All churches are concerned about losing members, particularly so when the member lost happens to be a star preacher who then turns around and writes a book about her decision to leave. Such is the case with Barbara Brown Taylor and her book Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith.
More than 20 years ago, Barbara Brown Taylor was ordained a priest in the Episcopal (i.e. Anglican) church. She describes herself as a "late-blooming flower child" who attended Yale Divinity School in the seventies, where "on no particular timetable, I let the wind carry me."
The wind carried her to a degree in religion, even though "my transcript listed more courses in mysticism and environmental ethics than it did in Bible and theology."
For the next decade, she was one of four Episcopal priests at an urban church in Atlanta, Ga. But the reverend wanted her own church and her own congregation; moreover she knew the specific church she wanted -- Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville (population 1,500), Ga.
When she first visited the church, it had a long-serving incumbent, whom she describes (apparently intending a compliment) as "a bourbon connoisseur with a wicked sense of humour." Nevertheless, on her first visit, she told her husband (and later her bishop): "I want this church."
Shortly thereafter, the wickedly funny bourbon connoisseur was found dead on the rectory's kitchen floor. She does not speculate on any possible connection between the late rector's proclivities and his fate, but now she was on her way.
According to Baylor University in Waco, Tex., she became "one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world." Perhaps it was being named one of the 12 that turned her head. Or perhaps the reverend's head was never her strong feature. Anyway, she entered local parish ministry with verve and high ideals, and at least by her own account, she was a roaring success.
"By the end of the first month, I felt responsible for everything from the happiness of the babies in the nursery to the cleanliness of the windows in the church. If this proved exhilarating instead of exhausting to me, that was not only because I was finally in charge of my own congregation but also because I found that congregation so worth my while." If that last sentence doesn't rankle, then you might enjoy this book.
Alas, the paragon of American preachers exchanged her pulpit for a classroom. Now she "keeps the Sabbath with a cup of steaming Assan tea on my front porch, watching towhees vie for the highest perch on the poplar tree while God watches me."
And what does she dream of today? "Of opening a small restaurant in Clarkesville, or volunteering at an eye clinic in Nepal," but, wait, don't count on her actually doing these things because, she goes on, "there is no guarantee that I will not run off with the circus before I am through."
I have quoted enough of Rev. Taylor's prose, I think, to give the reader a sense of it. For those who like the thoroughly feminized sensibilities of contemporary Anglicanism ("All sensibility and no sense" as one female acquaintance put it), this is a book to die for; those, by contrast, who find orthodoxy bracing, will find this book like forced immersion in a bottomless vat of treacle.
The book has received many reviews verging on sycophancy, most often from clergy (including some who should know better, like Frederick Buechner). Against this veritable mountain of praise, let me be blunt: Rev. Taylor's theology is infantile and her ecclesiology non-existent. She is a blatherskite, a typical product of her time, and her memoir is self-indulgent twaddle, laced with liberal heresies.
To charge heresy is serious business, so herewith examples: "Because Jesus died instead of ushering in the messianic age, Paul responded with the doctrine of atonement. Because the risen Christ struck his followers as very close to God, the early Church responded with a doctrine of the Trinity . . ."
I say, not to be unkind, that her theology does not appear to go deeper than happy faces and a general sense of a beneficent pumpkin in the sky. The dreadful responsibility of Christian orthodoxy, after all, is that it pins one down to certain specific and coherent beliefs -- as this self-described late-blooming flower child might say, "Bummer."
The reverend left her church and has written a book about it. I, too, was a member of her denomination for decades, but over the years I met too many Anglican clergypersons just like her. I also left.
Some who leave go elsewhere, as I did, specifically to Rome. More, perhaps, just give up on religion. And given what is on offer in many churches, exemplified, sadly, by Rev. Taylor, who can blame them?
Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the University of Western Ontario law faculty.