Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith?
What follows is an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor by Becky Garrison, on Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith?
Who is the intended audience for Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith?
TAYLOR: Over the years, I have met a lot of people like myself—people who have grown up loving the church, who have been fed by the church, and who know they can never quit the church–but who have also come to the realization that loving the church and loving God are not the same thing.
Sounds like the typical Ooze reader.
TAYLOR: Some of them have even discovered that serving the institutional church has diminished their capacity to serve God in the ways that give them life. These tend to be stubbornly loyal people—many of them clergy—who are convinced that putting this truth into words would amount to treachery. So they keep quiet, while the cracks in their souls widen. They learn how to live with the sense of being spiritual imposters even as they continue to serve the church. In many ways this is extremely admirable. As we have recently learned, Mother Teresa continued to serve both the poor of Calcutta and the sisters in her religious order while she suffered a sense of great separation from God. My book is for lesser souls like myself, who register that sense of separation as a danger signal and who set about amending their lives as best they can. In a sense, then, I wrote the book I needed to read when I left parish ministry—a book about how the love of God surpasses all institutional containers, and about how there are many, many ways to serve God, both within and beyond the local church. I wrote the book for people like me, even as I remain grateful for people whose experience is the opposite of mine.
Amen Sister. Now why do you agree with Susan B. Anthony when she “distrusts people who know so well what God wants them to do because she notices it always coincides with their own desires?”
TAYLOR: I am not a Susan B. Anthony scholar, but I know enough about her work to know that she tangled with both politicians and church people who claimed God was on their side. I also know enough about myself to know that claiming divine sanction for my desires feels much more secure than simply owning them as my desires. The freedom to choose has always struck me as one of the most precious gift most human beings have—even when that comes down to the freedom to choose how we will respond to the terrible things that sometimes happen to us. So I cannot imagine why we would hand that freedom back by saying that we only do what we do because God wants us to do it. I guess taking responsibility for our own choices is more frightening to some of us than holding God responsible for our choices. I’m willing to take responsibility for my choices, even as I thank God for the freedom to make them.
How did God become real to you as you were playing around in black dirt?
TAYLOR: As I say in the book (Leaving Church), I had no concept of God while I was playing around in the black dirt of Kansas. What I sensed, instead, was my closeness to the basic elements of life—to earth, to dampness, to heat, to light—and because I had not learned to think of myself as separate from these things, I felt deep kinship with them. To put the word “God” on that experience later was to acknowledge that I had come close to what Paul Tillich called “the ground of all being.” I had experienced the one heart beating inside all living things. I discovered that I was not a discrete unit but a current in the divine sea. Or a clod of the divine dirt? Take your pick. Both are true.
How does your Irish heritage influence your spirituality?
TAYLOR: All I can tell you is that I love potatoes, I believe in fairies, and the sound of bagpipes reduces me to slobbering tears.
What drew you to the Episcopal Church (a.k.a. the Frozen Chosen)?
TAYLOR: I was drawn to the Episcopal Church by the exquisiteness of the liturgy, which gave me a role to play in a drama much more ancient than myself. I was drawn by the Book of Common Prayer, which—significantly—was not a book of common doctrine or a book of common beliefs but a book of common practice. I was drawn to the earth-loving aspects of Anglican Christianity, which has as many roots in the sacred groves and wells of the British Isles as in the caves and deserts of the Middle East. Above all, I was drawn to the community of people who were also drawn to these things. I recognized my kin in them, even if I did not know their names.
Why do you think the priest of Christ Church, New Haven called you an “ecclesiastical harlot?”
TAYLOR: I came to him seeking confirmation in the Episcopal Church after a number of brief affairs with the Catholics, the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Presbyterians. Hearing my story, he insisted on a long engagement. He made me wait a year, to make sure I was in love this time. And he was right! Thirty years later, I still make my home in the Episcopal communion.
As you were being ordained to the priesthood, why did you say you were getting exactly what you wanted but you didn’t realize how much it would hurt?
TAYLOR: The person to be ordained kneels at the communion rail in front of the bishop. All the other priests come up out of the congregation to lay hands on the head of the newly ordained. Sometimes the ones in the back lean on the ones in the front, and they all lean on the person kneeling at the rail—which was what happened to be me. They all leaned on me, and I thought my neck would break. I also registered my unexpected distress as God’s little joke. There I was, feeling so special and privileged that I almost forgot I was signing up for a life of service. The neck pain was a helpful reminder that the yoke is not always easy, and the burden is not always light.
How did leaky breast syndrome influence your ministry?
TAYLOR: In the book, I talk about how I was born with a bad case of compassion overload. Maybe it was being an eldest child. Maybe it was watching too many Walt Disney movies.
There is The Gospel According to Disney.
