When Faith Falters

Vanessa Brown - - Everything Else
The London Yodeller

darwin_color-2(1)“Too much change can seem like a betrayal.”

We all have doubts.

While it’s well and good to say you shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks – confidence is magic – the truth is that the easiest way to calm your doubts is to look to others. Human beings do almost anything to build consensus, whether it means jumping online to crowd source the hive-mind or joining a yoga class. We surround ourselves with similar people. While building our little communities is a habit developed for many bizarre reasons, one undeniable benefit we glean from being in a group is the assurance that we are not alone in our weirdness, our individual eccentricities.

I’m bookish and arty, so you will find me at rummage sales, hanging around gallery openings and taking in a delicious Ontario craft beer at a local pub. I live and work downtown and I don’t own a car. People who do similar things are, naturally, easier for me to make friends with. Sometimes folks connect over more serious things than free wine and cheese at Michael Gibson Gallery (although, what could be more serious?). Political causes come to mind. For example, I can easily draw a line between my ideology and that of this publication’s editor. We use these lines to differentiate ourselves, to negotiate conversation, and to name what we see as a noble fight – basically to figure out which side of the table we’re on in a late night, toasted debate on the role of government or some such nonsense. A lot of us like to stand up for what we believe in.

When you have the defining characteristic of being religious – an increasingly odd proclivity in this day and age – making a home for yourself in a congregation is a logical step. It’s a place where you can find other kooks who believe in God and Jesus, or Allah or Buddha, the Great White Handkerchief or whatever. Like most communities, those of faith have leaders. Those leaders uphold the mores of their people, the norms and status quo. In rudimentary terms, they figure out who is in, who is out and how members of the club should behave. They host the big weekly sing-a-long and after school programs. Sometimes, they have the tough job: they also take the first step in addressing challenges when change is on the horizon.

Too much change can seem like a betrayal.

“Some people are angry at me, and some people are angry that I told my little secret,” said Bob Ripley in a Global TV interview. He spoke in response to his self-outing as an atheist. An ordained minister who some called the biggest protestant leader in Canada, Ripley recently turned his back on one of his self-defining characteristics, his rare religious proclivity. Some might say he turned his back on his church, Metropolitan United, right here in London. ‘Met,’ as locals often call it, is the big one across from city hall at Dufferin and Wellington that my four-year-old thinks is a castle.

Ripley acknowledges his separation from the church in a recent blog post on patheos.com: “As for the folks there, I miss some of them too but I’ve also developed a group of new friends with whom I can socialize.” As he said in his bombshell column in the London Free Press: “My disclosure carries the risk of losing friends and facing disappointment and disapproval from those who once admired my spirituality.”

Like anyone who suddenly thinks they are too different to fit in, Ripley has taken a step back.

However, it is comforting to know that not everyone responds to differences with rejection. Sometimes – rarely, I will admit – a community can overcome its feeling of betrayal. Sometimes we can look at someone and say, “I know you are different now, but I love you anyway.”

This was the shocking response of Metropolitan United Church.

I just started going to Met this fall with my partner and two children. It’s right across the park, easy to get to, and the theology doesn’t make my skin crawl. I love hearing prayers for equality regardless of sexual orientation spoken by grey-haired elders at the altar. What a novelty! It’s refreshing to be in a place where being progressive doesn’t mean being backslidden. I’m no longer the black sheep in an evangelical congregation. Instead, I’m normal.

I know what it’s like to be just a little bit too different. I know what it’s like to have my faith community turn a blind eye in my direction. I was the girl who asked hard questions in our basement youth group. In my late teens, I smoked cigarettes, went through a Goth phase and moved in with my boyfriend before marriage – all very common behaviours, truth be told, outside of religious circles. I marched in the Pride Parade and made off-colour jokes. I didn’t think it was a sin to drink on the weekends, get a tattoo or talk about my lady parts. I was a feminist, and I had a lot of boho-hippy friends. These elements are not the recipe for a good Christian girl.

So, I relate to Bob Ripley. He must have felt that his declaration of atheism was, as Damian says in Mean Girls, “social suicide.” It’s funny that I’m coming to his old church as someone looking for a place to finally fit in, while he steps away saying he can’t fit in there anymore.

“Have you ever felt rejected?” asked Reverend Crittenden from the pulpit.

I was curious to know what Metropolitan’s current minister would say in response to the controversy. He went on to tell us about a week filled with “moments when, as a congregation, we’ve been asked to comment, to respond, perhaps even to react…The radio shows have been littered with comments from both atheists and conservative Christians each offering their line in the sand, a fight that usually has little to do with us, yet we get bounced back and forth.”

Elegantly, Rev. Crittenden took his spiritual flock out of the ‘us versus them’ battle. He quickly side-stepped the chance to criticize, shame and shun his former colleague. “I’ve been asked so many pastoral questions, like ‘Does my child need to be re-baptised?’ The answer is, no. A few people have asked if their marriage counts, and I find that interesting because I’m not sure why they’re asking,” he joked. “I’m telling you here, the answer is yes. It counts. We are not the first congregation to deal with this. Faith and doubt have always had their struggling intertwined voices heard throughout the centuries, and it is healthy.”

Instead of asking Bob Ripley’s former congregation to get their backs up and reject their much admired old leader, he preached a sermon about love, ‘relentless love’: “In a world that’s filled with skepticism, I find it powerfully reassuring that there’s more than me in my small corner, and you in yours.”

A cynic might see this as opportunistic, a chance to relay a conversion message in an onslaught of sensible criticism aimed towards one of society’s oldest and often most insidious institutions: the church. I doubt that. In fact, Reverend Crittenden was far too busy attending to his flock to talk to me about this article. He has better things to do than be in the media spotlight. When he wrote his sermon, I’m sure he thought his message would go no further than the people in the pews, and maybe to a few listeners on Met’s not-too-advanced website. He didn’t expect there to be an article about it in our humble arts & culture newspaper.

So, why did I decide to write about it? Because it’s easy to find yourself on this side or that of a debate that seems like it is black and white. Are you an atheist or are you a Christian? Are you a progressive or a conservative? When someone points out all the room between the corners we take refuge in, it looks like a big waste of space.

Free Ebooks and Course

Every other Tuesday we send out our lovely email newsletter with useful tips and techniques, recent articles and upcoming events. Thousands of readers have signed up already. Why don't you sign up, too, and get a free ebook as well?