Over and over again, in conversations with people who have long since left the institution of church behind I hear: “Why don’t clergy pass on what they learned at seminary?” The plea usually comes after I’ve articulated Christianity in a way that makes sense to a 21st century mind. Below are a series of snippets of Church of England clergy articulating what they call “liberal” perspectives of Christianity. I am all too aware of the multitude of reasons/excuses that prevent some clergy from articulating Christianity the way it is taught in the academy, but I can’t help believing that there is a great hunger out there for the kind of theology that does not require church-goers to check their brains at the door!
I have just completed reading Richard Holloway’s “Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt”. As someone who struggles to stay in the institutional church, I can hear the whispers of which this former Primate of the Scottish Episcopal Church writes.
After a lifetime in the church, Holloway continues to respond to whispers, “The thing that keeps me religious is the possibility that there might be an ultimate purpose to the universe and it might, as certain rumours suggest in sacred texts, be unconditional love. And it seems to me to live as if that might be the case is not a bad way go be going; especially if it makes us kind to one another.”
Richard Holloway’s vision of the church he longs for is a vision I too long for. As he ponders the question “Am I still a Christian?” Holloway insists, “God has always been elusive in me. He’s always felt like an absence that felt like a presence. I was tantalized by God, that resonant absence again. The God that I was being told about, the God who was punishing my gay friends, the God who denounced me was cruel I and I couldn’t be part of that. And yet I am still tugged by the longing that had gotten me into this, the possibility of transcendence, that there is meaning and that the meaning might be a great pity, not a cruelty, but an absolute compassion, an absolute unconditional love, a love like the father of the prodigal in Luke’s great parable who runs to meet his broken son and doesn’t condemn and doesn’t even wait for the confession before embracing him, and bringing him home. There is that God. That’s the God of Jesus….So I’m kind of in and yet out of the Christian Church. I want it to continue. But I want it humbled. I don’t want it cruel and bullying. I want it modest and serving. I want it to feel broken like the broken Jesus and not trying to sort people into very precise understandings of humanity. I want it to accept the totality of broken humanity. Most of us are broken in one way or another and we struggle with our own meaning, with our own integrity, and our own sinfulness. And the thing I found in Jesus and the thing you can still find in some churches is an understanding of that. ‘Come onto me all ye who travail and heavy laden and I will give you rest.’ So, I’m back. But I can’t proclaim. I can’t evangelize. I can’t say what this is the truth. I don’t know what the absolute truth is. But I still catch a glimpse of the tiny figure of Jesus on a distant seashore kindling a fire, a fire of compassion and kindness. And I’ve become increasingly allergic to religious certainties. They seem to me only to crucify people…”
For those of us who remain and for those who have joined the church alumni, Holloway’s story is a compelling whisper that speaks with the very compassion for which he and we long for. He may no longer be a bishop in the institution, but he remains a shepherd to those who long to catch a glimpse of the tiny figure of Jesus who continues to call the religious out from under the tables that clutter our temples.