Father Chris Hartley’s clerical collar gave him away.
If it weren’t for his crisp white collar and his black clerical shirt tucked into dark jeans, Hartley could have passed for just another beer-lover, a cold mug in his hands, standing inside the Peerless Saloon in Anniston on a recent Monday night.
Joining Hartley in that upstairs room in the Peerless earlier this month were more than a dozen people, mostly middle-aged, there to drink in the word of God and maybe a beer or two with a meal.
Hartley, the priest at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Anniston, began holding these "Bibles and Beer" gatherings at local bars in January.
"We thank you for the Bible, which is the word that inspires us, and we thank you for beer that inspires us in a different way," Hartley prayed at the beginning of the talk at the Peerless.
If one expects a raucous, drunken gathering, sometimes dotted with prayers and pleadings from the father for temperance, one would be let down. The topic of the meaty discussion was, rather, the last chapter of Philippians: letters to churches written by Paul the Apostle.
A middle-aged woman seated at the table tugged gently on her bottle of Miller Lite and followed along on her Bible, digitally displayed on her smartphone, as Hartley described Paul’s last days on Earth. Imprisoned in a Roman jail and facing a gruesome death, Paul wrote letters to churches.
Hartley asked the men and women seated with him to remember Paul as a "cultural hybrid."
"We have a tendency to think of people, especially historically, as one-dimensional," Hartley said. "The truth is, no one is truly one-dimensional."
From the sound system in the downstairs bar, as if planned out in advance or by some divine intervention, Taylor’s Swift’s voice drifted up to the gathering.
"Magic, madness, heaven, sin," Swift sang. "Saw you there and I thought, Oh my God."
A worldwide movement
Hartley surely isn’t the first person of faith to walk into a bar hoping to enlarge the kingdom of God. "Bibles and Beer" gatherings have picked up steam in recent decades. News accounts record them happening in bars from New Mexico to Melbourne, Australia.
At the Peerless, Hartley jokingly told attendees that there was a reporter among them who was "going to send some of their reporting to the bishop to see whether or not I need to be defrocked."
If his joke was funny, it might have been because funny things often poke at uncomfortable truths.
In 2010, a pastor hired to plant a church in South Jordan, Utah, was fired after being seen drinking a beer at a "Bibles and Beer" gathering there. The pastor had already gotten permission to hold the gatherings from leaders in his unnamed denomination, according to news articles, but was fired regardless.
The Christian Post, a Washington D.C.-based Christian newspaper, quoted an unnamed source in that denomination as writing that, "It's not an issue of immorality or improper biblical behavior. We simply discovered there were instances in which we were not able to reconcile our differences as it concerns general Baptist principles."
Asked if his foray into bars with Bible in hand ruffled any feathers, Hartley explained that it did at first, but that the work was important enough to continue.
"It definitely makes people uncomfortable," he said. "And some of our topics make people feel uncomfortable. We talk about homosexual marriage and immigration, and what does the Bible say about that?"
Those are conversations not often easily held inside the four walls of a church, Hartley said, but offer themselves up much more freely inside a bar with music playing softly in the background and forks clinking on plates.
And they are important conversations to have, Hartley added.
"The proclamation of the Word has a component of grace and comfort and joy, but it also has a component that has an edge to it. … It’s not always comfortable," Hartley said.
That’s part of the reason Hartley started holding those gatherings, which he said fly in the face of stereotypes about church.
"I would say that the church has a well-earned reputation of being rigid and exclusive, and so much of that is not what the message of Jesus was," he said.
Jesus was equally at ease walking among the prostitutes and the tax collectors as he was standing in the homes of the high priests and the courts or rulers, Hartley said.
"Jesus would make everyone feel welcome, and church should be universal that way," Hartley said. "If one person is reached, then the kingdom of God is advanced exponentially. One person is worth all the effort and even more. That’s why I’m doing it."
Reaching across church lines
Speaking after the gathering at the Peerless, Mike Phillips, a member of Grace Episcopal Church, said he has been coming to Hartley’s talks for several months and enjoys the inclusiveness they offer.
"There are people from Baptist churches here. There are people from Grace here and from St. Michael’s. He’s ministering to the whole community, and that’s important," Phillips said.
Phillips’ friend and fellow Grace Episcopal member Bobby Israel kidded that even Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart once attended one of Hartley’s "Bibles and Beer" talks, "but he wouldn’t drink a beer. He’s a Southern Baptist."
All of that is true, Stewart wrote in a good-natured response message to The Star.
Stewart wrote that he’s a big fan of Father Hartley’s; "However, I must confess I’m not a teetotaler."
During the discussion at the Peerless, Hartley bounced easily from talking about Tim Tebow’s faith and the role it seemed to play in his football career to the first-century prison system. He wanted to be a catalyst for thought, he told those gathered with him.
Asked what he feels during these talks, Hartley answered that he feels affirmation "that I perceive comes from the Holy Spirit, that is truly honoring the great commission. Going therefore into all the world, including the Peerless.
"Because there are people in there that need Jesus. I need Jesus," Hartley said.
Eddie Burkhalter is a freelance writer for The Star.