In the Shadow of the Church

I live my life, at present, in the shadow of the church.  Outside it, but close enough to still feel its presence, to know it influences me.

I think much of post-Christian society is in the shadow of the church as well.  Maybe less consciously so, but still influenced by the presence of the church, its rituals,  attitudes, history and sacred documents.  It would be difficult in Europe or the Americas to go through even a single day without some vestige of the Christian heritage casting at least a fleeting shade over our lives.  Art, music, literary references, even what we consider ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ are like tea leaves that, even if over-steeped to the point of tastelessness, still give faint and sometimes indistinct color to the water of our lives.

In my case, the brew was strong. I was known in my university residence as someone who would let tea steep until the spoon was in danger of dissolving.  Even after I began my theological studies at a now-defunct Episcopal seminary (merged with another, and both now have what I consider an uncertain future), I was a kind of all-or-nothing student.  I immersed myself in learning, liturgy, and the life of the community.  My intention was to serve the church as a lay theologian, and I pursued this avenue by continuing on with a PhD in theology at Marquette University. Even as a doctoral student, I served as a lay preacher and adult education leader.  My future in the church seemed bright–I was living on the side of the church that was bathed in sunlight.

After a successful dissertation defense and graduation in 2000, even though I wasn’t immediately employed in a church setting, I felt optimistic.  I had gotten a one-term adjunct position at my former seminary (filling in for a suddenly-incapacitated professor), and then a one-year sabbatical replacement at a Christian college in another state.  I did some further adjunct work in religious studies, theology, philosophy and college writing, but within three years, I had applied for appropriate positions at every Episcopal seminary and more universities than I could count.  No joy.  I began to doubt my work, and whether I had a future in the church or academy, and felt myself moving into the shadow.

A ray of sunlight crept upon me when in 2006 I was appointed as the first research fellow in a new center for ecclesiology and practical theology in England.  It did not turn out to be the career reset I hoped for, and indeed, it turned out my work was never intended by the powers that were to be mine to publish or build on. (Had I known that was going to be the case, I might not have accepted the work.) Work at the center dried up, and the only thing that was on offer was the Director of Studies position at the Historically Important Diocese.  And after these experiences, I found myself not only out of work, but doubting whether the church was worthy of my efforts or loyalty.

I had been thrust into the shadow of the church.  And it was–is–a cold dark lonely place. I still love theology.  I still value what the institutional church is capable of.  But I am, for the time being, outside the church doors, and it seems like every time I shift position, I still move in the shadow of the church.  The side that is in the sunlight seems to be out of bounds for me.


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