Churches role in North America is clearly waning, following a trajectory witnessed in Europe over the past 50 years. What is it that is killing the church? Samuel Wells offered this reflection in a recent story carried by “The Christian Century” as he spoke to a 90 year parishioner who decided to return to church after a 75 year absence.
I asked, “What was it that led you away from the church for 75 years?” Nothing to lose, I thought. I may learn something. But I forgot the first rule of the inquirer: never ask a question to which you might get an answer you’re not ready to hear. I was in for a shock.
“It was when we wanted to get married. We were in love. The rector wouldn’t marry us.” Well, this sounds intriguing, I thought, and, always a soft touch for the romantic twist on a story, I blundered in where angels fear to tread. “So was there something wrong?” I asked. “Had your husband been married previously, or were you too young, maybe?”
“No,” she said calmly, and I realize now that she was trying hard not to be patronizing or angry. “The rector looked at my hand. You see, I worked in a mill. I had an accident when I was 16.” She held up her left hand. The last three fingers were missing. “The rector said that since I didn’t have a finger to put the wedding ring on, he couldn’t marry us.”
The color drained from my face. I reacted with the gasping half-laugh one coughs out when one hears something so ridiculous that it has to be funny—but of course it isn’t funny at all but deeply, deeply horrifying. It was so absurd that no one could have made it up. It had to be true. Suddenly I felt that 75 years away from the church was pretty lenient. “May I ask what brings you back to the church now?” I said, feeling I couldn’t go on without hearing her answer. “God’s bigger than the church,” she replied. “I’ll be dead soon. The Lord’s Prayer says forgive if you want to be forgiven. So that’s what I’ve decided to do.”
Such stories, dramatic in presentation, point to a distressing similarity to numerous contemporary examples. As Wells notes we do not call the fundamentalist righteous that led a pastor to refuse a wedding due to a missing digit “sin” which leaves it “immune from the practice of forgiveness and restoration known to the gospel. And it kills the church more surely than an creeping indifference….” We instead, in some circles … gulp … celebrate it as “faith” or “standing up for the truth.”
One can hear the refrain, “But that is not me.” And while that is accurate, as a corporate body there is much room for churches to place themselves in the admittedly vulnerable position of acknowledging imperfection and harm done through employing the Gospel as a WMD.
One pastor recently shared his sadness around a frequent refrain he heard while visiting churches as people shared all that they did NOT share with their own pastors. If pastors are not a safe harbor, the pastor noted in Wells’ story, though dead for decades, is still alive and well in many Christian circles. And if pastors are not a safe harbor, neither is the church.
We need to rediscover a new way, an old way.