A while ago, I invited people to share stories of how and why they left church. I developed a set of questions to guide their reflections. A kind and generous friend has agreed that her answers could appear, and you will find them following. (If you would like to share your reflections, please email me at wendydackson (at) yahoo.com, and I will send you the reflection questions, and we will start a conversation. My questions, answered only in part here, are in bold, the respondent’s questions are in regular typeface.).
Part I: Your journey into church
When did you start attending church, and why? (Family habit, friends, conversion experience)
Lifelong attendance beginning with family – father is a vicar and we followed him through training college, curacy and into incumbencies.
How old were you, or at what stage of life? (baptism, college, adult)
Baptism as infant, confirmation as a young teenager, vocation as a young (ish) adult, left the ministry, years as a “lay” person then left the church entirely.
In what denomination did you begin your church life? Have you been a member of more than one, and if so, which ones?
Church of England. And stayed there.
What was meaningful to you about your church participation? Is this still important to you?
I’m honestly no longer sure what was what by the time we stopped going – what we were actually getting and what we just wished was there. Meeting God in other people and through familiar liturgy was important. Sacramental life and the mutual loving welcome and support of God’s people.
Part II: Your journey out of church
When did you realize you might be on your way out of church?
When I realized that going to church was something that stressed us, that we did only out of obligation and not because we wanted to. I also realized with sadness that I was meeting God at the altar rail but nowhere else, that my time at church was full of tension and anxiety about the children (not what they’d do but how other people would react)
What was the reason you felt you might leave?
When yet another church that had been advertised as being “family friendly” turned out to like quiet children and grateful parents.
Also it because clear that we were expected in some way to be complicit with the vicar in keeping the older members of the congregation happy, in maintaining the status quo with a lot of volunteering but with no support and no spiritual involvement.
And the preaching and the quality of the teaching/ intellectual engagement with our faith was dreadful. We were to be kept as GCSE [approximately US 10th grade] level students while taking on adult responsibility for every other level of church life.
What was your leaving process? (sudden departure, gradual disengagement)
One week the vicar mentioned that some people in the congregation didn’t like our children being children (moving about a bit during services – they’re toddlers!!) and they were talking to her about it. She said “of course the fault’s 50/50” – implying that our kids (at “family services”) were equally to blame for their poor reception.
It wasn’t just that she said that, it was the implied tone that we’d agree with and support her, and sympathise with her in her difficult job in the parish.
The next week we just didn’t go. No drama. Remarkably painless.
What was the main determining factor in a decision to leave?
Seeing just how little value the church places on adult attenders (they liked our children and teenagers and they liked it when I was following a vocation to ministry but as soon as we were “just” adults we were expected to contribute financially and emotionally, all the while being told how hard the clergy were working and how much of our support they needed) as individuals, and just how much pressure to conform to expected ways of behaving that are utterly nothing to do with the Gospel there is.
Who was the biggest influence in the decision?
Um. The vicar and the congregation…
What was hardest about leaving?
Just how easy it was to do. And that nobody noticed we’d gone, nobody asked where we were, nobody called, nobody checked up to see what was happening. Like we’d never been there and the years we’d spent had been worthless.
What has been good about leaving?
Feeling free to worship somewhere that values us. Stepping back from congregational politics.
Did you talk to anyone in the church about your leaving? If so, whom? At what point in the process of deciding to do so? What were those conversations like?
We tried. No one was interested. The vicar was “sorry that we’d heard her say that”, which is no apology at all.
Part III: Effects of leaving
How has your inner life/spirituality changed as a result of being away from church?
I am much calmer and a lot less judgmental about other people. Now I’m not expected to be part of a congregation sitting through another sermon that has clearly been written on Saturday night it’s a lot easier to be tolerant. A lot more worship goes on
What, if anything, has changed (for better or worse) in your relationships with friends/family/members of your former church?
No one has kept in touch, except people we were friends with before we attended that church.
Have your sought/found other outlets for spiritual growth or community? If yes, what were they?
How would you describe your spiritual well-being during your absence from the church?
Good. Quiet. Focussed on God rather than the church.
What, if anything, do/did you miss about church participation? What, if anything, are you doing to fill this space?
I miss Mass. Not doing anything at the minute but am considering occasionally attending RC mass somewhere.
What, if anything, has been valuable during your time away from church?
Everything. Bible reading, time with family, relaxed space. Happiness that God loves us as we are.
Part IV: Returning?
How long have you been/were you away from church? Have you returned?
Six months and not returned. And no we never will.
The CofE are far too invested in the cult of clergy, in supporting their status quo and in keeping going as things are. Their reaction to falling numbers is the Green report. No support for lay people, no focus on them, no value.