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March 21, 2009

When Is It Time To Leave My Church?

Introduction to "When Is It Time To Leave My Church?"

A slightly different version of the reflections that follow this introduction appears in the current issue of the Diocese of BC Diocesan newspaper.

The title may seem unnecessarily negative, even provocative. I admit it was intended to get the reader's attention. But in these thoughts I was seriously trying to imagine what might cause me to feel I had come to the point where it was necessary for me to leave the church that has nurtured my faith for almost all of the past fifty-four years. In the process I hoped I might clarify in my own mind what has brought certain people to the conclusion that their faith requires them to leave the Anglican Church of Canada.

I am afraid I have not come to much greater clarity on this second question. The Anglican Church of Canada has always been a slightly muddled community. This is both a strength and a weakness. Our muddle means that it is possible for a person to share fully in worship within the Anlgican Church while still experiencing some doubts and uncertainties on the way. We do not demand conformity, clarity, absolute agreement before fully embracing people as participants in our community. We are willing to allow for flexibility and to trust the intentions of peoples' hearts demonstrated in their desire to attend worship and participate in the eucharist.

The weakness in our muddle is the potential loss of any coherent identity. If we acept absolutely every expression of faith, we may eventually stand for nothing. I do not believe we as a church are anywhere near standing for nothing. We are a Christian church. We celebrate the central mystery of Christian faith over and over in the eucharist in which we acknowledge the death and ressurection of Jesus Christ and open ourselves to the life and work of God's Spirit in our midst through that action. We continue to read, study and preach the scriptures. The historic Christian Creeds continue to appear in all our officially sanctioned worship resources, affirming the fullness of the traditions and content of Christian faith. We pray together and challenge one another to live the life of love we have experienced in God through Christ.

It is possible there may be isolated clergy, or even bishops, who appear on the surface to have wandered so far afield that they have forsaken the right to identify themselves as Christian. I have never personally met, or sat down and had a protracted conversation with, such an errant cleric. It is my suspicion that, if I had the patience to seriously engage with a person within the Anglican Church of Canada who might appear to me to be swimming in a completely different ocean, that we would eventually discover that the water is not all that different after all. If we could approach each other with open minds and gracious hearts, I suspect we would find that there is more that unites us than divides us.

I was deeply moved a couple of years ago by a colleague who in a discussion around who may or may not receive eucharist, said "We feed people, not because they are converted, but so they will be converted." This seems to me to be the church of which I want to be a part. I eat at the table, not because I am converted. I eat at the table because I need to be converted, over and over, again and again, week by week. I need to come and lay before God the brokenness of my own life and allow my heart to be shattered afresh by the mercy of Christ as I receive the bread and wine of his presence. I need to be called to surrender more fully and to open my heart more deeply to the presence of Christ at work in my life. I need to be challenged to see the idols to which I cling and to allow them to be rooted out of my heart. I need to be called to examine my idolatries of thought and to listen carefully to those whose believes may seem to differ from my most fondly cherished beliefs. This is all part of the process of conversion in which I must share.

There is no means test, no theological character profile that must be administered before Christ bestows upon me the gift of his grace.

When I was in seminary, anyone who did not lay down the law pretty clearly, was accused of preaching "cheap grace." If you read Romans 5 you will discover indeed that God's grace is not "cheap"; God's grace is free! I want to be in a church where I experience God's grace as free. I want to be in a place that trusts God's Spirit to be at work in peoples' lives without always having to tell me what that work is going to look like.

As I say in the words that follow, the fundamental issue is trust. Do we trust those who kneel or stand around the table with us? Do we trust that, whatever their understanding or lack of understanding of the finer points of theology may be, the fact that they gather at Christ's table means they desire to open their hearts to God's Spirit? Do we trust that, wherever there is an openness to the work of God's Spirit, that Spirit is present and at work, even if we feel unable to see exactly how that work may be unfolding?

I choose to trust that there is love in the hearts of those who sing and pray and break bread in Anglican churches. And I believe "God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them." (I John 4:16b) And I strive to model my life after Paul's extraordinary vision of this love that is "patient," and "does not insist on its own way," that "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." And I take my stand on the deep conviction that, no matter what," this "Love never ends." (I Corinthians 13:4-8)

There is so much I do not understand. "Now we see in a mirror, dimly... Now I know only in part. (I Corinthians 13:12) Dimly I see the outline of Christ in your life as I pray, even if only dimly, you may see the presence of love in me. So, I cannot walk away from you. I cannot abandon you, even if you are wrong, perhaps especially if you are wrong. Paul tells me to "Welcome those who are weak in faith." (Romans 14:1) So I welcome you, as I pray you may welcome me when my faith is shaky and my heart is dark. A church that welcomes me when I struggle, is a church that it will be hard for me to find a reason to leave.

