Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bitter fruit: why I left the United Church

Those last two spirituals, stumbled upon while trying to find something else, so pierced the core of me that I wondered if I could write about the central dilemma of my life (at long last!). After many years of intense involvement with the United Church of Canada, and after varying degrees of satisfaction/frustration, I "walked". There were many reasons why I walked, chief among them (I thought) my dire disillusionment with leadership. Yes, I know ministers have a tough row to hoe, but I also think churches have a way of drawing to them ministers who reflect both their strengths and their most dire, unacknowledged weaknesses.

In some cases, they even draw evil. What does this mean, and, more to the point, why doesn't anyone recognize/admit it? What sort of spiritual blinders keep the so-called faithful from seeing even the most glaring kind of light?

From needing the church as a way to belong, contribute, and express my feelings about God and Jesus, I ended up feeling like I was in a box. Not just any box but a shoebox that I was supposed to squash myself into. Suddenly - or maybe it was not-so-suddenly - all I could feel was limitation, lack of oxygen, and bitter alienation. I cannot even tell you how lonely this was. I became deeply disaffected, and there was no one in the church - not one person - I could talk to about it. I knew it would be misinterpreted. Or, worse, perhaps it would be interpreted correctly.

I had something happen to me that I really can't describe, and for some reason - maybe very obvious reasons - I link it to Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. I obsessively watched those stranded souls - marooned in a stinking hell we can't even imagine - as they cried out for help, help, help. I watched old people die and be covered with whatever was available, maybe a plastic tarp. I saw hungry, dehydrated babies, glassy-eyed like in those ads for Save the Children.

The ordeal went on forever. I began to wonder if there could be a benevolence in the universe that "loved" everyone, that "cared". The Christian model of God was supposed to be an omnipotent deity, remember, one that was capable of changing everything. Like the poet in The Hound of Heaven, he swung the earth a trinket at his wrist, and we were expected to dangle from it like insignficant little charms.

So what does worship mean? It seems to me it means a kind of surrender, a submission to what is perceived to be a power greater than ourselves. It's a bowing down, at least of our heads - or a kneeling - or outright prostration. Lowering yourself. Worship doesn't mean love, it's something else, something quite else, and it began to scare me.

(This just popped into my head as a sidebar: a First Nations preacher talking about being forced to adopt the white man's style of worship. "They told us to close our eyes and bow our heads in prayer. And when we opened our eyes, our land was gone.")

Though the church claimed to allow me all kinds of freedom of interpretation, increasingly I found that freedom ebbing away. It was subtle at first, but soon I began to feel we had to shape our lives, not around our own apprehension/comprehension of the deity, but around the church's. I saw this as a very conventional and limited model, no renegade cries of hallelujah, no embarrassing professions of salvation. If you were saved, and United Church people don't talk about being saved very much (or a personal Saviour or even the Devil), then keep quiet about it or you might bother people.  And if you're committed, you have to Serve, which means doing thus and so. You can't just fill a pew. Go and bake something, for heaven's sake, or sit on a committee and pick on fine points until the cows come home, solving nothing.

Though we were expected to keep our faith journey pretty much in a one-block area, I saw no such restrictions on clergy, who sometimes had agendas that were not so hidden.  In the 15 years I attended, we went through some doozies: one minister decided, without permission from the congregation, to allow CBC television cameras into the sanctuary on Sunday morning to further a "cause" that would raise his spiritual profile, improve his media image, and lift up his wife as a heroine and role model for oppressed women everywhere.

It made me sick. But nobody said anything. Not anyone. Stepford Syndrome had already set in, a dry rot worse than I could have imagined.

It was not ever thus: early on in my involvement, I tried to share some things that went to my core, leading worship services, doing Biblical readings and poetry and even dance and drama set to classical music. People were polite, but I see now that it didn't really fly. The starchiness inherent in churches (I mean "liberal" churches) eventually communicated to me a lack of openness to anything new or different. Being a little tired of their perception of me as a creative flake who really couldn't help it (and whom, by the way, they generously tolerated as a kind of social work),  I gave up and stopped doing it.

