James R. Adams, an Episcopal priest who was rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill from 1966 until he retired in 1996, was skeptical of religious dogma. He interpreted miracle stories in the Bible as more metaphorical than historically factual, and he shared these thoughts from his pulpit.
He followed the traditions and liturgies of the established Episcopal Church, but he was also open to innovation and experimentation.
Dance and theater were often part of the Sunday worship service. There was one series of sermons on “ways we present ourselves to the world,” recalled parishioner Janice Gregory, in which Mr. Adams and his assistant “appeared on successive Sundays dressed in black tie, business suits, hiking clothes and biker outfits . . . on the backs of two Harley-Davidson motorcycles.”
On another Sunday morning, Gregory recalled, she arrived at St. Mark’s to find a section of the nave “roped off with police tape for a sermon on ‘being included and being excluded.’ ” Yet another time she found the pulpit “encased in a makeshift jail cell for a sermon on ‘prisons we create for ourselves.’ ”
Mr. Adams also wrote many books and articles on biblical and spiritual issues and led a movement to encourage churches to try to minister to people disaffected by organized religion. He died Sept. 13 at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 77 and had brain cancer, said his daughter, Lesley Adams.
In 1994, Mr. Adams founded the Center for Progressive Christianity, a nonprofit corporation that he wrote “encourages churches to focus their attention on those for whom organized religion has proved to be ineffectual, irrelevant, or repressive.”
When he stepped down as the center’s president in 2006, the organization had 290 affiliated congregations and organizations representing 12 denominations.
He was author or co-author of seven books, beginning in 1971 with “The Sting of Death.” Subsequent books explored such issues as the sharing of religious ministries, belongings, evangelism and church growth.
The last book he wrote was “From Literal to Literary, the Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors,” published in 2005. In that book, Mr. Adams examined the Hebrew and Greek origins of words used to tell biblical stories to illustrate his point that the stories should be taken metaphorically, not literally.
“Christians who can’t cope with metaphors have done their best, perhaps unintentionally, to spoil the faith for the rest of us,” he wrote in the introduction to the book. “Part of progressive Christianity’s task is to reclaim the classic metaphors for what they are: figures of speech that inspired beautiful narratives. To name a few: Son of God, Resurrection of the Dead, Body of Christ, and Kingdom of Heaven.
“Over the years, many people have abandoned Christianity because their teachers and preachers were metaphorically disabled. Once they discover that religious language is primarily figurative by nature, the experience of faith can open up for them. You can be a follower of Jesus without thinking that ‘heaven’ is a place, that a ‘son’ has to be a biological relative or that ‘dead’ necessarily refers to the condition you’re in when the undertaker comes for you.”
James Rowe Adams was born June 30, 1934, in Lincoln, Neb., and grew up in the farming community of Aurora, Neb. He attended the University of Nebraska and came to Washington in 1953 after obtaining a job available for students as an elevator operator and doorkeeper in the U.S. Senate.
He finished his undergraduate work at George Washington University in 1955. In 1958, he received a bachelor of sacred theology degree at Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass. He was a curate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown and later rector at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Lanham before moving to St. Mark’s.
He took a six-month sabbatical every seven years during his time at St. Mark’s. During the first leave, he studied in England, where he found some churches sold beer and wine by the glass to worshipers after Sunday services. On his return he suggested that St. Mark’s purchase a bar and do likewise, which it did, and continues to do.
He was a man mostly of words and ideas, but over a lifetime he discovered meaning and fulfillment in creating goods and objects he could see, touch, smell or taste.
For years he brewed and bottled his own beer. He baked his own bread and made furniture, including tables, cabinets and bookcases for the homes in which he lived. His morning walks — on the Mall during his Washington years — with a shoulder-high wooden staff in hand were almost a daily ritual.
In 1956, Mr. Adams married Virginia Marie Mann, who currently lives in Cambridge. Other survivors include three daughters, Lesley Adams of Geneva, N.Y.; and Gretchen Adams and Nancy Adams, both of Cambridge; and five grandchildren.
As a priest, Mr. Adams saw it as part of his calling to speak the truth, even to the point of bluntness. To couples seeking marriage counseling in times of difficulty, he was likely to say, “Do you just want sympathy? Or do you want to do something about it?”
At penitential church ceremonies or services, he could project solemnity with facial expressions and body language, but he also had a playful side.
He loved to tease people, and he once published at St. Mark’s his own rules of teasing. The first was: “You must love the person you are teasing.”