When Is It Time To Leave My Church?

In twenty-five years of parish ministry I have seen many marriages end. The end usually comes when the talking is over. When it is no longer possible to have conversation, any hope of keeping a relationship together is usually dead.

There are those in the Anglican Church of Canada who have concluded that the time for talking is over. For some members of the Anglican Church there seems no longer to be any value in continuing the conversation. Our differences are too great; the gaping chasm separating us cannot be traversed by words.

But perhaps people are more complex than this simple scenario suggests. In my experience, the end of a marriage usually happens even before the conversation stops. The fact that words have run out is simply the final dying gasp of a relationship that has been suffering for some time.

So, what causes the death of a relationship?

There are many causes for the demise of any relationship. But, common to all relational death is the end of trust. Somewhere along the way, one or both parties decide it is no longer worth the risk of extending the gift of trust. The likelihood of betrayal and violence is too great to make the risk of trust worth the price. It feels as if the only hope for safety is to withdraw from relationship with this person who has become too threatening.

In some marriage breakdowns the betrayal has been so great that it is probably unrealistic to expect any resumption of trust. Family violence, repeated marital unfaithfulness, and consistent unwillingness to deal with substance abuse, all represent such a fundamental betrayal of the marital relationship that the preservation of the health and sanity of at least one person may require separation.

Parishioners, or whole parishes that are determined to leave the Anglican Church of Canada have, apparently concluded that a betrayal of such magnitude has occurred that the preservation of spiritual health and sanity makes separation essential. As a person who remains in leadership within the Anglican Church of Canada, I can only look with sadness at the departure of people I have known and loved, in some cases for as long as thirty years. Any marriage breakdown is always a tragedy. The further fracturing of the church institution in our day can only be seen as a continuing manifestation of the brokenness that lies at the heart of human experience.

The end of any relationship is an important time for serious self-examination. When a marriage ends, I want to ask both parties, what was your contribution to the demise of this relationship. As a person in leadership within the Anglican Church of Canada, I must ask myself what offense I may have caused that has led others to conclude they can no longer worship with me. Is there anything in my ministry that is so abusive, violent, offensive, and wrong that I would recommend anyone to break trust with me and refuse to break bread with me at Christ’s table?

No doubt in thirty years of ordained ministry, twenty of them in the same community, I have made many mistakes. I have done stupid things and, at times have been petty, mean and insensitive. But I have done all these things in my marriage. Yet my marriage survives, even thrives in spite of times of pain and struggle. These are simply the normal routine bumps along the road in any relationship. It would take more than the frequent but relatively minor manifestations of my own frailty to derail my marriage.

Many people in the church I serve have experienced the disappointment of my bumbling efforts to be a faithful priest and servant of Christ. There are people who have, at times been deeply hurt by my insensitivity and failure. But we continue in community. We exercise forgiveness and forbearance. The betrayal has not been so great that trust has been irredeemably broken. Recognizing our weaknesses and bearing one another’s failures, we carry on in the journey of imperfect human community.

There must be something more than the common failures of human relationship to cause a final break in community. What has the Anglican Church of Canada done that has made it necessary for some of our members to feel they must come out from among us in search of a community of greater faithfulness and truth? Why can we no longer worship together? Why are we unable to continue in allegiance to the same bishop?

I suppose I am the wrong person to answer these questions. As one who remains generally content within the frail vessel that is the Anglican Church of Canada, I obviously have not felt so abused by this institution that I must leave in order to preserve my spiritual well-being. What might cause me to feel I must leave a church? How would I know it was time to say this relationship is over?

These are difficult questions. The burden of biblical directive is to “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.” (Colossians 3:13. See also Ephesians 4:2, 32; Romans 14:13, 19, 15:7) We are instructed in the Bible to forgive, to put up with each other, to be humble, gentle and caring toward one another. We are to bear one another’s burdens, to stand by the one who is weaker, to honour others above ourselves, to encourage one another, and to avoid judgment, provocation, biting, devouring, and favouritism. Leaving another person will always be difficult for anyone who seeks to embody these qualities in relationship.

So what might cause me to separate from another person?

I have twice encouraged one partner in a marriage to leave the relationship. In both cases it was my perception that the person I counseled to leave was in serious danger in relationship with a person who was completely unwilling to address the issues causing the presence of violence in their relationship. Since people have left my church, I must ask myself if I am the perpetrator of such violence that it is no longer safe for such people to share in worship under my leadership. What would such violence look like in a church?

