Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith
Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. xiii + 235 pp. Hardback, $23.95. ISBN 0-06-77174-7.
It is commonplace when describing contemporary religious culture in America to state that more people than ever are interested in "spirituality" while, at the same time, decreasing numbers of people are interested in "organized religion." When the focus of attention becomes Christianity in particular, the suggestion is made that many people are receptive to "Jesus," but want little, or nothing, to do with "the institutional church."
Barbara Brown Taylor has written a brief memoir that offers a window into this phenomenon. Because for over twenty years Taylor was a practicing Episcopalian priest, many of the details of her story are different than they would be had she been a layperson or come to faith in Christ later in life. (Note: The phrase "was a practicing priest" reflects the fact that while Taylor has left parish ministry, she is still, at least at the time of this book, an ordained priest.) However, because of our shared humanity, even people who do not share the specific historical context of her story may well find points of commonality or identification with her. Furthermore, by virtue of the fact that this book is a memoir--thus, a personal and highly autobiographical book--after a brief overview of the contents of the book, I will take the liberty of offering a somewhat personal or autobiographical response to the book, rather than a strictly traditional "review."
Taylor clusters her recollections and reflections around three themes: Finding, losing and keeping. In "Finding" (Part One), she recounts the story of her way into the priesthood and her life and ministry as an Episcopal parish priest. The bulk of this part of the book centers on her move from multi-staff, urban ministry to a small church in rural north Georgia. However, though the title of this part is "Finding," it culminates in with her description of having "resigned [from this congregation] with a mortgaged heart and a sense of defeat so great that I had no ready answer for friends who asked my why I left" (p. 126).
Part Two, titled "Losing," is poignant but not as sad, at least from Taylor's perspective, as the title might suggest. Throughout this section there is a clear sense that she views her losses as those of one who loses their life in order to gain it (cf. Matt. 16:25).
The final and shortest part, "Keeping," gives a brief account of the faith referred to in the subtitle of the book, "A Memoir of Faith." She recounts an occasion when, as the invited speaker at a church event, someone asked her to "Tell us what is saving your life now?" (p. 225). Taylor then spends the closing pages of the book describing how teaching college students, living in close contact with nature, observing Sabbath, "[e]ncountering God in other people," and, concluding with one of the book's recurring themes, "[c]ommitting myself to the task of becoming fully human" is "saving [her] life now" (pp. 227-30).
I am troubled by the polarization noted in the opening paragraph of this review. I am troubled because the current increase in "spirituality" is at least equally matched by the increased disdain for "religion," and that, as a result, it will be increasingly difficult to witness for Christ. (Contrary to many seemingly pious, but I think over-sentimentalized, notions of life with God in Christ as being essentially about a "personal relationship," life in Christ is also a religion, and we should stop trying to run from this fact.) I am troubled because, as a life-long "churched" person, I am painfully aware of the kinds of shortcomings (yeah, sins) that too often characterize "the institutional church."
And, I am troubled because I think that "Jesus" and "church," as well as Christian "faith" and "church," belong together. It is not just that I personally want them to be together; as a Christian and as a theologian I think they belong together. It is ironic that in an era when the corporate world has shifted to (or at least to talking of) "teams" and all manner of cultural observers, both within and without the church, extol "community," so many people--not least evangelical Protestants--think that we should and can craft a customized and highly personalized faith free from the burdens and demands of life together.
Having said this, as I read Taylor's memoir there were many points at which I readily identified with her personal experience and, to a considerable measure, her commentaries that flow there from. She comes to an increased passion for and drawing greater spiritual refreshment from the natural world--earth, sky, plants, wind, animals. I wish that Taylor spent more time reflecting on how creation reveals our Creator-God to us, but I can also say that I, too, increasingly identify nature as an indispensable source of spiritual nurture. She feels freed to embrace Sabbath, and the gifts it brings. I wish that the corporate life of the church played a larger role in Sabbath as she describes it, but I, too, am increasingly of the belief (though my practice has not adequately slowed-down to catch-up) that the failure to stop for Sabbath is both an insult to God and a detriment to our God-intended well-being.
Perhaps most significantly, she receives a new lease on life--specifically her life of faith--by moving from the expectations and demands of being "a professional holy person" (p. 226) to new life and freedom in, among other changes, "tak[ing] a rest from trying to be Jesus" (p. 141). While there are many people, most specifically Christians, who may not regard being a professor of theology as a form of "full-time, vocational Christian ministry," I do regard it as such. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the points at which I most strongly identified with Taylor (with whom, it seems, I would have many substantial theological differences) were those points at which she describes the challenges to her soul and spiritual life that were posed because she was in full-time vocational ministry.
Twice in my life I have gone through sustained periods when I have seriously wondered, "What would be left of my faith and life in Christ if the perks--the title, the role, the respect (at least sometimes), the power (less often)--of being a "Ph.D." and a "seminary professor" were taken away? How passionate and faithful would I be if no one was really watching or taking account of my beliefs and life?ï¿½ During these times, I longed to experiment by moving into the world incognito, to earn a living by doing something that had no explicit or publicly-identifiable connection to my profession of faith in Christ. I still wonder. And, this may be the thread in Taylor's memoir that will prove most thought-provoking, and potentially most helpful, to those readers who, like me, probably have profound theological differences from her.
As she moves through twenty years of active ministry as a priest, the power and prestige, the position and sense of identity, the relationships with people and immersion in congregational life and ministry change from beings means of grace to being robbers who deprive her of her authentic humanity and faith. Upon leaving church, she finds freedom and renewal in the loss of power and prestige, the loss of position and sense of identity, the relationships with people that are now defined by their shared humanness and journey of faith, rather than by her clerical collar.
Taylor is a highly regarded preacher, and this is a delightfully written book. Because of my theological differences with her, I would not pass it along without comment to an immature or readily-impressionable Christian. However, for those who are mature in the "faith," Taylor's story may be a helpful invitation to prayerfully reflect on "life."