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Sometimes It's Good to Leave Church
on June 19, 2006
To thousands of readers, Barbara Brown Taylor is best known as a writer of resources for the ordained (Home By Another Way; The Seeds of Heaven; etc.). Her books have become a staple in the mainline Protestant clergy diet, like casseroles or Frederick Buechner. Clergy will find multitudes in this new book, as well. Just as Buechner's memoirs helped clergy twenty years ago, Barbara Brown Taylor's will, today. Clergy will understand when she tells what she's thinking and how she's scrutinizing while administering communion (p. 34), or as she movingly describes what it felt like to be ordained a priest (p. 43). Her descriptions of unease and insecurity in the role will speak most profoundly to fellow clergy, but also to anyone who has counted a priest, pastor, or deacon, a friend.
On the other hand, Leaving Church is too limiting of a title for Taylor's new memoir. I hope that the phrase will not keep those in the pews, or even those who left the church long ago, from reading it. A quote from William Faulkner opens Part One of the book, and would do well to open every memoir: "The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself."
The simple facts are these: Baptized Catholic, she wanders in and out of a few Protestant denominations. Drawn to a life of divine importance during high school in the sixties, she attends Yale Divinity School in the seventies on a scholarship; is among the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church USA a few years later; serves a large church in Atlanta (All Saints') for a decade as one of several clergy; seeks and finds a rural parish to lead on her own (Grace-Calvary in Clarkesville, GA); and after several years, quits, exhausted, taking a job teaching religion to college undergraduates.
Part One, "Finding," begins with Taylor's desire (at age 40) to leave the large staff of that Atlanta congregation in search of a country life and parish. "The idea was to skip right over the suburbs and head for the countryside," she explains, as she and her husband take day-trips around northeast Georgia searching for a new life. Eventually, upon arriving in Clarkesville and finding the small Episcopal church there, she yearns so deeply for this new life that her yearning becomes a series of physical reactions to touching the church building itself: "I could feel the clenched muscle of my mind relax. My shoulders came down from around my ears. I shook out my arms and put my hands flat on the side of the church." (p. 11) And that was before she ever stepped inside.
But things did not go as planned. Having originally given a commitment of a decade, she is burned out within a few years. The demands of being priest to all people at all times get to be too great. Ultimately, Taylor's leaving the church and the priesthood put her in a jeopardy that is easily understood by anyone who has questioned or struggled to find their vocation: "By leaving church, I was about to leave everything I knew how to do and be." (p. 122)
In the movie version of Leaving Church (not such a crazy idea, actually; Susan Sarandon as BBT?), a director might return dramatically via flashback again and again, as Taylor herself does, to the emotion of opening the box that contained her first clergy shirts, and readying herself to wear a clerical collar. "Who did I think I was? More to the point, who would other people think I was once I put these things on?" (p. 21) She confesses to great doubt in the midst of pastoral work, and she also confesses to levels of certainty that are somehow unfair when presented to people in the pews, and do not carry through into her life after the collar. Other occasions--of confessed naiveté--come from wisdom sadly won only after her professional ministry had ended: "When it came time to decide what to do with my life, I decided to go to seminary. What else do you do when you are in love with God?" (pp. 27-8)
It can be a joy to be there with Taylor as she remembers a scene, painting a picture with simple lines like, "Since the man was intent on what he was doing, I did not introduce myself right away. Instead I leaned against the counter and watched him work." At other times, she writes like a poet and the rhythms of her most introspective prose remind me of Gerard Manley Hopkins. "Sometimes I even keep the Sabbath with a cup of steaming Assam tea on my front porch, watching towhees vie for the highest perch in the poplar tree while God watches me." (p. x)
Most poignant in Leaving Church are the revelations of an ironic fulfillment of her ordained ministry after her priestly work has ended. This priest has found not just solace, but intense meaning, in the change from parish priest to full-time college professor and spiritual explorer. "I have never felt more engaged in what I was ordained to do," she explains. In fact, I would not be surprised if many parishioners in churches may want to screen their pastors and priests from reading such an honest account of clergy troubles that are ultimately solved by "leaving church."
Gone from her pulpit, Taylor revels in being a religious amateur once again. Her first Sunday after leaving her post seems perfect. She sits on her front porch and reads the Book of Common Prayer in solitude. "No one complained about the hymns. I did not sweat the sermon. The best part was the silence." (p. 138)
But the climax to her story comes on page 120, just past the midway point in the book and after she has given notice at the church. She is playfully pushed into a swimming pool during an outdoor party. Others had already gone in, both kids and adults, and Taylor wished that she, too, would be shoved in as one of the gang. "Whatever changes were occurring inside of me, I still looked waterproof to them," she worries, while standing there as an observer. But then, she feels two hands on her shoulder, and in she goes with the others.
Her revelation at that moment reminds me of the monk, Thomas Merton, standing on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in downtown Louisville, realizing for the first time that he is connected to every stranger he passes on the street. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton wrote: "I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people. . . . even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness." Taylor reflects: "I looked around at all of those shining people with makeup running down their cheeks, with hair plastered to their heads, and I was so happy to be one of them. If being ordained meant being set apart from them, then I did not want to be ordained anymore. I simply wanted to be human. I wanted to spit food and let snot run down my chin. I wanted to confess being as lost and found as anyone else without caring that my underwear showed through my wet clothes. Bobbing in that healing pool with all those other flawed being of light, I looked around and saw them as I had never seen them before, while some of them looked at me the same way. Why had it taken me so long to get into the pool?"
In the final section of the book, Taylor really gets humming (p. 218 and beyond) about what it means to be human, and church, and Christian--reflecting as one who has deliberately left the priesthood--and every reader will be underlining passages, as I did.
Now, I have looked closely at the author photo on Leaving Church. It is cleverly done, perhaps by Taylor's publisher. She wears a solid black shirt--seemingly identical in fabric and design to a clergy shirt--only without the white clerical collar at the top. Her clerical readers will immediately recognize her, but many newcomers will also feel invited to her writing. Even without the collar, Barbara Brown Taylor is one of our most important spiritual writers today. And without that piece of plastic, like it or not, her wisdom will undoubtedly reach that broader audience to which her ordination had originally pledged her.
--Jon M. Sweeney (Sweeney is a writer living in Vermont. His memoir, Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood, published last year, has just received an Award of Merit in the Spirituality category from Christianity Today magazine.