Fallout from Washington National Cathedral guest preacher a ‘teachable moment’ for the church

By David Paulsen
Posted Feb 9, 2021
Gene Robinson and Max Lucado

The Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson presided Feb. 7 at Washington National Cathedral’s livestreamed worship service. The Rev. Max Lucado, inset, preached in a prerecorded video submitted for the service.

Editor’s note: Washington Bishop Mariann Budde and Washington National Cathedral Dean Randy Hollerith issued parallel apologies late Feb. 10 for allowing popular evangelical pastor Max Lucado to preach.

[Episcopal News Service] The invitation came on short notice. In an afternoon phone call Feb. 6, the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, asked the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson if he would come to the cathedral and preside at the next morning’s service. In accepting, Robinson also offered to speak about the controversy surrounding the cathedral’s guest preacher for that same service.

At the Feb. 7 service, during announcements made after the peace, Robinson addressed the more than 6,000 people viewing the cathedral’s livestream. “To those of us who are LGBTQ, while a lot of us are still in pain, while a lot of us have experienced some awful things in our lives” – Robinson paused before emphasizing his central message – “we’ve won.”

“We’ve won. We know how this is going to end,” he continued. “This is going to end with the full inclusion of gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer people, nonbinary people, all kinds of people, in the church and into the society. We work every day to make that true, but we know how it ends.”

Robinson is revered in The Episcopal Church as its first openly gay bishop, consecrated in 2003 in New Hampshire. Now retired and living in Washington, D.C., Robinson told Episcopal News Service he wanted to show his support for the cathedral as it faced criticism for inviting the Rev. Max Lucado, a popular and prolific evangelical author and pastor who once called homosexuality a “sexual sin.”

Though Robinson joined efforts by cathedral and diocesan officials to respond to the backlash, supporters of full LGBTQ inclusion in the life of The Episcopal Church and society continued in the days after the service to question why the cathedral would turn its pulpit over to someone they accuse of causing deep harm, specifically with an article he wrote in 2004 against same-sex marriage. An online petition drive against the decision to invite Lucado to preach at the cathedral was still growing Feb. 9.

Some of those critics, while affirming their respect for Robinson, said they disagreed with his defense of the cathedral.

“I have deep love and respect for Gene. He’s one of my closest friends and colleagues and allies,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, a longtime leader in the push for LGBTQ equality in the church, but she wasn’t mollified by Robinson’s participation in the service. “I might have made a different decision than Gene did, not that they would have invited me.”

Despite Robinson’s presence and Lucado’s avoidance of any mention of homosexuality or same-sex marriage in his prerecorded 22-minute sermon, the damage was done, critics say.

“What he said in the pulpit had absolutely nothing to do with my objection. It was the fact that he was in the pulpit and what he represents,” said Russell, who serves as the Diocese of Los Angeles’ canon for engagement across difference and as co-chair of The Episcopal Church’s Communion Across Difference Task Force. “This is a person who’s on record as saying LGBT people are outside God’s saving grace. That, in and of itself, incarnationally represents something that is antithetical to the Gospel we have proclaimed now for decades in the church.”

Last Friday, as criticism began to mount, Hollerith acknowledged those concerns while framing Lucado’s invitation as part of the cathedral’s efforts to encourage openness to different perspectives. He again responded to the controversy in his opening welcome to viewers of the Feb. 7 online service.

Lucado “has said some things in the past about the LGBTQ community that have caused deep pain,” Hollerith said. “I don’t agree with those statements, and the cathedral does not agree with those statements. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and siblings are the beloved children of God just as they are.”

He also announced that Lucado had agreed to join him and others for “a public conversation” about the hurt caused by Christian churches and opportunities for healing. Details about that conversation, including a date, have yet to be determined.

In a Facebook post hours after the service, Washington Bishop Mariann Budde offered her own defense of the cathedral’s decision, though she also apologized “for my part in the pain caused today” to the LGBTQ community.

Speaking by phone with ENS a day later, Budde expressed personal anguish as she carefully described her evolving understanding of the past several days. She said she continued to face a barrage of emails and phone messages since the service, many of them from people angry with her for allowing Lucado’s sermon.

“I’m not asking people to agree with our decision at this point. I’m very sorry for the hurt that it’s caused,” she said. “My biggest mistake was not reaching out to some of my colleagues who are LGBTQ.” If she had taken more time to talk through the issue with them, she said, she might have asked the cathedral not to include Lucado. “I would do it differently now,” she said.

Budde also endorsed Hollerith’s efforts to organize a follow-up discussion with Lucado because she sees opportunities to bring the church’s message of inclusion to the evangelical world that Lucado represents. “I pray that we actually can have that conversation with Max and others,” she said, “to wring some redemption out of this.”