TAYLOR: Whatever it was, I could not walk by a hurt animal without scooping up into my arms and taking it home to try and save its life. I raised orphaned opossums, baby squirrels with concussions, little mice whose eyes weren’t even open yet, and countless baby birds. Later in my life, when I was with a friend of mine who had just had a baby, I was amazed to learn how her baby’s cry made her milk spring to her breasts. So I christened my own syndrome “the leaky breast syndrome.” It influenced my ministry by making it very hard for me to set boundaries with my parishioners. Sometimes I tried to save people who did not want saving, and other times I delayed people’s healing by carrying them around instead of insisting that they take up their beds and walk.
Why do you compare your time at Grace-Calvary as akin to living in a Flannery O’Connor novel?
TAYLOR: Like most rural southern towns, Clarkesville is a town full of characters, where the range of “normal” is much wider than it is in many cities. People don’t have therapists here; they have neighbors. They talk to their corn. They have twenty cats. They still drink moonshine and roll their own cigarettes. I say this fully aware that I am one of the characters.
Can you elaborate on what you meant by this reflection on your ministry that “as long as I fed them, I didn’t feel my hunger pains?”
TAYLOR: Most addicts could parse that reflection. One way to deal with your own pain is to use pain-killers. Another is to focus on other people’s pain. I chose the latter. Feeding other people was my way of avoiding my own hunger. As long as I focused on what was hurting them, I did not have to think about what was hurting me.
What went wrong between the church and you?
TAYLOR: Read my book! I think that something went right between the church and me. I think that when I resigned from parish ministry, I discovered the wideness of God’s mercy. I discovered that “church” means the whole of God’s family, and not just one particular group that meets for worship at 11:00 am at the corner of Wilson and Green Streets. I discovered a whole slough of neighbors God has given me to love who will never darken the doorway of a church, but who are nonetheless eager to embrace the ways of peace and justice with me. I discovered a whole wide world of sorrow and jubilation that was unavailable to me while I was tending one particular flock of sheep.
How did the sex wars in the Episcopal Church impact your ministry?
TAYLOR: I just got tired of holding a neutral line in the parish when I could not imagine that God’s primary concern was the gender of the people we love. The sex wars wore me down. They wasted my valuable time punishing people who loved God as much as I did—or more.
What does it mean to follow Jesus even if that means disobeying the mother church?
TAYLOR: I learned ecclesiastical disobedience from Jesus, along with civil disobedience. I learned from him how to honor the tradition of your elders and argue with it at the same time. I learned from him that God cannot be domesticated, and that anyone who tries to pen God in will ultimately be left on the porch to watch as God jumps the rails and takes off into the wilderness again. Having said that, I should also say that I take church order seriously. When I was ordained, I promised all kinds of things, including respecting the authority of my bishop. To date, I have knowingly broken those vows twice: first, almost twenty years ago, when I prayed in secret for two women who loved each other to stay together forever (they are still together); and more recently, when I invited everyone who loved God to come to the communion table (instead of only baptized Christians, which is the official position of the Episcopal Church). Those were both disobedient acts.
What parts of the priesthood do you still keep and why?
TAYLOR: As best I am able, I still keep all my vows. I am diligent in the reading and study of the scriptures. I care for God’s family. I persevere in prayer. I offer all my labors to God. In the Episcopal Church, one is a priest forever. I would have to renounce my vows to stop being a priest. I have no plans to do that.
What is Sabbath sickness and how did you find a cure for this ailment?
TAYLOR: I devoted one whole chapter of my book to this. Sabbath sickness is what happens when you stop trying to earn God’s love for at least one whole day each week and consent simply to be loved for no good reason. The cure is to practice this every week, paying close attention to all your reasons why you do not deserve to be loved without reason.
How can church reach those whose lives are breaking down and they don’t feel welcome in a church setting?
TAYLOR: That’s what Christians are for—people of the Way—who are on that Way whether they are in church or not. The church can reach those whose lives are breaking down simply by forming Christians who know how to practice compassion, how to listen, how to withhold judgment, how to bake casseroles, how to look after other people’s children when those people are too confused or grief-stricken to do it themselves, how to give away their money and their time without expecting any direct return, how to be quiet with people in a noisy world, how to see God in the lost and the least, how to work for justice instead of just talking about it, how to make decisions that will benefit the widest number of people, how to swallow bitterness and choose peace, how to love God so much that they see God in every person they meet. Church is not a building. It is a community of people who know how to do these things and do them.
What’s saving your life now?
TAYLOR: Trying to be a Christian. Trying to live like that, every hour of every day.
Becky Garrison’s books include The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church, andRed and Blue God, Black and Blue Church: Eyewitness Accounts of How American Churches are Hijacking Jesus, Bagging the Beatitudes, and Worshipping the Almighty Dollar.