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 : â€”
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.