The Only Church I’ve Got
by Trudy Morgan-Cole
Novelist and priest Andrew Greeley tells the story of a woman whose life was ruined by the Roman Catholic Church’s laws about marriage and divorce. As I recall, she wanted her marriage to an abusive husband annulled so she could remarry, but the church refused to grant her annulment, and as a devout Catholic she would not marry without it. Years later, when the kind man she had hoped to marry was no longer available, a different group of church bureaucrats granted her abusive ex-husband an annulment so that he could remarry. I’m not sure I have the details correct, but what echoes in mind is what she said when asked why she remained a practicing Catholic. “It may not be much of a Church, but it’s the only Church I’ve got.”
As a lifelong Adventist, those last words resonated with me. It’s the only church I’ve got.
Last week I got called on the carpet by the pastor of my local church for a post on my blog that was critical of our church’s views on same-sex marriage and its treatment of gays and lesbians generally. A concerned church member brought it to the pastor’s attention. “Called on the carpet” makes the whole thing sound much more sinister than it was. It was a friendly, though serious, conversation. My pastor is nice guy, a good deal more conservative and a great deal younger than I am. He was doing his best with the difficult problem of a church member who believes something that’s clearly contrary to mainstream church teaching.
The whole thing brought my mind back to a question that often troubles me: the individual’s relationship to the church as an institution, especially when the individual disagrees with the institutional church on some issues. Both partners in the relationship have to ask, “Where’s the tipping point?” How much disobedience and questioning can the church allow in its members before they place themselves outside the fold? How much disagreement with church doctrine can an individual handle before feeling it’s time to go?
I grew up in the church, and nearly all my friends have left. That’s a harsh fact to face at midlife. Not just the kids I went to church school and Pathfinders with, but many of the college friends and the comrades of young-adult years; people with whom I prayed, wrangled over theology, shared in ministry. Not to mention the kids I taught over ten years in Adventist high schools, the young people in the church youth group I led. Young adults who were passionately committed to God and to the Adventist church are now worshipping in churches of other denominations, or worshipping nowhere at all.
What was the tipping point; what made them slip out the back door of the church? Reasons are as varied as individuals. For some, as with the Catholic woman in the Greeley novel, the hurt was personal. People left because they felt abused or abandoned by the church as an institution, or by church hierarchy, or by fellow church members. In other cases the break was intellectual. “I simply don’t believe it anymore,” is a phrase I hear a lot, when I’m brave enough to ask about these things. And, of course, the two are often combined – personal hurt and doctrinal doubts combining to form a toxic cocktail.
Not everyone has gone. There are those of us who remain. I’m still here, forty-five years in, with many doubts and questions. Most, in my opinion, aren’t important enough to rock the boat. Occasionally an issue comes up where my disagreement with the official church stance is sharp enough, and the consequences important enough, that I believe it’s worth speaking out. But I never do so without wondering how much leeway I should give myself, as a church member and an office-holder, to publicly question what my church says and does.
I’ve sat through Sabbath School discussions and church board meetings on church discipline. When do we choose to disfellowship a member? In the church I’ve attended for most of my life, the real answer is “Practically never, even when the person has asked to have their name ‘taken off the books’.”
But in theory, the answer I hear most often is that when a church member publicly defies church teaching and brings shame on the name “Seventh-day Adventist,” and does not respond to attempts at correction, it’s time to sever the relationship. Popular (but always theoretical) examples include Adventist business owners who flagrantly keep their shops open on Sabbath, or Adventist couples living together with no apparent plan to marry.
Where does that leave me? I live in absolute fidelity to my opposite-sex, legally married husband, but I have publicly questioned my church’s stance that marriage can only occur between a man and a woman. Am I, in some sense, living in open sin?
The truth is that leaving has never occurred to me. Yes, when I read through the 28 Fundamental Beliefs, I find things that I question, things that I doubt, and beliefs I fundamentally agree with but wish the church would interpret differently. But I’ve never felt any more in agreement looking at any other church’s statement of faith, nor have I ever felt that doubts and questions make me any less Adventist.
Is it those twenty-eight beliefs that keep me here? Is it a handful of them, a few core doctrines without which I cannot imagine the life of faith? Is it a belief – mistaken, perhaps, that I can effect “change from within” by staying? Is it history, loyalty, culture, or ties of blood and friendship? Or some combination of all these, a mixture whose components vary from day to day?
I don’t know. I know that to say “I’m not a Seventh-day Adventist” would be as meaningless to me as saying, “I’m not a Newfoundlander” or “I’m not a woman.” Between those who sit in the pews beside me and obey without question, and those who have left the pews altogether, I stand in an uneasy balance. I feel akin to both, and alien to both.
The church as an institution – which is, of course, made up of individuals, from my pastor in his study to Elder Wilson in the President’s office — has choices to make about people, both on the left and right wings of the church, who don’t always sit easily in their pews. Where does diversity fit in an era of revival and reformation? Everyone can agree on wanting revival, but reformation can be a bit more uncomfortable. Some reformations involve inquisitions and stakes – or, in a more civilized era, gentler ways of ridding ourselves of those who don’t follow the official agenda. How diverse a church are we willing to be?
Each doubting, questioning, faithful member – of our church or any other – has choices to make too. How much disagreement can I tolerate? How do I use what influence I have within the church? When do I speak out, and when do I toe the party line?
The best advice I’ve ever been given on how to live with my own doubts and questions in the midst of a community of faith came not from any wise scholar or spiritual teacher, but from a fellow doubter whose real name I don’t even know. He was a poster on the Internet discussion board Ship of Fools whom I knew only by his screen name, “Oscar the Grouch.” In the middle of a discussion, “Oscar” offered “a few simple guidelines” from his own experience. They struck me as being so simple and so profound that I copied them into the back cover of my Bible.
• Be honest with yourself.
• Be honest with others – don’t pretend to agree to avoid upsetting the status quo.
• Be loving – those who clearly love are often able to say things that otherwise would not be heard.
• Be patient.
• Accept that others will think differently and that they have a right to do so.
• Where you are able, remain actively committed to what the church is doing (no-one likes someone who stands in the corner griping but never lifts a finger to help).
• Never let disagreements become personal.
• Try to express your unrest in positive terms – suggesting new things the church could be doing rather than simply criticizing the present situation.
Those are the rules I try to live by, in a church where I sometimes fear finding myself on the wrong side of “reformation.” This is, after all, the only church I’ve got.