Hearing the stories of so many others who have left I have wondered why I have not – this is a kind of explanation. I found four reasons.
First I was raised in a missionary family so left home aged 6 to go to the mission school and left the far east aged 9 to return to England without my family to be educated. That progressive dilution of family life starts a deconstruction process very young. It was not helped when the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac was often alluded to (though not by my parents) as the idealised sacrifice missionaries make. Such bad theology (Abraham doesn’t kill his son) and such crappy bible interpretation (child sacrifice was forbidden) hasn’t prevented the sort of toxic narrative which missionary children have to deal with. But the non-consensual experience of losing one’s parents because of their vocation and devotion to God causes all sorts of problems. Half of former missionary kids want nothing to do with such a faith. And the rest are bruised. But I stayed.
The second reason was listening to two lecture series by Graham Cray in 1993 and 1995. He was principal of an Anglican college at that stage. He hadn’t yet been made a bishop but he was a regular Greenbelt speaker who would lecture about the cultural impact of Madonna, U2 or whoever.
The first series of talks in 1993 was called Culture Shock – it was run jointly by Greenbelt and the Church Times. It was very learned – the list of references was exhausting. Cray basically explained what post modernism was and why every denomination in the UK was in trouble because their identity was formed by the Enlightenment and was unravelling.
In the second series in 1995 Contours of a world view Cray continued with another three lectures to lay out the factors that were making the world a confusing place well before the end of the 20th century and to point out what kind of church was likely to emerge from the rubble. I still have the talks on cassette plus the handouts with the references on. I haven’t listened to them since. But it meant that I knew that the clouds were gathering even if the church didn’t want to face up to the coming storm. So forewarned is forearmed. It meant that I have experienced the turbulence of the last 20 years and the growing anxiety of institutions trying to keep going at all costs in much the same way. It’s happening. It’s healthy not to be in denial about it.
The third factor was Greenbelt. I have been to almost every festival since the mid 1980s. The books on my shelves mostly come from people I have heard speak there or had recommended. But more than anything else Greenbelt was a safe space where you could ask or say anything without being shamed or shunned. I recommend it. I cannot imagine what faith I would still have without the presence of Greenbelt as a movement and community.
The last factor was having an incompetent vicar lead the church for some 6 years. He wasn’t a bad person but he caused tremendous damage. We were hanging on by our fingertips. And being part of a denomination was no help at all. After he had left, we got the handwringing from head office. Why didn’t you ask for help? Well, we had and nothing was done. And I don’t think if we got into the same situation that the denomination would behave any differently other than sit it out and wait for the problem to go away. I asked an archdeacon from another part of the country why nothing was being done and he explained that while you have an unhappy church you have one problem. Get rid of the vicar then you need to sort them out. And then you need to find a new vicar. Well that is three problems to solve and that is just too difficult.
Perhaps the worst time was when I knew the minister was going but wasn’t allowed to tell anyone. By then there was no one left functioning in leadership. I discovered then that there is something supernatural about the church. I think Jesus keeps it going when humans can’t. I nearly left. My wife had had enough and briefly joined an atheists anonymous group of survivors which formed in the wake of all the trouble. So I would have left with her but the vicar left first. I know it sounds ironic that an awful experience of church didn’t drive me out. But the following two ministers knew what they were doing and mended much of the damage.
I should probably fess up and admit I am a lay minister licensed/authorised by my local bishop. So you could say I am and continue to be part of the problem. But in the worst times I learned to use Ali’s strategy from the Rumble in the Jungle – to head for the ropes and bounce back on them. That protected me from the worst of the bad stuff – it didn’t get to me. I know from experience when you are trying to hold things together in the centre for yourself and others the pressure can be overwhelming and you are aware that what you are doing and saying can hurt instead of heal.
Perhaps you think I haven’t deconstructed at all. Well, I have a low view of what motivates a lot of what happens in church. A low view of how churches are overseen from a distance. And I am a lot less certain about who Christians are and what they do and whether the quality and character of their belief matters. But you’ll say deconstruction isn’t about the church it’s about God. True. But one of the most useful books I got out of Greenbelt was How (not) to speak of God by Pete Rollins, also a Greenbelter. In which he pointed out that language about God is problematic. Words fail. We can’t articulate what or who God is if there is one. Atheists find themselves using exactly the same language to say what they don’t believe in. So ultimately whether there is a God and whether and how God saves is so much more to do with God than us. The first Christians were called atheists – I think there is an overlap between theism and atheism because we don’t know anything and we’re not here long enough to find out. It’s 99% bollocks and 100% grace. That extreme pessimism is enough to keep me going in a church setting.
– John Griffiths