Leaving Church: a memoir of faith
Barbara Brown Taylor (2006, HarperCollins)
Home by Another Way
Barbara Brown Taylor (1999, Cowley Publications)
Barbara Brown Taylor had a brilliant career as an Episcopal priest; she worked for ten years in a downtown Atlanta church, and for five as rector of a small-town church in North Georgia; she built a wide reputation as a preacher, and published several books of sermons.
But Taylor's parish ministry was the victim of its own success. At Grace-Calvary Church in Clarkesville, she presided over booming church growth. The small church building was full for three services, then four, resulting in a catastrophic increase in demands on the rector's time and energy. Though partly self-imposed, the stress was crushing: "If I spent enough time at the nursing home then I neglected to return telephone calls, and if I put enough thought into the vestry meeting then I was less likely to catch mistakes in the Sunday bulletin."
In 1998, depressed and exhausted, Taylor left the rectorship of Grace-Calvary. She was offered a position teaching religion at Piedmont College,which turned out to be just the life raft she needed. Leaving Church describes the remaking of Taylor's priesthood on the ashes of its previous form. No more collar, robes, ecclesiastical furniture, solicitous altar guild; no more saintly displays of patience, special status in the community, eight-day weeks. No more demanding parishioners; no more central role in the sacraments of the church.
Instead, Taylor goes into the wild darkness outside the warm lights of the church, to find that "faith in God has both a center and an edge and that each is necessary for the soul's health....While the center may be the place where the stories of the faith are preserved, the edge is the place where the best of them happened." She recaptures the meaning and practice of the Sabbath: "Today I will take a break from trying to save the world and enjoy my blessed swath of it instead."
Taylor is a good writer and compelling storyteller, so I picked up a volume of her sermons as well. Home by Another Way covers an ecclesiastical year shortly before her career crisis, and I was interested to see that she was able to name her own condition, if not yet ready to hear the message. In a sermon about Jesus calling the fishermen to follow him, she talks about how we try to seize control of our own salvation. "If we will just work hard enough, we tell ourselves, if we pray enough and help enough and give enough, then God will claim us in the end....It is a form of idolatry..." She adds that our own call from Jesus might take a form particular to his relationship with us, including the possibility of doing less, and setting aside some of our busyness.
By God's grace, as I think we must say, Taylor was offered a blessed respite from her clerical adrenaline jag. Accepting a softer sense of her own vocation, she makes room for a wider sense of God's presence in the world. Her authority to pray does not, it turns out, derive from the collar and surplice, but from the humanity she shares with everybody she meets. "If some of us do not know who we are going to be tomorrow, then it is enough for us to give thanks for today while we treat each other as well as we know how."
Amen! and Alleluia.
By way of bonus for my electronic readers--a longish Fresh Air interview with Barbara Brown Taylor. I'm not a fan of Terry Gross, but BBT has some interesting things to say, and it's pleasant to hear her. (Thanks to Katharine for the tip.)
Streaming audio from this site: