Reflecting On: Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor from Canterbury Press

Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor is a powerful book.  It is about a woman who finds her ministry, is very effective in it, leaves it all behind, learns to live as not-the-rector and finds a new way to be.

This book is divided into three sections – Finding, Losing and Keeping.

Section 1 is an account of discovering her call to ordained ministry.  A powerful journey of following her heart, only finding where it was heading one step at a time.

For those exploring the call to ministry, ordained or not, this would be a helpful and encouraging read.

If you are looking for an account of the reality of ordained ministry, this is as honest an account as I’ve heard, that certainly made sense to me.

page 44:  “A priest is someone willing to stand between a God and a people who are longing for one another’s love, turning back and forth between them with no hope of tending either as well as each deserves.  To be a priest is to serve a God who never stops calling people to do more justice and love more mercy, and simultaneously to serve people who nine times out of ten are just looking for a safe place to rest.  To be a priest is to know that things are not as they should be and yet care for them the way things are.  To be a priest is to suspect that there is always something more urgent that you should be doing, and to make peace with the fact that the work will never get done.  To be a priest is to wonder sometimes if you are missing the boat altogether, by deferring pleasure in what God has made until you have fixed it up so that it will please God more.”

Section 2 of the book moves on to ‘Losing’.  Personally, in this section I found many bells ringing with my current situation.  Although Barbara Brown Taylor chose to leave the church she was rector of and her ministry there, and I had to leave mine through ill-health, I could feel the resonances.  She explores the difference when you no longer know the congregation in the same way; singing (if you can still sing) hymns that someone else has chosen rather than those you have, the simplest of things that remind you that you are no longer ‘in charge’, this is not your service; the difference it feels in taking part in the service leading from the front, or sitting in a pew – described as “You’re used to being in the play, now you’re watching it (p159), I suppose whether you’re doing the service, or it’s being done to you…; and the sheer privilege of breaking and distributing bread.   The perspective is so different.  Different is not right or wrong, it is just different.

Yet, there is also the reminder that “only those who lose their lives can gain them” (p163) and that is a sobering and grounding thought.

More powerfully, she speaks of “no longer responsible for one particular, I began to see altars everywhere” (p164).  This too has been my experience.  And I thank God for that.  The her ultimate conclusion, “My priesthood was not what I did, but who I was” (p209), the acknowledgement of the past, and foundation for the future.

Part 3 is ‘Keeping’.  This very much builds on the fact that faith is a journey, not a destination.  It gives the message of keep going, keep looking, keep moving; and a reminder that even if we think the church is broken, God isn’t.

Page 222 gives a powerful vision for church,

“What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe?  What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more in church?  What if the church felt more like a station than a destination?  What if the church’s job were to move people out of the door rather than trying to keep them in, by convincing them God needed them more in the world than in the church?

I like that!

But this book has more to offer than comfort for me, or an insight into priesthood. The author also has some very interesting things to say on the centre and the edge of faith, learned through her experience.  Food for thought for anyone who considers themselves safe and cosy in the church.   It also hold up a vision for what church could be, if we are willing to journey and not insist we stay where and as we are.  It is for those who care about the church.  It’s a book for anyone who has lost what they had, and the exploration for life and faith that ensues.

Above all this is an honest exploration of faith and calling, and the struggle to live it out in integrity.

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