As I sit down to write this, I’ve become very much aware of the fact that I’m in the twilight days of my 20’s…and I’ve spent 17 years of my life doing *something* in the church. That’s more than half my life. *Insert exacerbated expletive here*
This is, to those that knew me growing up, likely no surprise. I was born and raised in a Methodist church, with some of my earliest memories being in my parents living room while a church meeting is in progress. The faith I inherited was literally that: Inherited from my family, from going to support my father in his preaching, learning the family grace that was said over meals, saying your prayers before bed at night with my grandmother. My early teenage years were spent being a worship steward at my home church, attending church meetings in the evenings, going to Synod, and being a part of the Youth Worship band.
What follows (mercifully in a shortened version) is series of conscious and unconscious decisions and events that led me to now: Volunteering for my local circuit and District denomination, studying and working to be a Youth Worker, being Youth President of the Methodist church, leaving the UK to work for a church in the US, to being back in the UK once again, working for the Methodist Church once again.
Now…in the middle of all that was the experiences that most of us have, sadly, come to experience within churches. Being overworked to the extent that I was signed off sick from university during my degree because I was burning myself out “living out my calling.” Working for a church where the leadership gas-lit me, having the “mid-west” approach to dealing with problems (i.e. letting them simmer, gossip with others about it until it just explodes and causes immense pain), threats to my immigration status, and where finally they publicly fired me (with no reason given to me or publicly) less than a week after being married. For a community that purports to be centered on love and care; church communities are some of the worst for alienating folks, segregating those that don’t conform, and isolating people.
There are some honestly beautiful and lovely parts of my life and journey during those times that, despite the harm and pain caused by the Church, I hold close to me. Meeting my (now) partner, the birth of our child, those that care for and supported our family during the pain of US immigration process. The families and friends that we met via the church, but embodied more human and, dare I say, Christ-like behavior though the ups and downs of life.
The Church and, by extension, my faith are both specter and companion in my life. However, I am an optimist at heart, so rather than focusing on the specters that haunt me, I want to share, with all this context, where my deconstruction journey began.
And it started with a cup of tea.
Around the time I was 15 years old, I started to just question things in the church and around faith. I have memories of being told things through those preaching and in youth groups that were given as ‘This is the truth!” that just didn’t sit right with me. If I questioned it, there was a push back and belittling because “you’re young, you’ll learn.” At the same time, there was upheaval in the church over a loss of historic leadership and a change in worship, which I threw myself into the conversations about. In the questioning, the pushback, the high stress, and the teenage angst; I was asked if I wanted a cup of tea and a chat.
Clare, who was in her late 70’s back then, saw all these questions and stress and offered me a space to chat. I went over to her house, had a cup of tea, and just started asking questions that were on my heart. What I got back was deep grace, and no answers. Rather, Clare would ask me a question back, or offer her opinion for me to comment on. This space, offered by Clare, was where my deconstruction started. We’d spend one afternoon weekly just sitting together and chatting about faith, the church, theology, politics, and more. A space that we knew there wasn’t a clear answer, and that some of the “truths” that we were being told on Sunday were not that. A space where you could bring in other faith traditions and ideas to the conversation and it would be embraced into the ongoing conversations.
I think we all have these kinds of people and moments in our deconstruction journeys. The people who offer a space to talk. The friend who suggests a book that we might be interested in. The random person online who suggests a podcast to listen to. The time I spent with Clare is something that the Institution of the Church seems to long for: An ongoing, intergenerational conversation about faith. Yet, I feel that this already happens in the deconstruction or faith shifting sphere and is the reason why the Institution of the Church longs for it but can’t yet grasp it. I struggle to see how we can have these conversations, in which we enter with a heart of curiosity, where there isn’t a firm answer or a solid truth, and *not* take the first steps into deconstruction or a shift in faith.
I went weekly to Clare’s until I left for the US. I have many things to thank Clare for, and there isn’t enough time to list all the things I’m thankful for. In the work I was doing, be it as a Youth worker, church leader, or just as a good friend, I tried and be like Clare in providing the space to just be and question, without agenda or hard answer.
We came back to the UK just before Christmas last year. I went over to see her, now in her mid-90’s, with my partner and child, and a tea blend as a Christmas present. She opened the door, saw us, we cried. I went to the kitchen and made the pot of tea, brought it through, and we started our conversations once again, like time hadn’t passed.
– Tim Annan