The Rev. John M. Miller still has a lot to say, but he will say less of it.
Next Sunday, Miller’s small, independent Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island will help him mark 50 years in the ministry — 28 of them on Hilton Head.
After that, he will slow down. The 72-year-old known for his mastery of words and rocking the boat will share chapel duties with three others. He plans to preach about 20 times a year.
Miller was at one time among the leading voices in a small but dynamic community. He arrived on Hilton Head as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in 1979, right before both the church and community exploded in growth.As islanders constantly fought about stopping growth, Miller drew fire for saying it was illogical to turn over the welcome mat, and unchristian.
“Anyone who settled on Hilton Head Island supposing that tourists would not be a major consideration in the nature and economy of this community was either (a) congenitively challenged (i.e., naïve), (b) intellectually challenged (i.e., not very bright), or (c) visually challenged (i.e., blind as a bat),” Miller said in a sermon that became part of a book, “Whose Island Is This Anyway?”
He raised hackles by saying “gated community is an oxymoron.” He urged the removal of gates, or at least giving all islanders a pass for all gates.
Miller also became a lightning rod theologically as he was perceived to veer further and further to the left.
When he published a book called “The Ungodliness of God,” a letter to the editor said he had gone too far: “The ‘created’ criticizing the ‘Creator’ is the ultimate in pride and depravity. His arrogance is rivaled only by his ignorance. His claim that biblical teaching fails in light of reason, scholarship and scientific thinking is grossly in error.”
After 17 years at what became the island’s largest church, Miller in short order resigned, divorced, remarried and hit the road, being called as interim pastor in four different churches.But at age 62, he found himself with no call, no pulpit and no microphone for his carefully constructed sentences.
The ‘Ultimate’ The Chapel Without Walls was founded 11 years ago as a “nondenominational, inclusive, progressive worship community dedicated to worship and personal Christian service.”
It meets at 9:30 a.m. each Sunday at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head. Its new co-pastors will be Adrienne O’Neill, Robert Naylor and John Melin.
Miller says he is pleased to have been a part of the positive influence religion has had on society over the past half century. He cites its role in bringing about greater civil rights, especially in the South.
But he said the mainline church is less influential than when he started out in Wisconsin because too many people have dropped out and quit participating.
Miller believes these things are cyclical and it will rebound.
But he worries that religion may be getting in its own way.
“Religion is not ultimate,” he said. “God only is ultimate. ‘Ultimate’ meaning the last, greatest reality. Religion is involved in promoting the concept of God, and the knowledge of God, and the relationship with God.
“But when religion thinks it is an ultimate it has missed the mark of what it’s job is. It is the vehicle; it is not the destination. God is the destination. The vehicle gets people to the destination.”He also worries about a more secular society.
“In a secular society, people assume that they’re the most important, that they’re on their own. That whatever is going to happen, they have to make happen and they don’t look to God for support or direction in creating social change and social improvement. It becomes human-focused rather than God-focused.”
Now closing a chapter in what is by far his smallest congregation, Miller said he still gets a common reaction:“You made me think.”
‘World-class-ness’ Miller thinks Hilton Head has a bright future, even though it’s not possible to “de-gate” it.
“I would say I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be the voice I was on Hilton Head,” he said, “but I realize that voice is gone because the times have changed.
“I think in those days there was a lot more concern in general by the residents about what Hilton Head should be, or should become. And now more people come to Hilton Head because they like what’s here and they may moan and groan about trees being cut down or lights being put in the parking lot, but they’re less concerned with the bigger picture of what can be distinctive about this community.”
What makes it distinctive is “the particular slice of American humanity” that has bought into it, Miller said. It is more a community of the mind than most communities, he said.
“I think this community still can become unique among most American communities, and its world-class-ness is not really, I don’t think, the reason. We just returned from a trip to Mexico where we were in a wonderful place, and in terms of resort-ness, it outdistances Hilton Head in many respects.
“Hilton Head’s uniqueness is in the kind of people it attracts and what those people can do for the nation and world, much more than what they can do for themselves.
“We sometimes become too focused on US, and too little-concerned about larger issues. How can we help the U.S. of A.? How can we help the world? And I truly believe we have the caliber of people currently here who can make a difference in that. And there are significant efforts in doing that.”
A rising sea level, he said, could render it all moot.
Miller hits the half-century mark in ministry saying he feels fulfilled and still called by God to write out sermons and have a voice.
“Now sometimes, I wish I hadn’t said it, but usually what I say I intended to say for better or for worse and I know that sometimes it’s going to stir things up. That’s the boat rocking.“But I think that it is to the advantage of everybody to think about what is said.”