in Mississippi. The founder of an ecemunical community dedicated to experimental ministry in Harlem. A former nun who finds the underground working among cellsl of people in an educational environmentd that assists "the emerging youngster, the young adult and the mature citizen."

A number of creative and innovative clergy have identified themselves with underground religion. One was the late Episcopal priest Robert W. Castle, Jr., who eloquently wrote his "Prayers for the Burned-Out City."

O God, who lives in tenements, who goes to segregated schools, who is beaten in precincts, who is unemployed,
Help us to know you.

O God, who can't write or read, who is on welfare, and who is treated like garbage,
Help us to know you.

O God, who lives and no one knows his name and who knows that he is nobody,
Help us to know you.

An actual picture of a segment of underground religion was left us by the late Rev. Layton P. Zimmer, a colleague of mine who was a volunteer worker in civil rights, served as Deputy Director of the Peace Corps in the Fiji Islands, and served an Episcopal parish in Philadelphia.

As Zimmer recalled, early morning sun streamed through ground mist and a living room window. It touched the heads of a standing group with soft light. A white schoolteacher read the epistle. An African American housewife read the Gospel. The group was silent for a moment and then someone began to say the creed. A Lultheran pastor in shirt and tie, assisted by a worker priest in Bermudas and sport shirt, celebrated the eucharist. The rite was an experimental Episcopal one. Receiving commujnion were a Roman Catholic priest, two Black Power agnostics, a Universalist from Harvard and an elderly birthright Quaker woman.

People. Alll sorts, all kinds. Religion taking on new forms and practices. The song "Getting To Know You" might be relevant here. Breaking out of old barriers. Minimizing barriers between clergy and oher people. More and more actual participants. Religion, not separated from the rest of life, but inttegrated into the whole of it.

I believe that underground religion is just beginning. It's neither a gimmick nor a media event. Our culture is changing. We are changing. I feel very positive about this. I am hopeful and energized by great possibilities. Yes, they are wonderful.