Criticism of Lucado focuses on 2004 article against same-sex marriage

Lucado is not a household name in The Episcopal Church. Robinson had never heard of him until last weekend. Russell said she only knew of him as “an evangelical self-help” writer who has sold “a bunch of books” – more than 120 million copies, according to Lucado’s website.

But Lucado’s vast audience of readers includes Episcopalians, among them Hollerith, the National Cathedral dean. “I have found many of his writings to be spiritually nourishing,” Hollerith said in his opening remarks Feb. 7. “Max and I differ on many issues, but I know him to be a person of goodwill and deep faith.”

Cathedral spokesman Kevin Eckstrom said Hollerith was unavailable for an interview for this story. Hollerith was not aware of Lucado’s 2004 article on homosexuality when Lucado was invited to join the cathedral as guest preacher, Eckstrom said.

The National Cathedral has increased its frequency of guest sermons during the coronavirus pandemic because online services provide opportunities for preachers to participate remotely. Past guests have ranged from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist and ordained Baptist minister who has written extensively about racism in America.

Lucado, though best known for his books on faithful living, also serves as pastor of Oak Hills Church, a nondenominational megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, that once was affiliated with the conservative Churches of Christ.

The congregation’s beliefs are outlined on its website, including its exclusion of women from the church’s elders and its definition of marriage as “one man, one woman for life.”

Today, Lucado is rarely quoted in news coverage or on his personal website as commenting on homosexuality or same-sex marriage. A search through online samples of his writings suggests he is more likely to preach on the threat to marriage from infidelity.

He left no doubt about his views in 2004, however, in writing the article that has been cited by Episcopalians in their outrage over his National Cathedral invitation. In the article, Lucado voiced concerns that same-sex marriage might lead down a slippery slope to legalized polygamy, bestiality or incest.

Lucado spent much of the article reviewing biblical passages that theological conservatives have often pointed to in making their case that homosexuality is forbidden by God, though Lucado also argues that Jesus taught that love should be Christians’ primary response. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” he said. “This includes homosexuality. Jesus loves his gay children. He made them, came for them and died for them.”

God loves them but “categorically opposes” gay marriage, Lucado wrote. He concluded the article by describing “homosexual activity” and “the gay lifestyle” as sins that can be changed by pastoral care “with simultaneous compassion and conviction” – echoing the language of conversion therapy, which gay rights advocates warn can lead to depression and suicide.

Lucado’s article, “What God Says About Gay Marriage,” is dated July 18, 2004. It was posted to Lucado’s personal website that year, according to a search of the Internet Archive. The link is no longer active there, but a reproduction of the article still can be found on the online Christian magazine Crosswalk.com. That is the link cited by an online petition asking the National Cathedral to rescind Lucado’s invitation, with more than 1,600 signing on.

Robinson told ENS he hadn’t seen the article, but Hollerith described it to him by phone. “I’ve got a pretty long view about this,” Robinson said, recalling the controversy when he was elected bishop and became the focus of intense homophobic hatred and even death threats. “It’s really hard to remember what the world was like in 2003, when I was consecrated,” Robinson said.

A year later, when Lucado posted his article, such opposition to same-sex marriage “was not an uncommon position,” Robinson said. At that time, same-sex couples were just beginning to legally marry in the United States, starting with Massachusetts in May 2004.

“I have no idea if Max Lucado has evolved,” he said. “I just think it’s important to see everything in its proper context. That kind of language would not have stood out in 2004 because it was coming from a lot of different places.”

Even so, such attitudes “horrified” Robinson then and remain abhorrent now. “And that’s sort of a thing that we have tried as a movement to say to our more evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ, to say that your words matter and your words can do great damage.”

Whether Lucado still holds such beliefs is unclear. An assistant declined ENS requests to interview Lucado, saying he is on a writing sabbatical. ENS could find no evidence that Lucado has ever disavowed or apologized for his comments in 2004. It appears he generally avoids the topic.

In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the country, Lucado responded in a post on his website, headlined “Prayer, Not Despair.” The court decision “has the potential to leave many Christians anxious and troubled,” he said. “While those of us who hold to traditional marriage have a right to be concerned, we have no need to despair.” He concluded that “something good will come out of this.”

“Maybe now we can have this discussion where we need to have it,” he wrote. “Face-to-face. In neighborhoods. Over dinner tables. Perhaps the hate-filled words will subside and clear thinking will gain traction; the shouting will diminish and the heart-felt dialogue will increase.”

