The lonely Christian

On Saturday, Hubby asked where we might go to church the next day. We settled on the farmer’s market — a bit of grim humor; in fact, we didn’t go — because the church options nearby are so unappealing, particularly when compared with the life and energy I see among those looking for organic greens and apples. To recap, we want a Christian church that is institutionally and spiritually healthy, has an identifiably historic liturgy and supports us as a gay couple to the highest level of its own polity. Good luck.

Yet despite our unchurched estate, I think we’re devout Christians, and from that faith make many small and large decisions. The odd or sad fact is that the lack of a church is less of an impediment that I thought it would be.

So it was quite a solace to know that this is hardly a twenty-first century phenomenon, or evidence of selfishness or some defect of loyal churchmanship. Consider this passage from no less a liberal Christian (and Unitarian fellow-traveler) than James Martineau, in his 1869 “The New Affinities of Faith: a Plea for Free Christian Union“:

Persons affected by these influences [of religious controversy] are ill at ease in their ecclesiastical home, and find their love for it tried by many an uncongenial word or usage. . . . They may very possibly have come to no conscious breach with their inherited orthodoxy, or at least have retained enough of it to save them from any direct transfer of allegiance. But it has ceased to be a religious essential, and has descended to the rank of personal opinion . . . .

Those who suffer from this over-legislation in matters of belief, may be divided into three different classes : —
1. Some have found the strain put upon their conscience intolerable, and become exiles from all religious association. They remain alone, and tell their deepest thought to none ; or gather into private knots, and whisper the secret of their divinest life as if it were a scandal or a sin. They are wanderers unattached, not from any churlish indifference to fellowship in spiritual things, but because they cannot have it without engagements which they dare not take.
2. Others hope for a reform from within their own church ; and, while labouring towards the hour of relief, endure as they best can what is repugnant to their convictions. . . .

Martineau’s experiment flourished for about a generation and was later absorbed into the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches — the Free Christian part of course — and wonder today what of its spirit speaks to us today.

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 44, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

15 thoughts on “The lonely Christian

  1. I wish you “good luck”, and even more importantly, Grace, in your search for a church home. Several years ago I was watching that great liberal Christian Billy Graham exhorting the thousands of people at his crusade to find a church after leaving the auditorium. He said one thing that has always stuck with me. “Dont imagine that you will find a perfect church. Even if you find one that is perfect, the moment you join it it will cease to be so.” I am not suggesting that you are waiting for perfection, only sharing something that literally changed my “angle of vision” in relation to church life.
    I am blessed with a wonderful church community and pray for the same for you. Blessings

  2. Martineau was a visionary. This is the condition of a large majority of young and middle-age people in modern Europe and particularly in Britain today. Unlike Americans, we no longer care about church on Sunday morning, and I do not see how the European churches can reverse that trend that may be a death knell for most of them in the next generation.

  3. The key is “to the highest level of its own polity.” Hubby and I are quite disgusted by the waffle in the Episcopal Church today — such pride expressed about ambiguous/two-faced resolutions passed at the last General Convention just iced the cake — that we won’t darken one of their doors. We refuse to be a party to their civil war.

    St. Stephen and the Incarnation, it should be noted to their benefit, hosts Hack DC HacDC, which all the cool robot-building, metal-smelting kids love.

  4. What about the United Church of DC? That funky, bi-lingual, German-English, UCC-Methodist thing. Or does the Methodist part violate your polity goal? -Derek

  5. the old so-called German Methodists (Evangelical United Brethren AKA United Brethren (New Constitution)) merged with the Methodist Church back in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. I should have put a smiley on my response

  6. Hi all. Speaking of Martineau, I thought you and all would like to know that we now have up on our UU Christian Fellowship website the selection of prayers from Martineau and others from the special Journal issue called Unitarian Prayers. The Martineau prayers are at http://www.uuchristian.org/R_Prayers_Martineau.html, and the main link is in the Resources section at the Prayers dropdown.

    Oh and I still remember attending the first gathering of our community gardening association here in Tulsa after a special film showing, the kind of sharing and spark of energy flowing from the folks there, strangers to one another to a large degree, at the time was more inspirational and full of God than many a worship service I had been in.

