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Rendering Unto God

At St. Ann's in Maine, Luke 12 and Bush 43

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2004; Page C01

KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine, Aug. 8 -- When the president worships on the road, it is customary for the pastor to pretend he's not there -- or to, at most, greet him and maybe remember him in a prayer. The fiction is a tad ludicrous, given the armored entourage in the driveway and the press pool back by the collection plates. But it is observed more often than not, as the president tries for an hour to appear to be just another American, one more parishioner.

Well, no one told that to the Very Rev. Martin Luther Agnew Jr., who was up from Shreveport, La., for eight weeks as the summer minister at St. Ann's Episcopal Church, a stone, seaside sanctuary less than a mile from the Bush family compound at Walker Point.

After church President Bush, left foreground, took out the boat on a fishing trip with daughter Jenna and his father, the former president. (Stephan Savoia -- AP)

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Saturday night was George P. Bush's wedding, to another Texas lawyer. So his uncle, President Bush, spent the weekend at his folks' place, and 10 or so Bushes went to the 8 a.m. service at St. Ann's. The dynasty (including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is the president's brother and George P.'s dad) got a lecture through one of the more liberal prisms that can be used to look at Scripture -- a Social Gospel exhortation about the biblical imperative to sell your goods and give the proceeds to the poor.

The 112-year-old church is tiny, with just 17 side-by-side-by-side rows. The floor is of smooth rock slabs and the walls are rough stones pulled up from the ocean outside.

During the Holy Eucharist, the president got a shout-out in the part of the prayers of the people that asks for blessings on "those who govern and hold authority . . . that there may be peace and justice on the earth."

And at one point, Agnew reached out and tapped the president on his left shoulder, reminding of the scriptural promise: "Fear not, for I am with you.''

But Agnew got personal during his message about tithing and stewardship. He began by acknowledging that he had ruffled some feathers the previous week, when he warned that gated communities "tend to keep out God's people."

Plunging ahead, he singled out the first president Bush's golf prowess during a parable designed to make the point that an "intimate, meaningful relationship" with Christ requires shunning earthly possessions.

"Our material gifts do not have to be a wall -- they can very well be a door," Agnew said. Then referring to Luke 12:33, the priest said, "Jesus says, 'Sell your possessions and give alms.' "

"I'm convinced that what we keep owns us, and what we give away sets us free," he said.

A plaque in the church entryway notes that the organ is dedicated in memory of the president's mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, "whose family provided the lead gifts." Former president Bush is listed in the bulletin as an emeritus vestryman.

Agnew held up a golf iron and asked his flock to imagine the first President Bush taking repeated swings to try to hit a ball out of the rough. The former president, having driven long to the right, made what Agnew called "a mighty swing" at the ball, now resting atop an anthill, and missed, killing about 346 ants.

With Agnew brandishing the club for effect, he said the former president whiffed again and this time killed 641 ants.

The former president continued to swing wildly, in Agnew's telling, and finally one ant said to another ant, "If we're going to live, we better get on the ball."

This was received with Episcopal silence in a parish where the parking lot was full of Volvos, sprinkled with Mercedes, BMWs and Land Rovers.

"What God is reminding us to do," Agnew said, "is to get on the ball."

The former first lady, Barbara Bush, looked at her husband with a small smile, seemingly hoping that he would be amused. Her son the president nodded a few times but the former president sat stone-faced through the story, according to an Associated Press reporter who had a good view of them.

It was an unusually stoic reaction for "old number 41," as the 43rd president calls him. The elder Bush had been kidding around all weekend, merrily hurtling right at photographers in his 825-horsepower speedboat, Fidelity III, then making sure to spray them with his wake as he suddenly turned away.

After the parable, Agnew stepped down into the pews and jovially high-fived the former president. Old number 41 sportingly returned the gesture, but did not smile during the rest of the sermon.

It's not just in church that it's getting harder for the president to keep a low profile during his annual Kennebunkport visit. A pair of demonstrators near Walker Point wore red and black signs saying, "Expose the 9/11 Coverup." Several welcoming signs, including "We thank you, Mr. President," greeted Bush in the Dock Square area. The town's Democratic headquarters retaliated with a "Kennebunkport for Kerry Edwards" banner. Inside, workers sold "Kerrybunkport" T-shirts.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company