Third Grade Church

A few nights ago, I had a bit of a rant-on-paper concerning the church (if anyone is surprised, they don’t know me very well).  I likened the church to being in third grade, and the vast majority of clergy as highly incompetent third grade teachers.  Part of their incompetence is, admittedly, not (entirely)their fault.  Their training, and the institutional culture of the church, gives a very strong message of “once in, never out”.  Someone enters the church, and they never leave.  They might transfer from one congregation to another–even one denomination to another–but they never move on to something larger. They stay at the same (somewhat rudimentary) level forever.

Unlike many other institutions (schools, hospitals), churches do not like the idea of graduating, or really even healing, particularly well.  The church wants its people to remain dependent.  All the talk of “spiritual development” is a nonsense when you really look at church culture.  Unless you are called to, and approved for, ordained ministry, there is damn little chance you are going to be encouraged to think deeply about spiritual matters for yourself, and you are certainly not meant to challenge the words of the ordained.

It was barely 24 hours after I had my little fountain-pen-and-paper screed when I saw something posted on a Facebook group I am a part of:  The General Convention of the Episcopal Church group.  (As with most groups, I don’t really know why I am a part of it.  I didn’t request it.  I was added by a friend who is a member of it, without having asked first.)  Anyway, some cleric posted an Advent reflection on a blog, and it was shared in the group and came across my news feed.

I love this kind of crap. I love the irony of people who ordinarily tell us this time of year is “not Christmas, it’s Advent” screwing up on exactly when the Baby Jesus enters the story.  (I’m also amused by so much pious tripe about “keeping Advent” and then seeing how many churches have already had their children’s Christmas pageants.)

And so I said something.  Because really, it is the vision of the prophets which gives hope.  Baby Jesus is a fairly passive thing even during the season of Christmas proper (much as the adult Jesus, toward the end of his earthly life, is a passive object of the story’s action, rather than the subject).

Which led to being berated by a (probably kindly meaning, but not really) lady who doesn’t know me in any significant way, correcting me, telling me when the Baby Jesus really comes on the scene is not important, but babies are always symbols of hope. And she felt sorry for me because I don’t have a “community” of “like minded” people (which I said, and firmly believe, is the death of the church and a bit of idolatry–both of community and like mindedness). And obviously, she felt sorry for me because I don’t have a good church.  I suppose she believes I should go find one.  I’m not sure they truly exist.  Not the way I need a church to be good, anyway.

And good church, in the way I need it, was proven to be a very unlikely thing when a bishop stepped in to say “Lighten up, Ladies!”  Well, ain’t that special.  You tell a lay person (a woman, no less) who has looked critically at a piece of codswallop offered by an ordained person, and finds fault with it, and(gasp) says something, to “lighten up!”  You’re a spiritual third grader!  You’ve been given something by your teacher, and you’re not to challenge it or think about it–your teacher has done the thinking, it’s up to you just to take it on board.

If you don’t toe the line, your “teacher” has plenty of support from the other “students”–as once again I saw with the lady on the Facebook group.  The smart kids in school always get a bit of pushback from the ones who don’t like to think for themselves.  Same in the church.

I spent a fair amount of time in school (from about sixth grade forward) in detention.  Why they thought keeping a good student after school to do their homework was a punishment was beyond me.  But my offense was more often than not being a smartass, challenging my teachers, and questioning what I was told to the point where it caused a bit of a disruption.

And I’ve done it a bit too long with the church.  I challenged, and questioned, and disrupted–because I thought for myself, noticed the flaws, and didn’t uncritically accept what I was being told by those who wish me to do so.

I’m sorrier for having done so in the public school system than I am in the church.

But I’m not a spiritual or theological third grader.  And I want little to do with those who wish to keep me so.

I’ve moved on at least to spiritual middle school.  With a bit more scope, a bit more perspective, and people moving toward expertise in what they teach and practice, than the elementary school generalists most clergy tend to be.

It means I’m responsible for doing my own homework, asking questions, and finding my own answers.

It would be nice to have a bit more company here.



2 thoughts on “Third Grade Church

  1. So very well said. And so importantly, there are more people out there in the world that have this experience than we realize. It’s odd isn’t it. You’ve described the disguise that I wear out into the world a lot as well. I pretend to be compliant and accept the norm so that I can just get on with my own inner journey, which really doesn’t conform too much to any one thing, or belief. We live in complicated times, on so many levels. Probably every generation says this to itself though in some context.

    Thank you for this, and Bless you my dear Friend!

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