As Robinson defends cathedral, some see ‘teachable moment’

The National Cathedral made no mention of Lucado’s views on sexuality last week when it announced him as the cathedral’s latest guest preacher. “We’re thrilled to welcome one of America’s best-known pastors and authors to the Canterbury Pulpit as our guest preacher,” a Feb. 3 Facebook post said.

Budde said she wasn’t involved in inviting Lucado and wasn’t aware of the outrage until she received a call from Hollerith early Feb. 5. By then, the Facebook post had generated hundreds of comments, most of them critical of the cathedral. Budde scrolled through those reactions as she and the dean spoke.

“It’s not uncommon for there to be pressure on the cathedral to do one thing or the other,” Budde told ENS. “Trying to decide when to respond to that, or not, is a judgment call.” But this situation was different, she said. “It took me a while to appreciate the magnitude of the issue and the magnitude of the concern,” Budde said.

She talked with Hollerith again the next morning. “I don’t police pulpits, typically, but I have ultimate responsibility for the cathedral,” she said. Lucado had submitted video of his sermon, which focused on easing life’s anxieties by feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit. Budde said she could have asked Hollerith not to include the video in the cathedral’s livestream, but she deferred to the dean and allowed the sermon to proceed.

Hollerith also called Robinson the morning before the service. Though Robinson usually worships with St. Thomas’ Parish in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, the retired bishop occasionally assists Budde and Hollerith at the cathedral “when they think I’d be good at something.”

He also had helped facilitate the interment of Matthew Shepard’s ashes at the cathedral in 2018. Shepard, a gay college student, was murdered in 1998 in Wyoming, and Robinson knew the Shepard family through their mutual advocacy on LGBTQ issues.

Robinson isn’t on Facebook and hadn’t seen the controversy brewing about the cathedral’s invitation to Lucado. Hollerith brought Robinson up to speed and asked for his advice. Robinson also took a call from the faith coordinator at Human Rights Campaign, the LGBTQ rights advocacy organization, who wanted a better sense of the church dynamics of the controversy.

Later that afternoon, when Hollerith called back to discuss the matter further, the dean asked if Robinson would preside at the Feb. 7 service. “I was delighted,” Robinson said.

He told ENS that he wasn’t taking a position for or against the cathedral’s decision to let Lucado preach, but he believes in the cathedral’s mission. “The cathedral’s mission is to be a house of prayer for all people,” Robinson said. “And I think ‘all’ in that case means all well-intentioned people, not just the ones that we agree with.”

More than 6,000 people gathered in front of computer and phone screens for the cathedral’s 11 a.m. livestream. Robinson spoke for eight minutes.

“The world isn’t perfect yet. And there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “And there are a lot of conversations to be had with people like Rev. Lucado. But we know how it’s going to end. And at least for me, it gives me permission to be just a bit gentler, to be an instrument of God’s grace.

“I know we’ve won. And it’ll take a while for everyone to agree that we are God’s children as well. But between now and then, because I know where this is headed, I can also be a pastor.”

Robinson told ENS afterward that Hollerith hadn’t said explicitly why he asked the bishop to preside, but Robinson assumed it was to serve as a reminder of the cathedral’s support for the LGBTQ community. “None of us can get it right all the time. I don’t know if I would have invited [Lucado] to preach or not. That’s not what I was speaking about,” Robinson said. “The cathedral is just trying to live up to its mission.”

Russell, the Los Angeles canon, said Robinson’s defense of the cathedral has drawn mixed reactions.

“There is no monolithic LGBTQ reaction,” she said. “Some members of the community were encouraged and inspired by Gene’s willingness to stand in that place, and some were offended and hurt.”

She calls the cathedral’s decision to invite Lucado an “unforced error,” after apparently failing to uncover his past anti-LGBTQ statements. She dismisses arguments that the controversy casts doubt on the church’s commitment to inclusion for all people.

“There’s a difference between feeling excluded because you’re disagreed with and being excluded because of who you are,” Russell said. “Everyone is welcome in the church, but not every perspective is welcome in the pulpit.”

Russell hopes the reaction to Lucado’s guest sermon will be a “teachable moment” for the church and for the nation, at a time when many Americans have been traumatized by political divisions. And she supports campaigns like The Episcopal Church’s “From Many, One,” which encourage Episcopalians to engage in open, nonjudgmental conversations with people who have different beliefs.

Russell recently participated in a one-on-one conversation with Central Florida Bishop Greg Brewer as part of “From Many, One.” Brewer is one of a handful of Episcopal bishops who do not personally condone same-sex marriage but have made accommodations to enable gay and lesbian couples to marry in their dioceses.

“I think what happened this weekend at the cathedral has been, in some ways, a wake-up call,” Russell said, “to moving us forward both as an inclusive church … but also in engaging in conversation across difference in ways that are healthy.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.