Sermon stirs criticism of church rector

Some say attack on war, president went too far

February 20, 2004|By Reginald Fields and Frank Langfitt | Reginald Fields and Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

The rector of the largest church in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland offended some members of his congregation and inspired others when during a sermon this month he blasted President Bush and the Iraq war, asserting that the president misled the country.

The Rev. Paul D. Tunkle of the Church of the Redeemer in North Baltimore has since apologized to his congregation, and on Sunday he held a forum attended by those who believed his comments were too much political advocacy and too little spiritual guidance.

"Some people made it clear that the emotional component of it was off-putting for them," said Tunkle, in a phone interview yesterday. "If I had to do it over again, I might pull back from some of the partisanship."

While Tunkle might wish he had hedged his comments, the Right Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, bishop of the Diocese of Maryland, said Tunkle's comments were not out of line for the church.

"I found that it was a very fine sermon. I thought Paul Tunkle was being prophetic," said Ihloff, who read a transcript of the sermon. "It certainly has been agreed with by some and been disagreed with by others. And it is the priest's call to be prophetic."

The sermon left the congregation divided, with some parishioners praising a call for them to become more politically active, while others were uncomfortable and threatened to leave the church if Tunkle delivered more such sermons.

"I was in shock and didn't really know what to think at first," said Auburn Bell, 42, a member of the vestry who lives in Towson. "I think Paul really went over the top with the direct comments on the president and Tony Blair."

Tunkle, 54, said he did not expect the sermon to be so divisive for the church and wishes he would have made clear that the political comments were merely his own views. He has not, however, backed away from the thoughts.

"President Bush is our leader," Tunkle said during the Feb. 1 sermon. "The worst thing a leader can do is mislead. Our president has misled us."

Tunkle also noted that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, the basis for going to war offered by the Bush administration.

"Five hundred, more than five hundred soldiers have died so that we could be protected from weapons that don't exist," Tunkle said during the sermon. "This president owes us an explanation. This president owes us an apology."

Tunkle went on to say that Bush "let more and more people die" and that Tony Blair, the prime minister of Great Britain, the strongest U.S. ally in the war, is under critical scrutiny in his own country. "We are now in an electoral process. We'll find out whether our president is in trouble," Tunkle said.

Tunkle, a New York City native and adult convert to Christianity from Judaism, is known for his direct, straight-talk approach.

Installed at Redeemer in January 2002, Tunkle, during one of his early sermons at the church, candidly recounted growing up Jewish, marrying a Christian woman and taking on a spiritual journey before converting.

Tunkle remembers speaking out against the Iraq war during a sermon before combat began but said he clearly stated then that he was expressing opinion and afterward there was no backlash from parishioners.

Tunkle knew while delivering his sermon on Feb. 1 that some in his congregation would be "very upset" and jokingly invited them "to throw me off a cliff."

But he argued there was a religious explanation for his political vehemence. He said that as a spiritual person, he had an obligation to speak out against what he believes is morally wrong. Ihloff agreed, even if he did it from the pulpit.

"I think there's nothing unusual about talking about how our religious faith impacts all parts of life, including politics," said Ihloff, who added that the Episcopalian Church's House of Bishops were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the war.

Lately, the Episcopal Church has made news for the consecration of its first openly gay bishop and the potential split it could cause in the worldwide Anglican Communion. During the sermon, Tunkle said his comments about Bush were also intended to give the church something other than its members' sexual orientation to focus on.

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