Saturday 28 October 2006

Leaving Church

With a title like that you might think that this is something written in response to Richard Dawkins latest tome, The God Delusion, which urges all of us who are members of the Church or other religious institutions to realise the possibility of leaving and preferably to actually do it!

No this most recent book from Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church – A memoir of faith is something altogether different. It may not change your life but it does give the reader a front row seat to watch a life being changed. The book is in many ways an autobiography of faith. In it we learn how the author realises her goal of ordination in the Episcopal church (Anglican), and how through a variety of ministerial experiences, firstly in the urban environment of Atlanta, Georgia and then to rural Clarksville she finds success, fulfilment but ultimately a fatigue and brokenness that forces her to leave everything that she had thought was important. The habits of ordained ministry are however enduring and it is telling that like many a sermon this book is divided into three stages: Finding, Losing & Keeping. It might seem that her move from parochial life to lecturing in a theological seminary is not such a huge leap but as you follow Barbara Brown Taylor’s journey you realise how far she has come and how far removed she is from where she thought she would be. Many people of faith will recognise that feeling but few will communicate it with the clarity and depth that Taylor does. There is much wisdom in this relatively short book and there is much that will resonate strongly with those who have experienced life in the collar and come to appreciate the blessings it brings but also the burdens it invites.

In what prove to be prophetic words a bishop said to her before her ordination: “Think hard before you do this… a layperson you can reach out to people who will never set foot inside a church. Every layer of responsibility you add is going to narrow your ministry, so think hard before you choose a smaller box”.
In describing the burdens of priesthood Taylor remarks that to be a priest is “to wonder sometimes if you are missing the boat altogether, by deferring pleasure in what God has made until you have fixed it up so that it will please God more.” This often self-imposed pressure and the guilt that goes with it is familiar to clergy of all denominations. Taylor with her gift for words sums it up perfectly when she describes the feeling of moving from “servanthood” to “service provider”. She is a victim of her own success – a powerful preacher who attracts congregations of such a scale that at the height of her rural ministry in Clarksville there are four morning services to accommodate the crowds. As she says herself “the best of parish ministry did me in” and the demands of that ministry cut her off from the resources she needed to sustain that same ministry.

There is a wonderful parable in an experience she describes which seems to mark the turning point in her life. One afternoon a bird hits the window on her front porch breaking its neck. Taylor looks at the glass which the bird hit and in it she sees the reflection of mountains and trees and sky. “Poor bird,” she speculates “she had thought all that was ahead of her…….when it was really behind her, in the direction from which she had come.”

Taylor understands pain and manages to find in it lessons for life that make it bearable and meaningful. She deals very insightfully with the current bitter divisions within Anglicanism over sexuality and scriptural interpretation but the division it brought even in her own congregation was significant. She observes that her parish was no different than anywhere else: Whenever people aim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page becomes more vital than defending the neighbour…………human beings never behave more badly towards one another than when they believe they are protecting God. In the words of Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas, “People of the Book risk putting the book above people”. Elaborating on this point Taylor talks of her view of Scripture: “The whole purpose of the Bible is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.” Reflecting on fundamentalist biblical literalism Taylor reminds herself and the reader that the history of Christianity is about “beholding what was beyond belief” and that for us today “to confess all that we do not know is at least as sacred an activity as declaring what we think we do know”. This same tension was leading Taylor to the realisation that she “wanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business….to recover the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me though I am not sure of anything”

For all her liberalism Taylor has many evangelical traits, not least of which being able to identify the moment when things changed through experiences of divine disclosure. One such is the farewell party where people are throwing one another into the outdoor pool in fun and high spirits. She longs to be one of them, to be thrown in but the respect that goes with the collar seems to prevent anyone pushing her in until someone she describes as “her saviour” pushes her in and she finds herself “bobbing in that healing pool with all those other flawed beings of light…The long wait had come to an end. I was in the water at last.” This strange rebaptism is further interpreted by Taylor in quoting Walter Brueggemann: “The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you by the Grace of God”

One of the things that Taylor cherishes rediscovering in leaving behind her parochial responsibilities is the Sabbath. She probably strikes a chord here with most clergy for whom the Sabbath is not a day of rest. She goes even further in reflecting that it allowed her to “take a rest from trying to be Jesus too… take a break from trying to save the world and enjoy my blessed swath of it instead”. She notices also that people treat her differently without the collar, no longer like “the Virgin Mary’s younger sister”! She enjoys her new found freedom to move away from the centre and discover the wilderness and the forbidden places where God is also working but the places that were so far from the centre she previously inhabited that it almost seemed like disloyalty to go there.

But perhaps most significant is her rediscovery of the radical dimension of faith that seemed to have become domesticated in the church setting. She rediscovers the Jesus who made “unauthorised choices” in his love of God, who saw things he was not supposed to see, said things he was not supposed to say and wondered about things he was not supposed to wonder about and when the authorities told him to stop he did not obey them.
This provokes Taylor to wonder whether we need to rediscover the “edge” of faith where most of the stories of our faith happened.

Taylor finds herself increasingly alienated from the muscular Christianity so prevalent in America today and is perplexed at the use of the Cross as a tool of domination and violence instead of salvation. This is where she is at her most controversial for here she confesses her unease with the very symbol of the Cross because of its all too frequent distortion. However she does not give up on it and longs for a universal recognition in the Cross of “the God who suffers for Love instead of punishing the unloving”.

She still treasures her prayer book, hymnal and Bible and turns to them when she needs prayers wiser than her own, songs that she can sing, when to speak is not enough, and the canon of Scripture which in her favorite passages she hears “God speaking directly to [her]” and in those where “God sounds like an alien” she is reminded that God does not belong to her. She describes the Bible as a “field guide” but not a substitute for the field.

Looking at church as institution from the outside in, Taylor observes that “the way many of us are doing church is broken, and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it”. She quotes Reynolds Price a novelist who is in a wheelchair through spinal cancer. In his book “A whole new life” he comments on our failure to acknowledge death, not helped by those who tell us nothing has changed when what we should really be told is “You’re dead. Who are you going to be tomorrow?” Taylor has little sympathy for those who point to church growth as proof of health and well-being: “Where church growth has eclipsed church depth, it is possible to hear very little about the world except as a rival for the human resources needed by the church for her own survival".

Taylor now working in the seminary does not believe God lives there any more than he lives in the Church. God lives in the world and she gives the illustration of a friend of hers in a seminary in Manhattan where instead of inviting people to seminary to learn about God they are invited to learn what God is doing in the city and bring back their reflections to the seminary. This she says is how the churches need to see their mission: “What if people were invited to tell what they already knew of God instead of to learn what they were supposed to believe?.....What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in…"?

In the end Taylor reflects “I will keep faith in God, in God’s faith in me, and in all the companions whom God has given me to help see the world as God sees it-so that together we may realise the divine vision.”
Leaving Church is Good News and will bring hope to many a weary heart.