Statue of Saint Sebastian in Olomouc, Czech Republic, taken by me in June 2015.
I will remember 2016 for many things. For me personally, the year may end up being known as the Year I Turned My Back On Organized Religion.
Let me explain . . .
In January 2016, I started going to church regularly for the first time in thirty-five or so years, since I was a teenager; and really, it was the first time that I had ever, as an adult, become part of a church community. The idea of a return to organized religion had been in the back of my mind for a number of years, as a fairly vague notion of something I would do “someday.” In the meantime, I had read many books about spirituality and Christianity (Aldous Huxley, Pascal, Joseph Campbell, Frédéric Lenoir, Meister Eckhart, Simone Weil, Tom Harpur, even the Bible!); churches and cathedrals always figured high on my list of attractions when on holiday; and I continued to identify myself as a Christian, albeit rather silently.
The idea of returning to church-going became more fixed in my mind after my father died in 2012. We had a standard Anglican funeral service, with the priest from the church where my parents were married, where I went to Sunday school and was confirmed, and where various members of my family had continued to worship periodically through the years. I was so grateful that we had this option to fall back on—the Book of Common Prayer, the funeral service, a minister in his robes, familiar hymns—rather than regarding each other blankly in the wake of the death and asking, “What do we do now?” There was a form, a ritual, a time-honoured practice, and I found it immensely comforting. And I told myself that if I want the Church to be there for me in times of crisis, then I need to support it on an ongoing and committed basis.
It took me a couple of years to put that idea in motion. In 2015, I visited some churches in Montreal and gave thought to my eventual return to regular worship as part of a faith community. I identified the church I thought I’d start off with, one that was enthusiastically welcoming of the queer community, and I began going there at the beginning of 2016. Yes, it was a New Year’s Resolution: I will devote myself to attending church as regularly as possible this year, I told myself, and I will become involved in the life of the church in some capacity. And then, at the end of the year, I will see where to go from there.
And that’s what I did. I didn’t go every week (Sunday mornings were also when I went on long runs, in preparation for a half-marathon in August), but I aimed to. I volunteered at a couple of events, I greeted visitors to the church on Monday afternoons during the summer, I joined an LGBT group that met periodically, and I sat on a committee that organized a weekend festival.
In early October, I decided to take a bit of a break from the church. I had been volunteering a lot, and I decided I wanted to do less of that and focus more on my spiritual life, the “bread and butter” of the church, what I thought of (perhaps erroneously) as its primary role.
So I didn’t go for a couple of weeks. (I read the Bible every day at home.) And I felt relieved of a burden.
The longer I didn’t attend church, the less I wanted to return. It was like a relationship that had gone sour: now that I was away from it, I realized how destructive it had been, and was asking myself why I’d stayed so long.
As I write this, it’s almost three months later, and I’ve never been back. And it feels soothing, like I’ve got a monkey off my back at last.
* * *
But it hasn’t always felt wonderful, these past three months. When I decided definitively to leave the church community, in late October, I felt downcast, bitterly disappointed, depressed even. This was something I had been looking forward to for years, and it had begun with so much hope and determination. I felt sure I was doing the right thing. What happened?
The short answer is, I didn’t feel comfortable. Well, to be more accurate, I felt positively uncomfortable. Towards the end, I actually felt a shudder go through my body one day as I approached the church. As I walked through the door, I recognized what I was feeling: this was the way I felt all through high school, a place where I was ridiculed daily, snickered at in the hallways, almost universally shunned. I hadn’t had precisely this feeling of cold dread since I graduated from high school in 1980, but here it was again, as I entered the church. It was an entirely irrational response, because no one was treating me that way here. But it’s what my body was remembering, in this context. It was sending me a message that my conscious brain kept suppressing: YOU DON’T BELONG HERE.
Why might I have felt I didn’t belong? To begin with, however you slice it, the demographics of the church-going population skew somewhat older, somewhat conservative. If you’re not at all conservative, feel more at home with the young, if you’re artsy and maybe a touch bohemian, if you self-identify as queer, you’re standing out in that crowd, the way I did at Centennial Secondary School in Belleville, Ontario, in the 1970s. As someone who spent years being bullied and humiliated as a weirdo, “standing out” doesn’t feel good, even at my age.
To be fair, the church I went to was very welcoming of the LGBT community, and a number of the clergy fit under this umbrella. But it’s hard to get away from the fact that the Christian church has been—and continues to be—profoundly divided on the issue of homosexuality. Although the church I was attending had the rainbow flag flying, I was aware that other churches of the same denomination are less enthusiastic, while other churches in the worldwide Anglican Communion are openly hostile to LGBT people. And let's not even mention the Roman Catholic Church. So even though this particular church, in this particular denomination, now, says it’s okay to be queer, the position doesn’t feel all that secure.
There was a Pride Mass at the church during the time I was attending, and I was very moved by the service. But it also left me with a niggling doubt: when you hold a special service for a select group within the church to tell us that we’re okay, I’m left thinking that maybe we aren’t all that okay or we wouldn’t need a special Mass. And if we’re a special group, then we’re a special group that could easily become an out-group again at some point.
Nevertheless, I quelled all these doubts (or my mind did anyway; my body had its own ideas). I told myself that it’s important to fight these battles, to open the Church, to make it change, to encourage it to welcome queer people. When I was volunteering as a greeter, I was proud to explain to people who asked about the rainbow flag that this church, my church, didn’t have a problem with gays and lesbians and queer folk. We had been accepted.
