Leaving Church

I just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor‘s remarkable memoir, Leaving Church. I must admit before I begin, the title alone was what made me reach for it on the Book Depository bookshelf. I have been in the position many times where I felt the only course of action that would heal the turmoil in my own life was to leave the very institution that was meant to be sustaining my spiritual life. Thus, when I started reading Barbara’s story of her own spiritual journey into and then out of the Church, I related to it on so many levels.

Leaving Church is divided into three sections: Finding, Losing, and Keeping. In the first section we read of Barbara’s relationship to God and, later, to his Church. From an early age, Barbara was drawn toward the Spiritual, which she discovered later had a name, “God.” In her time as a child living in the country, she found God in fields, ponds, birds and animals, and rejoiced in the beauty of God’s creation. She and God crossed paths many times throughout her schooling, and through freinds from a variety of Christian denominations. After finally joining the Episcopal Church, 7 years of tertiary education and 10 years in a urban parish, she found herself as a priest and rector in the small town of Clarkeswille, Georgia (USA). She was attracted to the Church and service within its confines not only because of her love of God, but also because of the good work she knew she could do in reaching out to those in need, both spiritually and physically. It seemed to give her a sense of a higher purpose and fulfilled her need for a vocation that would echo that which God had placed in her own heart.

What she discovered was that the endless hours of being there for her parishoners, the demands on her life emotionally, physically and spiritually, and the growing awareness of the greater purposes of God in the wider world (outside of the church) were taking a dreadful toll on her life.

From the author’s own website comes this summary of Barbara’s journey:

Taylor discovers that life with God entails “a wondrous uncertainty” despite our best laid plans. After ten years in a big urban church, Taylor arrives in Clarkesville (population 1,500) thinking her dream has come true. And it has. But five and a half years later, Taylor realizes that in order to keep her faith she must now leave the church–that, in fact, God is leading her into a new direction, one she could not have imagined when she was first ordained. Anyone who has experienced doubts about his or her chosen vocation, or those drawn to worship God in a community but who have a hard time finding their place in church, will find a kindred spirit in Taylor.

This takes us into the second section of the book which spans a time period of several years, tracing the steps of loss from initial doubts and questions to a closing of her church office door for the last time. What perhaps made this whole experience more painful was the realisation of how many of her own people inside the Episcopal Church were somewhat limited in their understanding of God’s Presence and God’s work in the world.

This is how she spoke about it in a more recent book, An Altar in the World:

We wanted More, wanted a deeper sense of purpose. We wanted a stronger sense of God’s presence. We wanted more reliable ways both to seek and to stay in that presence, not for an hour on Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon, but for as much time as we could stand.

And yet the only way most of us knew to get that was to spend more time in church. So we volunteered more, dreamed up more programs, invited more people to more classes where we could read more books. The minute we walked back out to our cars, many of us could feel the same old gnawing inside. Once we left church, we were not sure what to do anymore. We knew some things we could do to feel close to God inside the church, but after we stepped into the parking lot we lost that intimacy. The boundaries were not so clear out there. Community was not so easy to find. Without Tiffany windows tinting them blue [an allusion to the church building of All Saints’ in Atlanta], people looked pretty much the same. From the parking lot, they looked as ordinary as everything else. The only More out there was more of the same.

That, at least, is how it looked to those of us who had forgotten that the whole world is the House of God. Somewhere along the line we bought–or were sold–the idea that God is chiefly interested in religion. We believed that God’s home was the church, that God’s people knew who they were, and that the world was a barren place full of lost souls in need of all the help they could get. Plenty of us seized on those ideas because they offered us meaning. Believing them gave us purpose and worth.

So Barbara left the Church–not fully, but in the sense of having a responsibility, or obligation, to it. She stepped down from an active role in the priesthood, choosing rather to be part of that “priesthood of believers.” She took up a position teaching religion in a small liberal arts college instead. The final part of the book illustrates the lessons she took with her and how, whilst leaving her position of leadership within the institutional Church, she never left the God who is present everywhere and whose cathedral is as large as the wide outdoors or as enormous as the entire universe.

I value Barbara’s honesty. While I’m sure she left out many elements of her story that could have caused us to see the Episcopal Church in a different light (such as only briefly touching on the gay clergy debate), she left in me a sense that we all, to some degree, need to leave the Church in order to understand the wideness of God’s love and the extensiveness of his reach. In her beautiful descriptions of nature, wild animals, waterfalls and rivers, I could almost see myself in her new-found chapel of the world.  On leaving the Church, she discovered how her sense of community changed; her relationships were no more dependent upon her fulfilling a role in a parish but were open to much broader possibilities.

My heart beats with that same longing that we would be caught up in a work that is greater than the four walls of our church buildings, that is far more meaningful than an hour on a Sunday morning, and that is so much a part of our life that we don’t recognise where the “sacred” ends and the “secular” begins. I highly recommend  Taylor’s very readable book and pray that we would all learn from her journey as we allow God to open our hearts and lives to God’s life-affirming, all-encompassing, ever-loving Presence.

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