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Jane Austen's Grave, Winchester Cathedral

What is a Christian?

It is either a simple question or a very complex one, depending on who’s asking and who’s answering. The question of who is a practicing Protestant or a devout Catholic should be less complicated. To be considered “practicing” there should be both belief and—well—practice.

Yet in the society chronicled by secular journalists, a profession of religion (not to be confused with a profession of belief) is enough to qualify someone as devout, in spite of any or all evidence to the contrary.

Take Roberto Francisco Daniel , also known as “Padre Beto,” the excommunicated Catholic priest whose story was told by National Public Radio correspondent Lourdes Garcia Navarro on All Things Considered :

Padre Beto not only believes in gay marriage, but is in favor of divorce and of open marriages where either party can have an extramarital affair as long as both spouses agree.

Navarro acknowledges that Padre Beto’s teaching conflicts with Catholic doctrine. She goes on to say
Padre Beto says he fell afoul of the ultraconservative elements in the church who were outraged by his opinions. He says, though, since he’s been stripped of his priestly duties, he’s gotten a lot of support in the community. He is still a devout Catholic, he says, who stands by his priestly vows. But in many ways, he is now freer to voice his opinions.

This excommunicated priest in favor of open marriage considers himself to be a devout Christian. And he’s not alone.

Meet Barrie Drewitt-Barlow . He and his male partner have fathered five children through surrogate mothers. Now he’s looking forward to marrying his partner when the U.K. legislation to allow same-sex marriage takes effect in 2014. But he laments that he won’t be able to marry in the Church of England. He says, “I am a Christian - a practising Christian. My children have all been brought up as Christians and are part of the local parish church.” On August 2, he sued the Church of England.

Novelist Jane Austen grew up in a culture in which clerical office was more often a professional and financial choice than a religious calling, in which Christianity was synonymous with the British Empire, and in which religion was a product of context. Even so, Austen recognized that a profession of religion doth not a Christian make. She wrote the following prayer, preserved by her sister Cassandra:

Above all other blessings Oh! God, for ourselves and our fellow-creatures, we implore thee to quicken our sense of thy mercy in the redemption of the world, of the value of that holy religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou hast given us, nor be Christians only in name.

Today, I pray it with her.

Photo credit: Gil Hicks

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