Looking forward to reading the book. Your mention is a good excuse to ask the question I've been meaning to:
We agree that religion is a mess. And the story you've told from Pillars of Flame to Writing the Icon to this blog has resonated for me. But what to do about, well, church?
I ask because I've been out of church for years, and am moving to a new city. So I want to ground myself in faith again, find some people, and find something beyond silent prayer and reading heady theology in my garret. Yet I have little idea what to do. With your work, religion is rooted in silence, and I won't find that in almost any American church. Pillars of Flame suggests the whole enterprise is mad. I understand this, but I also can't bear to go it alone much more. Impossible to answer such a question for a stranger, I know, but thank you for your time and your work.
Thank you for writing, for your kind remarks, and for asking this very difficult question.
You give voice to what many of us feel, myself included. People like us don't wish to be apart from the community, but there is no community to be part of, not only in America, but in a lot of other places. Having said that, it may offer a modicum of comfort to know the following:
Last year Blogger—unbeknownst to me—put a counter on this blog, which, being a techno-dork, I only recently discovered. I was dumbfounded to learn that in the last 14 months there have been just under 40,000 hits from more than 77 countries, and, judging from the search information, these are not random accidents but intentional.
So, weirdly, those of us who feel as you do and find themselves in the same dilemma are numerous, but we have no way to form a community except this ephemeral one in the ether, a community of solitudes. This is only to offer cold comfort, but you are not alone.
I wish I had something helpful to say. I can only tell you what I do. I've sampled many of the churches in Oxford and the only one that is bearable is the cathedral. Of course there is no community there in the sense that the English don't do that in the way that Americans think of it—not that I ever was able to be a part of any American parish community, either. And then there is the English class system and the rest of it. In addition, there's something about people like us who understand about religion and silence that sets off everyone else's alarm bells, especially those of the clergy. What makes it worse is that a lot of the clergy know we're offering something they need to look at.
I can't tell you how many times a vicar or rector has said to me, 'I know you're right, but I could never do that in my parish'. This of course says volumes about the disdain in which the clergy hold their congregations, their reluctance to give up micro-managing, and also the fact that they don't want to expend the enormous amount of energy it would take to figure out how changes could be implemented—the most effort being the need to realise how they come across and to change their own attitudes. If they would listen to the laity and look in the mirror the laity are holding up, they might be pleasantly surprised and discover that there is far less effort in letting go the wrong kind of control.
At the cathedral there are several canons who understand the need for silence but they are caught up by their context and have this dreadful liturgical book—Common Worship—that they have to use. They also are stuck with the mostly cack-handed NRSV ("the sound of sheer silence" in the story of Elijah is one of the few strokes of genius). I don't understand the ins and outs of English canon law; there is freedom of choice but also draconian restrictions on when those choices can be exercised. And of course the congregation is inherently conservative.
Anyway, I try to go weekdays for the 7:15 AM Matins and the Eucharist. I go early to have time to sit in quiet. Sometimes one or two of the canons are there, too. But, to say we are community would be rather stretching it. Being a cathedral, and particularly an English cathedral, and particularly an Oxford cathedral, there is an even greater gulf fixed between the clergy and laity than normally obtains. Having said that, the cathedral clergy here have an unusual level of humanity, and the cathedral is a far more welcoming place than other churches in Oxford I have sampled.
This situation can't be helped; it's the nature of Oxford, and those who are both canons and full-time academics are all under tremendous pressure and need to protect themselves. American academics who come here are shocked at how hard Oxford academics work. I try to be silently supportive and sympathetic (except on occasions like last Thursday morning), but in fact, I have reached the point, now, where I am in fact glad of the gulf: as far as the institution goes, I don't want to be caught up in a hopeless and deluded situation—as you put it, 'the whole enterprise is mad'; I don't want my vision clouded with upset; I am reconciled with my exile, although that doesn't mean it is ever comfortable, and I'm quite sure that Christianity is most definitely not about being comfortable.
To complicate matters, the cathedral clergy know what I have written so that even if there are those who are sympathetic, they keep their distance. Although it was not my intention at the time—I was too new and naïve then to know how things work in Oxford—the temerity of writing a book like Pillars of Flame while living within the walls of an institution that has produced thirteen archbishops of Canterbury, John and Charles Wesley, etc. etc. etc. has left its mark of Cain, as it were.
At the same time, although it is painfully hard, I have been encouraged by more than one bishop to go to church precisely because my merely being there makes the situation uncomfortable. It's an aspect of my life I wish weren't there but I have no choice. How this came about is a tale unto itself not to be told at this point in time; it is not a role I sought but rather one that the dark underbelly of Oxford wished on me: a classic example of the fearful creating exactly what was most feared.
Long ago I realised that for all practical purposes the church that was the context thirty-two years ago when I was professed is dead. Nonetheless I go weekdays because I miss the monastic Office (especially the Night Office) and it's one way to dribble a little balm into that wound. (Monasticism, too, is dead; for all practical purposes, what is left is, for the most part, form without content.) I try to immerse myself in the Office and shut out all the rest. Or if the rest intrudes, I tell myself that it is good for me to go weekday mornings at least for the exercise (it's a two mile walk round trip), and that it's a painless way to keep the internal concordance alive, which I need to do for my research. Or if all of these rationalisations fail (as they did on Thursday), I skip a couple of days so that I don't get too depressed.
