After the election of , Asylum Hill Congregational Church pastor Matthew Laney offered a blunt prayer for his congregation, asking the Lord to “bring the president out of darkness and into the light,” and “admit the harm he has caused with his words and actions, to ask for forgiveness from the men, women and communities he’s offended, wounded and assaulted.”
Rev. Laney’s words sparked substantial discussion about the role politics should play, if any, in the pulpit. And to hear some congregants tell it, they led, at least in part, to his departure from the 1,600-member church last Sunday.
“Matt’s decision to bring his ministry to a close here has been a jarring change, leaving people in our church family to deal with a host of emotions including sadness, anxiety and even anger,” the Rev. Erica Thompson, the church’s associate minister and the Rev. John Collins, an interim associate minister, wrote to parishioners in this month’s church newsletter.
They noted that some members expressed to them the desire to leave the church, while others voiced “deep misgivings about systematic failures.”
Still, Collins tried to minimize the role politics played in that decision.
“In a church of 1,600 people, you have people who embrace it, and you have people who say ‘that doesn’t speak for me,'” he said. “The idea that there’s a small group of conservative folks that threw Matt Laney out just is not true, and Matt himself would be incredibly offended by that.”
Laney’s prayer seemed to highlight a divide silently growing in the church, mirroring the growing divide in the communities beyond the walls of its historic home on Asylum Avenue.
It was a divide even Laney himself acknowledged.
“I would like you to know two things right away. First, the decision is my own. Second, this is not exclusively the result of recent congregational discussions on the intersection of faith and politics,” Laney wrote in a May letter to congregants announcing his leaving. “The truth is, I have struggled at AHCC for years.”
It comes as a bit of a surprise that the church, a longtime bastion for social justice and service, would be disrupted by political dissonance. But, as Thompson explains, no institution is immune to the polarizing nature of Trump’s presidency.
“Matt did wonderful ministry, and as complex as the issues in our nation are, they are finding their way into this church and all churches,” Thompson said. “This is a big church, and there are differing opinions.”
She said that while there is some divisiveness among its members, Asylum Hill Congregation is not “divided beyond repair.” And she stressed that Laney’s parting “was amicable and not forced.”
Laney declined to elaborate on his motivations for leaving. Instead, he referred a reporter back to his letter to the congregation.
“It is now time to find a place where I can be my full, authentic self in ministry, practicing and proclaiming my understanding of the gospel, especially in these days when so much is at stake,” he writes.
Yet, members of the church say that those external divisions did play at least some role. They pointed to the aforementioned post-Inauguration Day prayer that Laney offered, the text of which he later shared on social media.
Its language was pointed, saying that some of Trump’s opponents see him as “a bigot and bully who has invigorated some of the ugliest elements of our country.”
The prayer generated friction among the congregants, several said. It prompted a series of forums on how political discourse and prayer can co-exist within the walls of the church.
Those forums included frank discussions, some of which revealed that not all congregants were happy with Laney’s infusion of political rhetoric.
Bart Halloran, Asylum Hill’s vice moderator, a position of lay leadership, said some older, more conservative members of the church expressed to him that they felt Laney “wasn’t reaching out to them.”
“While a lot of people may personally agree with what he said, the question became ‘is that the place to use that language?'” Halloran said. “The fact is that people in church voted for Trump and felt they were being called bigots and misogynists. That created problems.”
Halloran said that he personally didn’t believe the political divide was an “irreconcilable problem” and vehemently denied that anyone “pushed Matt out of the church.” He also stressed that most members of the congregation were more “upset than happy” that Laney chose to end his time at the church.
“But Matt didn’t agree with me, and he felt that he should leave,” Halloran added. “He thought he could have a full ministry in a more liberal-leaning congregation.”
Mixing Politics and Prayer
The Courant reached out to nearly a dozen members of the congregation identified as having conservative political philosophies, individuals who publicly expressed dismay or frustration at Laney’s sermons and prayers.
Most declined to speak about the matter. Only one agreed to share his perspective on the issue, on the condition of anonymity.
“To me, it’s all about what a church is meant to be: a place where people come to worship and come to be with others who also love Christ,” the congregant, a longtime member of the church, said. “What happened over time at Asylum Hill is the church began to be positioned as something different to that, as an instrument of social change in the world, and that inevitably led to talks about politics.
“Some people responded to that message, but not everyone,” he added. “So, there I was, with the church as I wanted to experience it changing in a way that was not what I wanted to see. And there were a fair number of others that felt the same way.”
That congregant said he was one of many to have conversations about that difference in viewpoints with the church’s leadership.
He clarified that those actions were taken to avoid a situation as extreme as Laney vacating his position. Still, he sees his leaving with mixed feelings.
“If I’m in a church and the church is not what my soul needs, then anything causing it not to be what my soul needs needs to be changed,” he said. “And when it changes, I’m glad that it changed. Now, we can get back to being the church that I want to be a member of.”
Others maintain the underlying issue wasn’t political differences, more so the mixture of politics and prayer.
“I think it’s a bit of an oversimplification to look at this as liberal versus conservative,” said Mat Jasinski, a lay deacon. “There were a number of folks, both liberal and conservative, that had a viewpoint about the role of the church not taking on issues of policy.”
Jasinski said even he felt “uncomfortable” with the Inauguration Day prayer, telling Laney that it was gratuitous, especially because his sermons are “so powerful” and speak for themselves.
Still, he didn’t see the prayer as a major issue. And he regarded Laney as an “exceptional minister,” applauding him for, at the very least, starting a conversation about major issues facing our country.
“I think the easiest thing to point to is that we’re confronted in a way that we hadn’t been before about what this intersection of faith and politics means and what the church’s proper role is in terms of advocacy,” Jasinksi said. “And I don’t know what the answer is, but we need to have a dialogue about it.”