    Happy Thanksgiving

  7. Scott,
    Found your blog through Peacebang. I enjoy reading your thoughts here on life, faith and the city. I work at Calvary Baptist Church here in DC (in Chinatown). We would love for you and your partner to worship with us. I hope you would find a refreshing faith community (don’t let Baptist scare you) where we respect liturgy, we practice Baptist polity and have a congregation that welcomes all people. I love our faith community for lots of reasons, but especially because people are the real deal.

    Would love to meet you sometime.

    Leah

  8. Thank you Leah. I appreciate the invitation. We’ll have to visit sometime, especially since we moved closer to a Red line stop. We have been to Calvary before — some years now — but it wasn’t as accessible from our old apartment.

    Oh, and say hello to Amy; I miss being in a lectionary group with her.

  9. Scott,
    I’ve only just read your post discussing the experience of being a ‘lonely Christian’ so my response is a little late…

    Anyway, I wanted to say that I can identify with much of what you say – particularly when you talk about struggling to find a church that is both ‘spiritually and institutionally healthy’ AND suited to your own outlook / lifestyle.

    I have found examples of thriving, dynamic, modern Christian communities particularly within the Emerging Church movement (Mars Hill and St Tom’s spring to mind) – which gives me hope and confidence that Christianity still has a place and future in Western society.

    However, to date the barrier blocking my own entry into regularly attending such churches is my continued struggle with the finer points of Trinitarian doctrine. I can accept the Trinity as a metaphor and point of discussion – as a route into trying to understand God – but not as an inflexible statement of belief.

    Of course, the search for an energetic Christian church that will support a gay relationship “to the highest level of its own polity” must be a 1000 times more difficult than my own. I say this because it clearly is a far more emotive and resonant issue than doctrinal smallprint.

    It seems we have now reached a stage where there is a large proportion of Christians across the ‘mainstream’ denominations who would offer such support for gay relationships, but there also continues to be the other proportion who actively oppose such support (often vehemently).

    And so at a grassroots level, even if this doesn’t translate into a church becoming explicitly ‘anti-Gay’, what happens in the busy, thriving churches is the two factions frequently have to co-exist together – which in turn results in a kind of ‘sweeping under the carpet’ situation with nobody daring to even mention the question for fear of division and conflict. This is at least what I’ve observed in my own sojourns to various churches / communities.

    I also have to say that I was pleased to see James Martineau brought into the discussion because I think his 19th century arguments do continue to have great relevance in today’s debates over Christian inclusivity.

    As I’ve already mentioned on other sites, these days I have come to consider myself to be a ‘Free Christian’. I have often thought that for the many Christians who for various reasons have found themselves on the margins of ‘mainstream’ Christianity (and may also have tried avowedly ‘liberal religious’ groups such as the Unitarian-Universalists and found them wanting) the emergence of an explicitly Free Christian church / movement could be a timely blessing.

    That said, I also wonder if the failure of Martineau’s ‘Free Christian Union’ was a blessing in that it stopped the ideas of Free Christianity from becoming institutionalised and the sole preserve of one sect / denomination? The UK’s General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches still officially carries the moniker, but not to the extent that the term and its related ideas have become the possession of Unitarians.

    The insights I have had into the Quaker and Disciples of Christ communities – and through reading the works of Christian writers such as Marcus J. Borg, Rob Bell, Adrian B. Smith, John Dominic Crossan et al – suggests that the Free Christian ideals that Martineau espoused (summarised as “Coming together unrestricted by required acceptance of dogma or recital of creed – inviting all who wish to worship God and to learn about the prophets of Israel and Jesus of Nazareth,”) continue to be alive, growing and coming out of a variety of denominational backgrounds – just as he envisioned.

    So in summary, I think there is reason to be optimistic that in the near future we will see more churches that are spiritually and institutionally healthy AND inclusive. And I do hope in 2009 you find somewhere that will provide you with this kind of fellowship – or that you establish your own!

    Best wishes.

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