On Sundays during Term I go for the music, pure and simple—and also to people-watch, trying to fathom how other people cope with this dilemma. I know that there are many, many other people who feel as we do because in a critical meeting some years ago, a rare occasion on which I was permitted to lament all of these problems, I was, of course, challenged. The challenger called on the diocesan ombudsperson to contradict me, but she told the challenger that what I was saying was exactly the way ordinary people in the pews feel. That was twenty years go; things have become much worse. But people seem feel that the situation is hopeless, that there's no point in trying to address the entrenched status quo. I have a friend who has been doing clergy evaluations for the diocese for many years and she is quitting for precisely this reason.
Outside of term, on Sundays, I go to 8 o'clock at Mary Mag's, depending on who is celebrating. If it is someone who is intrusive instead of effacing, then I check out who is preaching elsewhere and try at least to find a good sermon. The cathedral has some preachers I will go especially to hear, which means I might go to two or three services on a Sunday.
I suppose I am getting ever more picky in my old age, but old age makes one more aware of silence. I can't stand folksy liturgy; I hate it when a deeply misguided organist drops the hymns by a third so we are all growling around at the level of the natural break in the voice; few people are trained singers with a seamless and comfortable passagio. We need to reach for the head tones as well as the chest tones to accomplish what hymns set out to do. I like full-blown liturgy and the smell of incense; I just don't like what far too often goes with it and spoils it: the posturing, the poncing, the preening, the noses in the air, the infantilizing of the congregation.
Unfortunately the rule that the squeaky wheel gets greased does not seem to apply to the churches; as you know, clergy do not listen to laity. It seems as though there are two classes of people to which the institution pays attention: in general the clergy pay attention to themselves as an in-group, and to those whom they patronizingly classify as 'the poor'. The rest of us, the majority, give the term 'the excluded middle' a whole new set of meanings. We're tolerated only for body counts and money. In the face of these attitudes, while it may seem like beating one's head against a brick wall, it is nonetheless worth suggesting alternatives to the clerics, recommending books, theologizing—and you will know soon enough if you are dealing with the sort of clergy who don't want input. A friend of mine was recently called obstructive and disruptive by her rector for simply participating in a bible discussion and departing from the script. The levels of conformity that American culture now demands are absolutely frightening.
In my own situation in the UK there are little flickers of hope here and there. Rowan Williams is one. Oxford has at least two very good bishops (I don't know the other area bishops) who are sympathetic to the problems but are also hampered by clergy attitudes, the very noisy and intransigent closed-minded evos, not to mention the other cultural difficulties peculiar to England. Another sign of hope comes from the growing interest in Iain McGilchrist's work on brain hemispheres (The Master and His Emissary), which eventually could be useful in showing how various doctrines and practices and developments in the church appeal to the side of the brain that does not have the tools for 'religion' in the sense of a sense of opening to real spiritual maturity, to what is unknown, the part of the brain that processes layered language and metaphor, symbol and ritual and so forth. The work of Andrew Shanks also holds out hope, although in my opinion he is far too optimistic about the possibility of changing the attitudes of the clerical status quo, though I applaud him for trying.
In terms of the USA, however, I am now so far removed from the American church—by choice—that I don't know what to say. I do know of a few, a very few, clergy and others who are swimming upstream, but they can be counted on one hand. It may or may not be significant that the book I published here in the UK in May—and which is selling very well—has not yet found a publisher in the USA, where only formula books, self-help and established pop spirituality authors seem to get published these days. Of course there's the excuse of the economy and publishers are running scared. But it's more than that. Fortunately enough people in the UK are still open to critical thinking on these matters and people here still read books.
I spent seven months in the USA last year running a chapel at a retreat centre, meeting hundreds of people from all over the country. It was an alarming experience because of the mindset that kept reappearing, and a set of cultural parameters that spoke of an increasing divergence between the blinkered way even educated Americans seem to interpret the world, and the way the British and Europeans do; the difference in goals and values. (Perhaps symptomatic was the group of Americans this past summer, who rented a house one street over from ours here in Oxford—they have now, mercifully, departed. Their noise levels, ordinary conversations as well as frequent parties, disturbed the entire neighbourhood at all hours of the day and night; their loud, penetrating voices woke everyone in the middle of the night when they walked back from the pub. It was their complete obliviousness to their impact on the surrounding community that was all too believable and, from an English point of view, inexcusable—but they're Americans, so what are you going to do?)
The bottom line is that those of us who are in the same boat with you have to do the best we can in our individual situations and contexts. It's pointless, however, to go to church and come away angry and depressed. The institution may deplore church-shopping but in the end that's what you have to do. Since institutional Christianity decided to be a business it can't expect its 'customers' not to respond accordingly. It may be that you will not be able to find any community of the sort you are looking for—in which case you will need to decide if you can settle for what is least offensive, or if you will have to continue your exile and mourning in your garret—and yes, the sense of isolation and loneliness is unbearable, whether or not one has found a place of worship one can stomach.
I suppose my basic attitude is that I know it's over, it's finished, and that in the end this may be a good thing, but the losses will be incalculable, not just cultural and scholarly ones, but what it means to be a human person. Even though I know I am probably whipping a dead horse, I keep on writing (thanks to the encouragement of people like you and the readers of this blog) and on the very rare occasions I am invited to do so, speaking up about what Christianity once was, is not now, and what it could be. Even the most oblivious cleric does not like to be bitten by a mosquito. I am impelled by the knowledge of centuries of Christians who have been cheated of their spiritual birthright, and even more by the spiritual suffering I see all around me. But of course this means I will always be in exile. If that is the price, so be it.
It's with this painful detachment that I simply go on doing what I know I have to do to be open to the peace of God—which, as the hymn reminds us, is 'strife closed in the sod'. Like so many other aspects of life, it's a matter of finding the balance. What, realistically, will feed your life in God?