The Freedom from Religion Foundation recently called on liberal Roman Catholics to leave the church. You're deluded if you think you can change the church from within, they claimed. More than that: when you're a member of an oppressive institution, you need to think about whose side you are on. I have some sympathy with that view.
So EJ Dionne responded with the reasons why he isn't quitting the church. He essentially seems to believe that Jesus taught a message of liberation that the church needs to hear from within. I agree.
Then, over at Meadowsweet and Myrrh, the wonderful Alison Leigh Lilly wrote about her journey away from the Catholic church, before she became a Druid, and how she could no longer live with the structures of a church in which she is considered structurally, cosmically unequal to the men in power (along with many other interesting reasons for leaving - the post is worth reading). There are things I agree with there too.
In short, I'm confused.
I like to think of myself as an aspiring social reformer (although I'm rubbish at it), and I like to think of Jesus as one, too. I also think Jesus would recognise very little that goes on in our churches if he were here to see them now.* I believe, with Dionne, that the Gospel is a call to liberation. While there are many examples of the churches' poor record on social justice, there have also been great examples of those who heard Jesus' liberatory call and put it into action. The Quakers have spoken out against slavery and war for centuries, and it was Catholics who developed the liberation theology which pushed the church in Latin America to put human rights back on their agenda. Those are two examples of individuals and groups who have tried to turn the tanker of Christianity and, to some extent, succeeded. There are many more examples of failure, of course.
When I thought I would be a faithful, church-going Christian forever, and even briefly considered becoming a deacon (a sort of unpaid assistant priest - I've always been ambitious), I was well aware that I would be trying to turn a tanker. I spent ten years in the LGBT Christian movement, believing that my active presence in the church as a gay/bisexual woman (in a stable, committed relationship) was all that was needed for my acceptance. And I've seen that happen. Friends of mine - let's call them Steven and Paul - attended a church for many years where the minister initially believed that same-sex relationships were sinful. That minister recently conducted their wedding. He talked at the ceremony about they had changed his view on same-sex relationships. That kind of change of attitude through personal connection is only possible on a small scale: one person at a time. And yet... that's how I try to change the world. One person at a time.
There is a movement in the churches called emergent Christianity. (I am a little bit in love with Peter Rollins, one of the leaders of the movement.) This movement involves ordinary people re-defining Christian faith and the church. To some extent this movement is happening outside the churches, but it is happening in community. There are also amazing individuals out there who challenge the church in ways that catch society's attention, like Symon Hill (who I met at Greenbelt, an emergent festival). Symon's a lifelong anti-war activist and Quaker who recently walked 160 miles in repentance for his former homophobia. These people are a minority, but I believe they still make a difference. I think they have more effect working as part of, not against, the churches. Christians mostly don't listen to outsiders who critique their positions. They often do listen to other Christians.
So what does this all mean for me? I'm having a definite shift in my thinking at the moment. My spirituality is increasingly becoming more embodied, 'nature'-focused and mystical - it always was to some extent, but that's becoming my main focus now. In the past, I've always been drawn to formal, ritualisitic churches where Communion and the other sacraments are at the centre - this itself is embodied worship. The 'high' Anglican churches have worked well for me, for that reason - their congregations are generally liberal and their worship is formal. But they are slowly dying (it's a long story), and the conservative evangelical wing of the Anglican church is in the ascendancy. The institution of the Church of England is becoming something that I no longer believe I can help to change. That probably wouldn't be the case if I still believed in Christianity in the way I used to, but changes in belief have highlighted the issues I already have with it. I'm now an outsider, and I've already lost my right to speak truth to power in that church as a result.
I don't think I have the right to comment on whether or not liberal Catholics should leave their church. I don't think those who stay are 'enablers', as the Freedom from Religion Foundation put it (although I recognise that there's a debate to be had about that), but I do think it's important that people leave or stay in religions for the right reasons. If they can be committed enough to work towards change, being realistic about the fact that they are a minority without a great deal of influence, then maybe people like the American nuns, the committed liberals, can create this generation's version of liberation theology. Alternatively, maybe in the process of leaving, some of them will become this generation's George Fox, the reformer who left his church to form the Quakers.
In the end, I think it might be all about the mythology. (Isn't everything?) All religious/spiritual outcomes are founded on the myths that underpin your faith. Do you believe Jesus was a conservative or a liberal? (Research suggests you probably believe he was exactly what you are.) I think he was a radical revolutionary, but that's just my interpretation. But whatever it looked like at first, the Jesus myth was strong enough to bring down an empire and build another one. I don't know if the liberal Catholics have myths strong enough to bring down the empire of the pope, but no one would have predicted that a carpenter's son from an insignificant outpost of the Roman Empire would have been able to inspire everything that Christianity has achieved - good and bad.
And these might not always be sacred myths. As I said to Alison Leigh Lilly in response to her post, my spirituality draws on the oddest of mythical sources. I mentioned the final scene of 'Angel', the spin-off series from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', that to me symbolises speaking truth to power more than any biblical or European ancient myth. (Although a lot of those speak to me of that too!) For a long time I've been trying to find/create a form of spirituality that truly embodies justice, wisdom, support for the oppressed, and a limitless love of life in all its forms, built on a narrative that tells my story. I think I'm getting there, slowly.
Whatever choices I make about my church, I remain committed to the importance of faith and community. I hope that, whether the liberal Catholics leave or stay, they find communities that help them to express their faith and spirituality. One of my core beliefs is that spirituality is formed and developed in community, and that it reflects and impacts on society. I have myths that speak of that, too.
What myths underpin your spiritual path?
*Wow. A non-Christian statement if ever I made one...!