Different Experiences (Church Refugees, Part II)

A few days ago, I wrote a post outlining my initial responses to Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope’s Church Refugees. Any good book–and I think this one is a very good and important book–is going to elicit both agreement and disagreement.  It doesn’t mean one party is right or wrong; it just means no party to the discussion has the whole picture in view.

 Part of not having the whole picture in view is a matter of the imperfection of even the best social research methods.  Packard and Hope used open-ended interview questions.  It’s exactly what I would have done–what I’ve attempted to start, albeit a little more clumsily–to explore questions of why committed Christians leave church after years and sometimes decades of intense participation in one or more congregations.  Their use of qualitative research, allowing people to tell their stories, rather than quantitative research (in which statistics dominate) also seems exactly right to me.  Numbers here tell very little of what is really happening or why.

I found many of the stories had elements which resonated deeply with me: institutional difficulties with challenging questions, frustration with bureaucracy, years of trying to help effect change “from within” the institution.  I found myself nodding in agreement as I read stories of people who had been employed by the church and felt they had to leave for their own spiritual wellbeing (I had worked for several years in two separate Church of England institutions, first as a practical theology researcher, and later as the director of studies for a diocesan ordination training program).

The feelings of guilt–even failure–about leaving the church rang very true for me as well. I am a lay theologian with more academic credentials than most ordained ministers. I prepared, and devoutly hoped for, a career in the church where my training and talents could be well utilized for the service of God and fellow humans.  When the church stood in the way, I could only push on the door so long and so hard before everything in my being felt bruised and fractured.

I think, though, if I had used the same method–“snowball or chain-referral sampling”–to generate my research field, some of my results would have been significantly different.  That’s not a flaw in the method, it’s just a reality.  When you start with who you know, and ask them to refer others they know who might be willing to talk to you, you’re going to end up excluding some people.  All research samples have a bias, and part of that bias comes from who is asked and who is willing.  My own experience of doing research on the roles and identities of Church of England clergy in the Derby diocese reflects this:  the Bishop wanted a cross section of the diocese.  So, I designed a questionnaire to go to all clergy, which would help generate a picture that covered rural, urban, suburban (and the various types of these settings, because there is not “one” rural setting but many) churches.  I made sure I visited clergy and congregants (and because it is an established church, the schools and government agencies and officials with which the church interacts most) from many points on the liturgical and theological spectrum.  So, there were “catholic” leaning congregations and ministers,  as well as more “evangelical” ones; there were churches in affluent settings as well as more deprived areas; benefices with multiple congregations as well as single-church parishes; churches with a female vicar as well as churches where such a thing would be unthinkable.  And then there were the non-parochial/congregational settings of chaplaincies to industry, schools, health care, transportation . . . .

But the common thread, without which information cannot be gathered, was “who is willing to talk?”  Or be observed for a few days.  Or help me get access to the people who make the church run and function in the community.  In my sample, the people willing to talk tended to be fairly experienced priests (although their less-experienced curates were often included as part of a five-day visit to a parish), people who were comfortable in their roles even as those roles were changing, rarely people in their “post of first responsibility” (first time they were eligible to be a solo priest in charge of a parish).  There were no people willing to talk who were depressed or anxious about their work, although a few who initially suspected that the purpose of the project was to “shut down underperforming churches” were ready to get on board after their diocesan colleagues had said their experience of being a research site was good.

The point is, who you ask first will lead you to fairly similar people further down the road.  My suspicion–based on the way many of Packard and Hope’s respondents framed their answers–is most of the people they found who were willing to talk were from the more Reformed, less sacramentally-based versions of Christianity.  Why would I say this?  Because when  I asked similar questions from people I knew, all of them said what they missed about church  included some reference to the encounter with the divine in the sacrament of Holy Communion (it’s also what I miss, although when I’ve attempted return, it’s also what provokes the most dramatic and immediate negative response).  Nobody in the (published) Church Refugees stories mentioned the sacraments as something they weren’t getting after leaving their churches. Being an Anglican/Episcopalian for whom weekly sacramental worship at the very minimum was the biggest reason I chose that denomination (and it was choice for me, as it wasn’t the tradition in which I was raised), this struck me as odd.  It might not be so evident to people whose churches celebrate communion once a month or less. (I may be generous in remembering the Reformed Church in America congregation of my younger years having communion four times a year.)

I also noted few, if any of Packard and Hope’s respondents left because of gross misconduct or poor treatment by clergy–exactly the reasons I left, and probably the reason I’m most familiar with from my more sacramentally-minded friends.  When your clergy and sacraments are closely tied together, mistreatment by clergy is going to impact your spirituality in significant ways.

Furthermore, the Church Refugees respondents frequently cited the need for “community” as what they missed most about church, and what they worked hardest to recreate in settings which were less formally affiliated with institutional Christianity.  Anglican Christianity has always placed a high value on “community”–sometimes almost an idolatrous value (certainly in our seminaries).  Sometimes, we need a break. This may be one of the reasons  “cathedral style holy communion” was, while I lived in England (2006-2010), the fastest growing worship style in the United Kingdom.  You could go, be part of something larger than yourself, but be asked for very little outside the service.  The Dean Emeritus of a historically important cathedral once recounted the story of a man who attended regularly but was not “involved”.  His day job was demanding, and usually meant dealing with many complaints and conflicts.  He said all he wanted from church was to hear, once a week, his sins were forgiven.  That’s not something you get if there are high expectations of “community”.  And when the demand to be part of “community” gets to be too much, leaving is a viable, if not preferred, option.

None of this is saying  Packard and Hope are wrong, and it is not meant to devalue the excellent work they have begun with Church Refugees. I would hope in the next stages, the chain of referrals might be started in a slightly different place, to broaden the understanding of why people have left a wider variety of Christian traditions.

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3 thoughts on “Different Experiences (Church Refugees, Part II)

  1. Interesting. For sure for me I’ve figured out that the one thing I can still tolerate of church is the Eucharist. More than that, I do want the Eucharist. It is just, right now, possible to tolerate the rest in order to get the Eucharist.
    We had a Catholic exchange student when I was a kid, she arrived late for church every sunday, and left immediately after the Eucharist. At the time I was disdainful of that. Now I think about doing the same thing.

    1. There are days that I give serious consideration to driving someplace where nobody knows me, slipping in after the service has begun (maybe even waiting long enough for the sermon to finish), and leaving as soon as I’ve received. It seems like a lot of work, though.

      I had VERY bad experiences of betrayal by clergy, and since clergy are the only people who can celebrate communion validly, I’d have to receive from clergy. And it’s been several years, and I still throw up a little in my mouth when I take communion. So a long drive, a contrived wait in the car, slipping in and out unnoticed feels like a lot of work, given the result is going to probably taste sort of bad.

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