Non-fiction

by Barbara Brown Taylor
HarperSanFrancisco, 2006

Acclaimed preacher and Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor sought ordination for the same reasons she believes she (and I think she might say all of us) are born – “To lift a burden, to help light a path, to help heal a hurt, to help seek a truth.”

Now comes Leaving Church.  After twenty-one years in ministry Barbara Brown Taylor has set aside her clerical garments and her ecclesiastical role to teach World Religions at a small Georgia college. And this book tells why.  But Leaving Church is more than just a memoir of her experience.  Though she does tell us how she lost herself among all the obligations of ministry, she also asks hard questions, of herself and of the church.

All these years later, the way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it.  We proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with the hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture.  We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own.  We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium.  If redeeming things continue to happen to us in spite of these deep contradictions in our life together, then I think that is because God is faithful even when we are not.  (p 220)

Taylor tells her story in three parts, a framework which reflects Jesus’ admonition that in order to save our lives we must actually lose it.  Finding, the first and longest section, chronicles her almost twenty years of active ministry, first in an urban setting, and then (thinking a smaller church might give her time for her own spiritual nourishment) as the sole pastor in a small rural setting.  She had thought she would remain, retire there after a lengthy pastorate.  But after five years, she is once again spent emotionally and professionally and so accepts a position offered at a small Georgia college near her home.   Losing sifts through the losses (and gains) she experiences in this transition from priest to professor.  But it is in the last and shortest section – Keeping – that she ponders what better ways to “do church.”  Or rather, how to do what Jesus did.

She tells of running into a former parishioner and asking where he was worshipping to which he said that he was not going anywhere. His life was full, his work valuable and he spent his days with people of many faiths and no faith at all who gave him ample opportunity to practice his own.  The good news of God in Christ he’d finally realized was that you didn’t need the approval of the authorities, or a temple or a key truth hidden in the tenth chapter of a sacred book. God, he realized, gives us everything we need to be human. (p.219)

That is what Taylor believes she lost for a time – herself, as human, and accepted, even loved by God for being human.  These days she wonders if Jesus’ intention was not to be

…the founder of a new religion but as the exemplar of a new way of being human – a new Adam, in the language of the apostle Paul –  who lived and died with such authentic faith in God that he gave his followers the courage to try to do the same thing.  For obvious reasons, they could not sustain this alarming freedom for long, so they turned the faith of Jesus into the religion about Jesus and the rest is history.” (p 220)

I have long admired Barbara Brown Taylor.  Her sermons included in any number of anthologies, have mentored me over the years, offering fresh insights and pointing me, over and over, to what really matters.  She has done it again.