Violence in the church usually takes one of two forms. I have witnessed violence in the church when a person in power uses their position for personal gain against the well-being of the person who the leader is abusing in pursuit of his own physical, material, spiritual, or emotional gratification.

The second form of violence I have seen in the church occurs when a person in authority demands that everyone conforms to the leader’s vision despite what church members may perceive to be their conscience. This conformity may take the form of a demand that you believe all that the leader believes or behave like the leader because the leader knows that his or her choices are universally true and right for all people at all times.

I would encourage anyone to withdraw from a community that accepts leadership that uses its position to seek personal gain, or demands conformity of belief and behaviour contrary to personal conscience. The sign that a church leader has reached the point at which withdrawal from that leader becomes necessary, is when that leader is unwilling to entertain even the possibility that he or she may be wrong.

Paul taught that the sign of God’s Spirit is the presence of freedom (II Corinthians 3:17). He suggested that the purpose of Christ’s mission was that human beings might live in freedom (Galatians 5:1). Where there is freedom there is hope. Where there is freedom we can always trust that God’s Spirit is at work. Error will be corrected in time. Fellowship can be sustained because we walk together in respect and love for one another. When I fail it is because I do not trust the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of those who may conceive of following Christ in ways different than my understanding. Where I have done violence to others is where I have been unwilling to discern the faint outline of God’s Spirit at work in those whose experience of life has brought them to a place different than the place I find myself. When I encounter such violence it is time to leave my church.

I do not see this violence in the Anglican Church of Canada. I see struggle and difference. I see an occasionally messy community striving to stay open to the Spirit of Christ and to be faithful to its perception of where that Spirit is leading. As long as I find room within this church to follow where I believe God’s Spirit is leading, it is not time for me to leave my church. I will not leave those who give me the respect of freedom and openness. I pray others may find in me the grace I desire to extend to them. To stay in community I need only the willingness to continue the mysterious journey of discerning the work of God’s liberating Spirit in our midst.


Anonymous said...

When the leadership of my church allows the dissemination of a publication that calls Jesus a reformed racist, and a sinner, then they are not talking about my Jesus. So that means that they believe in a different god than my God. This is when I leave the Anglican Church of Canada.

See the March 27th Meditation of the PWRDF Lenten Meditation:

When a pastor in my diocese thinks that he has to be converted every day, he has a different understanding of the Gospel than I do. I know that I need to be forgiven every day but I became a Christian (converted) when I was 12. I don't understand how Rev. Page is using this word. Changing the meanings of words is part of the problem in the ACoC today.

Christopher Page said...

Dear “Anonymous,”

Thank you for reading my blog and for taking the time to respond.

I’m afraid your first observation is exactly the kind of response that contributes to the current dilemma in the church. I wonder if you have contacted the author of the March 27 PWRDF Lenten reflection to ascertain that in fact it was his or her intention to call “Jesus a reformed racist, and a sinner.” While the wording may be looser than I would have chosen, it is not clear to me that the suggestion that Jesus “grows in response” to a woman’s humble words, necessarily means the writer intended to paint Jesus as “a reformed racist, and a sinner.” You are of course at liberty to put this negative spin on the writer’s words, but it seems shaky grounds to “leave the Anglican Church of Canada.”

The word “convert,” comes from the Latin convertere which means simply “to turn around.” No dictionary I have consulted lists “to become a Christian,” as a meaning of the English verb “to convert.” The word means “to turn around, change opinion, or alter course or action.” You may not have had to change your opinion or course of action since you were twelve; I’m afraid I certainly have.

Anonymous said...

Since this example of the ACoC's creative theology has been all over the blogosphere and has made the UK Times, I think the author should know to print a retraction if one is needed. If the church cannot have clarity over who Jesus is, there is a big problem. If the language is "looser" than you would have used, since you are still a member of the ACoC and still are responsible to leaders who promote this kind of loose, inclusive-of-all-interpretations wording, perhaps you should stand for the Gospel and ask for greater clarity in an official ACoC publication. The individual author doesn't matter. The fact that the ACoC is publishing it on its website and in the Anglican Journal, and that it is sponsored by the PWRDF is enough to give it the backing of the institution of which you are a part. Someone in authority approved that creative theology.

Jesus first realised his "universality" in this incident? What does that mean?

And I also dispute your use of the word convert as pointed out by Anonymous. To turn around means to literally turn around. If you turn away from sin and turn to Christ....where next are you turning? What I need to do daily is that what you mean by continual conversion?

Many in the ACoC dislike talking about sin and the need for repentance.