Recently I went with a friend to visit Christchurch Cathedral in Vancouver, a magnificent edifice in the old style, full of stained glass featuring Biblical figures that could not have been inspired by human beings. I used to come here to pray, hadn't been in it for years, but this time it was a whole 'nother place. It was the smell that hit me: that old-varnish, dusty-hymn-book smell. The echoing emptiness of the place. The huge pipe organ. I felt my throat constricted as by a collar and leash. I could no longer bend my knee and worship: as my friend meditated with her eyes closed, I kept looking at my watch and wondering when I could get the hell out of there.

There were and are many other aspects to my discontent. A few years ago the United Church set up a trendy website called Wondercafe (hey, make sure you don't mention church or God or Christianity or anything spiritual, but set it up as a sort of Sunday Starbuck's). I see this as a fairly desperate attempt to overcome the largely accurate public perception of the church as outmoded and dull. But they went too far, having some sort of squirrel-figure that gave answers to moral questions, and even offering bobblehead Jesus figures for sale. (No, I am not kidding: kind of like that buddy Christ in Dogma).

It sickened me, but everyone else seemed to either ignore it (what did this have to do with them?) or display a mild acceptance, even enthusiasm. I couldn't figure it out. The church was hiding behind something, I didn't know what. But whatever it was trying to do, and I guess it thought it had to do something, it didn't update the essential dustiness and boredom of liberal Christianity.

Same old hymns, for the thousandth time. A seating plan that isn't even made manifest until you try to sit in the "wrong" place. (After I "walked", I made three more attempts to find a church home. Twice, when I went to sit down, an elderly person said, "No, my family sits there." One old lady even put her hands on the pew beside her. Get your ass out of here!) Superficial friendliness exists, all sorts of it. But what lives underneath it, if anything? I remember a few people washing up on shore over the years who were in some sort of personal crisis, but they immediately left when that crisis was resolved.

There was all sorts of other stuff going on in my church (which I came to privately call Dysfunction Junction),  including hiring a minister so corrupt he had to be fired, and unceremoniously running another minister out of town after nine years of service (and surely we could have sat down with her and gone over our grievances? Apparently not. Nobody said anything until it was too late.) Underneath the friendliness and the Sunday starch, I saw cruelty, all the more awful for being subverted, pushed down and denied. If you raise even one objection, unless you have an immediate and total solution, the messenger will be shot. Problem solved.

When I left, no one called me, but perhaps it was just as well. After fifteen years of somehow trying to fit in, I got tired of the lockstep and had to abandon the whole thing. During our big meltdown over leadership, in which the entire congregation was embroiled in a kind of civil war, not one person seemed willing to take responsibility for hiring a minister who turned out to be a complete fiasco. He was a con artist and a manipulator, but why didn't anyone see that? (If they had, would anyone else have listened?)

I think in large part, we saw him as desirable because he was a black South African who constantly referred to his "pals" Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu. At last we had an opportunity to transform our bland pseudoliberalism into something far more exciting. We'd have the most politically correct leader in the whole Lower Mainland! Such power, such cachet, even if only second-hand. This would blow those sad little churches with gay ministers out of the water.  No one was willing to entertain even the possibility that hiring him was a way to increase our prestige in the community, not to mention raise our profile as an "inclusive" congregation who even accepted black folk, so long as they had the right connections.

It all went bad because he wasn't who he said he was. I don't think he was exactly evil, but I often heard that word bandied about. (The Council Chair once fumed, "He's a nasty, evil little man.") Without a doubt he was a shallow con artist with a smooth exterior, and we fell for him hook, line and sinker.  Unfortunately he flipped the race issue  and turned it to his advantage, calling his dismissal an appalling example of racism. The church was left in a tailspin from which it never recovered, in spite of our insistence that we had "healed" and moved on.