Now, as I write this, I feel somewhat ashamed of the pride I had expressed at my church’s openness. I feel like an Uncle Tom, or a sufferer from Stockholm Syndrome. Because really, why should LGBT people care what the Church thinks of us? Sure, some churches accept us now, but they didn’t for centuries. Even today, in 2017, the issue of gay marriage is the issue that divides the Christian church. And I get the feeling that “we” may be accepted, or tolerated, only to the extent that we mimic good, stable, unthreatening heterosexual ways of being (marriage, monogamy, commitment to “the family”). Also, at a time of seriously declining church attendance, the fact is that they need people in the pews—even us.
So I ended up asking myself why it was so important to me that the Church accept me. What was it offering me that I needed so badly that I was willing to submit myself to all the weight of that institution, the hierarchy, the pressure to submit, to conform, the history of repression and abuse of power?
That’s a question that each person must answer for themselves. Many devout Christians want to receive Communion from a priest; it’s the essence of being Christian for them, and that sacrament (like the sacrament of marriage) involves being part of a church community. Personally, I came to realize that having a surpliced man or woman stand in front of me to offer me the body and blood of Christ is a hierarchical ritual that makes me uneasy. And once I recognized that, there was no reason for me to be there. None at all. I can read my Bible at home.
What I want to stress here is that this all came as a great surprise to me, this visceral negative reaction of mine. I’ve always been inclined to defend the Church, to argue that it has a role to play in our society, that it can be a powerful force for good. Intellectually, I really wanted this to work. I understand what the rituals of the Church represent, and they are powerful and wonderful. I understand why people go to church, and I would never tell anyone not to go. At the same time, my intuition, my emotions, my subconscious, my body were telling me in no uncertain terms to flee. I’ve even had unpleasant dreams since leaving, about being smothered by all the bricks and mortar and liturgy and music and expectations and demands.
I honestly thought I wanted to enter the Church, walk through its big doors and become part of it. But everything in me is screaming that my place is outside, in the fresh air.
* * *
There’s another aspect to the strong disappointment I’ve come to feel with respect to the Church. In some ways, this part of the puzzle is even more perplexing to me, because it has less to do with me personally and more to do with the role of the Church in our society. For myself, I can accept being an outsider; I’ve embraced that identity; I associate it with being queer; I’m used to it. But in a larger context, my experiences of 2016 make me wonder what relevance, if any, the Church has for any of us, for mainstream society, as we enter 2017.
A large part of the attraction of a return to organized religion for me was the sense of community. I’ve never really felt part of any community, whether it’s the Canadian community, the LGBT community, the theatre community, the arts community, whatever. And I looked forward to maybe finding my first community, one based on shared beliefs, openness, an earnest desire to live well.
Instead, though, I have to say now, in retrospect, that the community I found in the church felt more like a club. A club in desperate need of members—and money, and free labour. A club that’s trying to keep itself going in an over-serviced marketplace (there are a lot of churches in Montreal). I heard little off-the-cuff remarks that put down other churches, other religions. And it made me feel as if I was shrinking as a person rather than growing.
I imagine there was a time in the past—and perhaps this is still the case in some cultures—where the Church was simply an immense umbrella that sheltered everyone, a bit the way we are all citizens of a country whether we like it or not; and this is the type of community I think I was looking for, a community that is so large that one just sort of slips in and finds one’s way of being part of it, even in criticizing it. Instead, though, it seems to me, the Church in our modern, secular, materialist, capitalist society is more like a corporation, and joining the church adds shareholder value to said corporation. There’s a marketplace of religions and denominations, all competing for the shrinking number of people who want to belong to a specific church; which means that when you join, you need to pitch in financially and with your time and expertise simply to keep the thing functioning. And it just doesn’t seem to me that this has much to do with spirituality. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being a member of a club—but there are plenty of other clubs out there, ones that are less financially draining and, frankly, more fun. Reducing churches to the status of private charities, which is pretty much what has happened in the modern secular state, has deprived them of much of their raison d’être, not to mention their magic. All things being equal, I’m more inclined to support Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund.
I feel sad writing this, because I know that there are many good, sincere, deeply devout people at the church I attended and at all the other churches, people who are working like mad to keep alive the Christian tradition that is the basis of our Western civilization. I’ve read Jung and Joseph Campbell and others who have warned of the dangers of throwing this religious heritage away, with all its rich symbols and myths that make us who we are. I don’t want to follow the trend of cobbling together my own private religion from bits and pieces of other religions. I want to be a Christian. I believe that Christianity has within it all that a person needs to live a good life. At the end of the day, it’s who I am, based on my heritage, my upbringing, my culture. But my experience of 2016 told me that the Christian Church (as opposed to Christianity per se) is not my home. And I don’t think, objectively speaking, that the future looks bright for the Church unless there develops a widespread desire to return to more traditional ways of being, to turn back the clock on “family values”—which may well happen, and which, speaking as a queer person, I would not consider a positive development.
So, I’m still feeling conflicted. And maybe that’s all I can say at the end of this essay. The organized Christian Church, at the moment in time in which I find myself, is not my home. Maybe it’s yours. I kind of hope it’s yours. I hoped it was mine. We all need a home. To what extent my unease and disappointment have to do with being queer, I can’t say. There were other members of the LGBT community at my church who seemed deeply content to be there. For me, being queer has always meant being on the margins, an outsider, at first against my will. Now, I’ve decided to just embrace that status.
As I write this, with 2016 drawing to a close, I can say with conviction that I believe my decision to leave the Church was the right one for me, in every sense. This is not what I was expecting to be writing, a year ago.
I feel liberated.
I feel lost.
I feel confused.
I feel a bit giddy at the possibilities before me, freed of this institutional yoke, this nagging urge for acceptance.
The truth is, I still regularly wish for a man to put his hands on my shoulders, look me in the eye, and tell me I’m okay, that I am loved. But I know now that the guy I need to hear that from will not be a priest.