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Can You Really "Leave" Church?

Updated on February 14, 2010

I recently read Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor.

Taylor, an ordained Episcopal priest, left a big, busy Atlanta church to lead a less overwhelming (or so she expected) parish in rural northeast Georgia. After 20 years of ministry in the Episcopal church (but far before her 10-year promised tenure at the smaller church was over), she decided to leave before she burned out, with no idea of where she would go.

Her decision to leave comes as a result of much wrestling -- with the church, with herself, with God -- but ultimately the decision had to be her own.

Her writing (not just in this book, but many others, as well) is a staple for many clergy and seminarians, but here she is writing about leaving the very church to which they are dedicating their lives. To laypeople, her work will offer insight like no other into the life of a priest. The book is spectacularly written -- I read it on my new Kindle and couldn't help but highlight amazing quotes every few pages or so -- and I cannot wait to read more of her work.

Can You Leave the Church?

But enough of the book review. Is ordination like marriage, in that it should be for life? After all, what does it say to the parish she is serving that she wants to leave them before her tenure is over?

More than that, she insists that leaving church (no longer attending every Sunday, participating in parish life, or anything else) has actually strengthened her faith. I imagine this has drawn criticism from people who are afraid that church is not necessary; after all, if people who had wanted to become ordained priests did not need the liturgy, the community, the communion of a church, then who does need those things?

Those people might put her in the category with Soren Kierkegaard or Martin Luther as believing that the church is completely unnecessary; you can find God on your own. But she does seem to think that church is necessary for some people.

For others, though, the church distorts the main message of Jesus. She believes that we all must serve God; all of us cannot be priests, after all. And she, personally, finds God in the world: in other people, in nature, and now in her students at a college in Georgia. She wishes that church could be more about people coming together to share what they know to be God, to revel in the love they feel from Him, where instead it is constantly about repenting and striving to be better in order to seek Him.

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Can the Church Change?

So should we change the function of the church? I find it hard to believe that an institution such as the Episcopal Church could change its mission that drastically any time soon. Taylor seems to agree with me; why else would she leave, instead of trying to change it from the inside? What would it take to change something as concrete as the Episcopal Church?

Or do we even need church at all? Taylor doesn't but insists that it doesn't mean others do not need it. But if we can find God in nature, in our everyday actions, and in the people around us, why wake up early every Sunday morning to worship Him?

If there were absolutely no meaning in the rituals of attending church, no one would do it, so maybe those rituals, that constant reminder that God really is out there, is necessary. The moral of the story seems to be: to each his own. Simple but really quite potent.


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    • Dave Mathews profile image

      Dave Mathews 7 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

      Ordination is like marriage, but this is not to say that there cannot be a Divorcing of the ways.

    • lifegate profile image

      William Kovacic 7 years ago from Pleasant Gap, PA

      If we are to consider that the Bible is the very Word of God, Hebrews 10:24 tells us, "Not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together." The church is the community of local believers joined together. Without the Church, there is no community and God knew this. That's why He gave us Hebrews 10:24. You find very little in the Bible in regards to "the Universal Church."

    • LivingFood profile image

      LivingFood 8 years ago

      Nice raises some good questions about the church. What would it take to change the function of the church? According to Hebrews chapter 6 it is impossible unless Jesus Christ is crucified again.

      Very sad....but the true church of God has no building in which it meets once or twice a week.