What’s really killing the church

July 11, 2013
Article image

I went to see a woman of senior years—in England she is still called “an elderly lady.” She’d left the church when she was a young woman and wanted to come back.

Ah, I thought, a familiar story. A young person grows up in the church, but when she becomes a young adult she decides to get outside and smell a different air. Now that she was over 90 she thought it was time to give the church a second chance. She took her time, I thought, but the church had been patiently waiting for her all this time, as parents do for prodigals.

So 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.”

The crown jewels of the Church of England are its parishes. Priests have the cure of souls—not just the churchgoers but of every resident of the neighborhood, where every blade of grass in the entire country has a church that seeks to make itself in some way a blessing to all, where the clergy know that “I can’t know everyone, but everyone can know me.” But this inheritance is under pressure. In the corners of clergy gatherings there are mutterings. Stories are told of spouses or friends in health care and education who see very few patients or students any more, but instead sit behind computers filling in forms about targets and thresholds. The same is said about priests—that a Prussian-style bureaucracy is infesting the poetry of the priest’s relationship to the parish.

In the Church of England, parish clergy are all paid the same; there are no “rich rectors” with well-endowed churches and sprawling expense accounts, so the conventional commercial appraisal—balance sheet healthy, 2 percent pay increase, MBA completed, another 2 percent increase—doesn’t apply. But now appraisal schemes for ministry review have been introduced by some dioceses, and this is the bureaucracy that is resented by clergy who see it, with its target goals, assessments, statistics and accountability, as another layer of control.

When I overhear the clergy grumbling, the elderly Welsh millworker comes to mind, and I find myself asking, “Shouldn’t we pause for a moment and ask ourselves why all these systems and controls have been introduced? Isn’t it because the glorious parish system puts the parish priest in a position of extraordinary trust, and because that trust has gone without honor rather more times than we’d care to admit?”

The hard thing to say is that this breaking of trust is subtly different from abuse, in the sense of criminal activity. What the Welsh rector said to the young millworker wasn’t a misuse of power that was perpetrated by someone living in abiding fear of discovery. It was a ghastly misreading of grace under the veneer of an upholding of natural law. No finger—no marriage.

The rector’s decision would be a grotesque historical curiosity if it didn’t have such distressing contemporary parallels. We don’t call it sin, so it’s immune from the process of forgiveness and restoration known as the gospel. And it kills the church more surely than any creeping indifference to the truth claims of the scriptures or any discovery that a pastor turns out to have feet of clay.

What saves the church is a person like the millworker. After 75 years she gives us another chance. I wish I felt more confident we’d seize that chance the second time around.


What can be done?

I really like this story. I suspect that it is the exception than the rule for many churchgoers.  What can be done to better this reality. How about more relevant messages to the laity? Churchgoers are not interested having church being a book report every week, but many clergy give sermons that quote great books except THE BOOK. I recently heard a sermon that was high on environmentalism and lacking on doctrine or theology. I know that the world needs better environmentalism. It also needs better understandings of Jesus. It also needs music that is relevant and interesting. I am sorry: 200 year old hymn tunes bring an older crowd. Can we have the past and the present? Can we have multimedia and great Christian education? How about testimony?

It's not an exception.If

It's not an exception.

I mean, the exact reason might be, but ministers refuse to marry couples for petty reasons all the time. Sometimes it's because a spouse is of another faith. Other times it's because a person did not grow up in the church. Other times it's because they are not a member of that particuar congregation. Nevermind the fact that most people in their 20s have to move away from their hometown for education and jobs... if you're not part of our club, we'll turn you away.

It saddens me, because church doesn't offer a lot of services for young men and women that our society still perceives as important. We do offer weddings. But now, pastors and other church leaders refuse to marry people--missing a great opportunity to serve the community.

Tom Paine

What I don't understand is why people put the church on a pedestal of perfection and when it s fails to meet it, refuse to participate. If that same woman had walked down the street to the next parish almost assuredly the next clergyman would not have said the same. Imagine a person saying, "I got such a poor meal at that restaurant that I am not going to eat in restaurants for another six decades." But people will do that with the church. It isn't fair but we have to realize that this is the case and weed out the intollerant and ungracious. But, whatever the challenges, we have to get the word out that such behavior/beliefs are not the norm in the church.

What you need to learn,............YES YOU!

I will only comment this one time about church so don't worry, I won't be back. Church has been made in the minds of man to be the "THE CURE ALL", well news flash IT'S NOT!  It has been so screwed with by pastors and wannabes that it is no longer relevant for the average person. Lie after lie has been told across the pulpit for so long that there is no wonder people don't want to go. I , Over the years had been to a number of churches and found that the church is in reality a hospital for the sick in soul and mind, and it is being turned into a building to flirt with the ego. A person that needs some fixing when their body is ill goes to a doctor to get fixed. The same should be for the house of God...............and not a place to be a hypocondriac ( spelling.Ahh) or to watch the surgery from a OP balcony. Get your fix, pay the Doc and get the hell out. When Jesus healed people He sent them on their way and so should the pastors, (IF INDEED THAT IS WHAT THEY ARE THERE TO DO!) Not to fill their egos and pockets and their dignity to a swell ! It is my view of God and am entitled to it! If indeed people would wake up to that fact........the pastors would have to go out into the streets .again for some...for the first time for others.........but never the less!!! Goading people doesn't cause them to want to go, neither does guilt or any other game. So leave them alone.............I think God knows what He is doing.......He doesn't need US!!!!!!!!! Get ourselves, individually that is together and let your fellow man do the same.............Don't bother him or her with your witnessing vanity........for the most part it doesn't work. God Bless You All!!!