16 September 2005

Losing My Religion - Part III: The Problem With Leaving

    I wish I were Catholic
    I don't know why
      Happy Birthday to Me
      by Cracker

This is part of a series that begins here. The post before this one is here.

I have often joked that it would be easier if I was Catholic. I have so many issues with the social and political stance of the Roman Catholic church that I would have no qualms leaving. The same would be true if I were Southern Baptist or Evangelical. I would have left those churches on principle alone, without ever considering the deeper aspects of religious truth.

The Episcopal Church is different. It's an open and liberal Christian community. Both men and women can be priests, and they can marry. They welcome practicing homosexuals, ordain them, and make them bishops. To be sure, not all Episcopalians were in favor of this. Acceptance and ordination of gays, ordination of women, even modern language in the Book of Common Prayer all came with controversy and threatened schism. Yet the church has weathered these storms without halting its progress towards openness and acceptance.

After reading that last paragraph, you might be wondering why in the world I wanted to leave. Indeed, I was always proud of the Episcopal church and its progressive stand on social issues. So what was the problem? As I became more involved as an acolyte and vestry member, I was increasingly called upon to profess my faith. I was asked to mentor a young adult preparing for confirmation. I attended retreats with the vestry. I spoke in front of the parish about stewardship.

In all these situations, I always became uncomfortable discussing my personal relationship with God and Christ. That's actually an understatement. I began to resent being put in the position at all. I was skeptical when people sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit. The last thing I wanted to hear was someone's story of how God spoke to them. In vestry we often prayed for guidance before discussing an issue or voting, and I hated it when our decisions took on extra weight because they were made with God's guidance.

It was a while before I realized why it bothered me so much. The answer difficult to face, but it was simple. I just didn't believe it. When someone sensed the Holy Spirit in our midst, I thought they were just excited. I thought the silent prayer in vestry helped people clear their heads, not tune into God. It seems obvious to me after the fact, but it was hard to accept. I would have to accept it, though. As I discussed in Part II, having children pressed the issue as much as anything. I needed to be honest with them.

I resolved to leave the Episcopal church. It was a slow process. Sharon and the kids stopped attending first. I continued to attend vestry meetings, and went to church when I was scheduled to acolyte. Eventually my rector figured out something was up and asked me about it. I think he was worried that I was having trouble at home or something. We discussed my doubts and concerns, but did not come to any resolution.

I stopped going to church altogether when I was done with vestry. The last service I attended was the Sunday of the Annual Meeting, officially my last day on vestry. I had still not explained about my decision to my rector. Nonetheless, I think he sensed it was my last day there. I keep meaning to write him and let him know how I'm doing, but I haven't yet. That last thing I did was congratulate one of the new vestry members. She was my age, and had been there as long as I had. I left with a strange mixture of regret and relief. I miss that church, but I think I made the right choice.

For the next several months, we didn't go to church at all. However, it didn't stay that way. That story, in what should be the last installment of this series, Part IV.

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