But if a church could be so blind as to hire a man like that, how can it make clear-headed judgements about its multitude of unsolved problems, systemic problems that go right back to the founding of the church?

The mess my church created was a big part of my disillusionment, but I was also astonished and shattered to find I no longer believed in God. Not the God of dusty hymn books and pipe organs, anyway. There was no "big guy in the sky" calling the shots. If there is anything, it is an indwelling love, not always within our comprehension, and a dizzyingly complex Creation that quite literally came out of nothing.

So am I Christian or not? Probably not, but the only real Christians I know seldom or never set foot in a church. They live and embody it, and don't even talk about faith or worship because they don't have to. They have the quiet gift of making others around them feel comfortable and OK with who they are. If there's a task needs doing, they show up and do it. They don't say things like "if there's anything I can do, just call me" to a person struggling with devastating bereavement. They call them and say, "How are you?", then listen for the response. No unsolicited advice, no psychobabbling, no social work. And above all: no staying away.

Do we really need Christ any more? I'm not sure, because my personal relationship with Jesus has gradually devolved from a dazzling connection with a personal saviour (eventually fizzling out from the cold water the church threw on it - no embarrassing displays of love, please!) to blankness and complete bewilderment. We turn Jesus this way and that, make him whatever we want or need him to be. Many Biblical scholars are now coming to the conclusion that he didn't exist at all.

I tried the Unitarians for a while. Nice people, mostly elderly, and far more welcoming than United Church folk. But the "sermons" I heard were talks about people's hobbies, photography and music and the like. No mention of God or prayer or anything spiritual at all. I almost felt like I was at a Kiwanis Club meeting, or maybe Toastmaster's. 

The other two United Churches I tried nearly suffocated me with boredom. I kept looking at my watch. I didn't feel comfortable trying to butt into the little conversational knots of two and three in the hall downstairs as people ate fat-and-sugar-laced baked goods washed down with tepid tea.

I guess I don't belong anywhere now (in spite of my constant references to "my" church), which is sad. It hurts me more than I can say. Recently I was shocked but not surprised when two of my dearest friends, a married couple who gave tirelessly to the church for years and years, were asked to leave. So I have given up the frantic (or whatever it was) search for "sanctuary". If church happens again in my life, it will have to come about through a natural turn of events.

So what do I miss most? I guess it would be the singing, and when I hear spirituals like the two I posted, something in me just aches for it. I wonder sometimes if some mysterious force has hit me like a stroke of lightning and smashed my spiritual life all to hell. I can't pray any more, not like I used to, because I just don't see what difference it makes.

If there is an ultimate power, someone who is in charge of everything, how in the world can we convince him to do what we want? (Do this, God. Do that. Why would we pray at all unless we wanted to change things? Can't we trust that God is doing OK on his own?) And if a thousand different people pray for a thousand different (probably conflicting) things, and none of it comes true, do we go on praying, in hopes that we just somehow didn't do it right? If ONE prayer is "answered", say, wiping out the infidels in the Western hemisphere, does that mean that those people are more beloved of God than the rest of us?

While it may be true that disillusionment is just proof that you harboured illusions, spiritual disaffection - if that's what it's called - is particularly devastating because it strikes at the heart of matters of life, death, and ultimate reality. We expect better of our friends when we're down, or lost, or full of tears. We don't need pats on the hand, Bible verses prescribed like medicine, or more pans of brownies. If the so-called people of God can be this shallow, this dogmatic and self-deluded, how indifferent are the people who walk outside the margins? The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?

Deep River Mahalia Jackson

Witness - University of Utah Singers

Vat's dis? Vat a mess, oy, get my zecretary!

In all fairness, there were a couple of photos I still liked from The Family of Man, that huge Museum of Modern Art exhibit from the '50s. How could you not like reading the mind of Einstein as he contemplates where he put his lunch?