Christopher Page said...


I am fascinated by this attachment to a single meaning for the word “convert.” Of course it is frequently used to refer to the process whereby a person adopts a new religion.

But the English word “convert” only appears in the New Testament six times and never as a verb. Jesus did not use it. The closest he came was to speak of proselutos, “proselytes,” people who came over from a Gentile religion to Judaism. The other times it may appear in English translation it is a translation of aparche which menas “first fruits,” and is more a paraphrase than a translation.

If I got to the bank I “convert” Canadian currency to US currency. I consult a “conversion” table to ascertain the present rate of exchange. When I receive my US currency, my Canadian dollars have been “converted” into much less than they were.

If you never need to “turn away” from sin, you are a far better person than I. I John 1:8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So there is plenty for me to “turn away” from, even though my life is fully and deeply committed to following Christ. By the grace of God, I am converted (turned back) to God every day for which I am eternally grateful.

I believe language is important. But I also believe human discourse is diminished if we do not allow words to bear the full weight their many meanings.

Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your response Chris. However, could you answer my question: What I need to do daily is that what you mean by continual conversion?

You intimated that I never need turn away from sin, which tells me you missed my question.

What about the creative theology?


Christopher Page said...

I do not think "to convert," and "to repent" are synonymous.

The Greek word in the New Testament for "repentance" is metanoia. It is made up of the prefix meta (to change) and the root word noia (mind). So to repent is to "change your mind." I see myself headed in one direction and think to myself, "This is not where I want to be going, or what I want to be doing." I change my mind. Having changed my mind about what I want, the direction of my life changes, I am "converted," that is "turned back" to God and away from that which my mind had tricked me into believing was the thing I wanted. (See Shadow Dancing, Chapter One)

Probably a closer synonym for my use of "convert" would be in Romans 12:2 where Paul instructs us to "be transformed by the renewing of your minds." The word used here for "transformed" is metamorphoo; it means "to be changed into another form," “transformed," or "transfigured." It is my conviction that this transformation/conversion Paul urges upon us is an on-going process as long as we remain in these frail mortal bodies. God is never finished working on me. I need constantly to repent in order to enable God's grace to continue transforming/converting me into the person I was created to be.

The "creative theology"? Well you know if I chased after every possible theological nuance that emanates from every publication that emerges from every department of my church, I would have neither the time nor the energy to do much else. You are entitled to put the worst possible spin upon the intentions of the author of the PWRDF reflections if you find that helpful. But I believe that the negative interpretation of the author's words to suggest he or she believes Jesus to be a "reformed racist and a sinner" is at best unnecessary and, at worst, uncharitable. The document to which you refer is not an official theological position paper on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada. It is simply an imaginative reconstruction of what, in one person's mind, might have been going on in an event recorded in a difficult passage in the gospels.

Jaqueline said...

Christopher, you wrote

"We do not demand conformity, clarity, absolute agreement before fully embracing people as participants in our community. We are willing to allow for flexibility and to trust the intentions of peoples' hearts demonstrated in their desire to attend worship and participate in the eucharist."

I wonder, Christopher,if this is the central difference and cause for the breakdown of communion within the Anglican Church.

Unfortunately I have been left with the impression that those who have walked away might have written the sentence this way:

"We do demand conformity, clarity, absolute agreement before fully embracing people as participants in our community. We are not willing to allow for flexibility and do not trust the intentions of peoples' hearts demonstrated in their desire to attend worship and participate in the eucharist."

Christopher Page said...


I think the difficulty lies in what parameters we place around the degree of "conformity, clarity" and "absolute agreement" we "demand," and how much "felxibility and trust" we are willing to extend. Everyone draws some lines somewhere. The disagreement in the church is over where and how tightly the line is to be drawn.

There is a "satirical" video doing the rounds on the internet in which a person plays the role of a proud episcopalian explaining why he is glad to be an episcopalian. As part of his explanation he describes his church's practice of sacrificing a baby in the ring of fire as an act of penitence. The point seems to be that the Anglican church does not draw the line anywhere in practice or in theology. I do not believe this is true.

The Anglican Church is not the Anarchist Church. We are not a church without an identity. We are a Christian church. We hold firmly to the historic tenets of the Christian faith. We read, study, and preach the Bible. We believe in the Crees and require anyone who is proposing to be ordained to honour these parts of Christian faith. We practice a liturgy that is deeply rooted in history and in faitfulness to Christ.

However, we also attempt to fully extend God's welcome to all people who are not intentionally and obviously hurting other people. We believe that people learn better by being loved and supported than by being judged and condemned.