When Your Church Leaves You
Few insights are more disorienting than the sense that your church is leaving you. I’ve had this sense recently, and it has led my thinking to some unexpected places.
Conservative Episcopalians felt this sense of abandonment at the ordination of Gene Robinson, the denomination’s first bishop in an openly gay relationship. Catholic women felt it with Pope John Paul II’s declaration that women can never be priests. Methodists, with their tensions over ordination, are experiencing it now. In schisms throughout the centuries, parishioners have felt the loss of rites, sacred spaces, and loved ones who ended up on the other side of a divide.
The details change, but basic elements often reappear: My beloved church makes a decision or affirms a doctrine that violates some of my most cherished beliefs. In the environment this creates, my understanding of the gospel’s call on my life will not be welcome. I have no way to change the course of events.
For Americans in particular, the solution is easy. It’s a free country. You have to do what’s right for you. If your church leaves you, move on.
In many situations, leaving is precisely the right decision. In others, parishioners stay right where they are, despite the discomfort and the lack of welcome. Strangely, when my church and I started moving apart late last year, part of me wanted to stay because of the lack of welcome. It has something to teach me, and that something has to do with oppression.
Granted, few things are more ludicrous than a middle-class white man writing about oppression. Yet that is precisely the point. If, as God asks, I’m going to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and the marginalized, I need all the understanding I can get. That includes even the smallest glimpse of what they suffer year in, year out. If I can feel it, I am one step closer to empathy.
This impulse to identify is part of our faith. St. Paul echoes it in his desire not only to know the power of Christ’s resurrection but also to share his sufferings, “becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). It is one reason why Christians join organizations like Oxfam and World Vision in fasting: to identify with people who have no food.
Let there be no mistake here. What I experience—as a parishioner under an authority that opposes values and beliefs I hold dear—is a far, far cry from being an antebellum slave or a victim of domestic violence or a village subjected to ethnic cleansing. But maybe, the more I taste that experience, the deeper my solidarity with the oppressed becomes. That, in turn, brings me closer to the heart of God.
Even so, an abstract solidarity is only part of the picture. I floated these ideas by one of our church’s deeper thinkers, and she cited a quote she had found recently, to the effect that love and humility do not require acquiescence. What I hear in that quote is that while I stand in solidarity with the oppressed—and while I continue to love my church—I am also called to push back where necessary.
Not everyone stays in a church that leaves them. Not everyone stays for the same reason. Surely staying is uncomfortable, and the effort can ultimately be fruitless. But sometimes that discomfort and failure can align us more closely with God. What more can we ask of our faith journey?
John Backman, the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012), writes extensively on contemplative spirituality and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. A regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, he has written for publications across the spectrum of Christian faith.