A Memoir of Faith
by Barbara Brown Taylor
Harper San Francisco, 2006
by Jon M. Sweeney, whose memoir,
Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood,
published last year, has just received an Award of Merit in the
Spirituality category from Christianity Today magazine
Church is far too limiting a title for Barbara
Brown Taylor’s new memoir, given the chance it may dampen
the interest of those in the pews, or even those who left the church
long ago. Instead, the William Faulkner quote that opens Part One
serves as a better foretaste of the book’s essence: “The
only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with
thousands of readers, Taylor is best known as a writer of resources
for the ordained (Home By Another Way; The Seeds of
Heaven; etc.). Her books have become a staple in the mainline
Protestant clergy diet, like casseroles or Frederick Buechner. Clergy
will find much to digest in this new book, as well.
as Buechner’s memoirs helped clergy twenty years ago, Barbara
Brown Taylor’s will, today. They will understand
her thoughts and feelings—her thinking and scrutinizing as
she administers communion, or her moving account of what it felt
like to be ordained. No doubt her descriptions of unease and insecurity
in her role will speak most profoundly to fellow clergy, but they
will also resonate with anyone who has questioned their vocation
or counted a priest, pastor, or deacon as a friend.
simple facts are these: Baptized Catholic, Taylor wanders in and
out of a few Protestant denominations, drawn to a life of divine
importance during high school in the sixties. She attends Yale Divinity
School on a scholarship in the seventies, and is among the first
women ordained in the Episcopal Church USA. For a decade, she serves
a large church in Atlanta (All Saints’) as one of several
clergy; and then later seeks and finds a rural parish to lead on
her own (Grace-Calvary in Clarkesville, Georgia). After several
years in this role, she quits, exhausted, taking a job teaching
religion to college undergraduates.
One, “Finding,” begins with Taylor’s desire (at
age 40) to leave the large staff of that Atlanta congregation in
search of a country life and parish. “The idea was to skip
right over the suburbs and head for the countryside,” she
explains, as she and her husband take day-trips around northeast
Georgia searching for a new life.
upon arriving in Clarkesville and finding the small Episcopal church
there, she yearns so deeply for this new life that her desire becomes
a series of physical reactions to touching the church building itself:
“I could feel the clenched muscle of my mind relax. My shoulders
came down from around my ears. I shook out my arms and put my hands
flat on the side of the church.” And that was before she ever
things did not go as planned. Having originally given a commitment
of a decade, she is burned out within a few years. The demands of
being priest to all people at all times become too great. Taylor’s
leaving the church and the priesthood put her in a place inhabited
by many searching for direction, but relished by few: “By
leaving church, I was about to leave everything I knew how to do
the movie version of Leaving Church (not such a crazy idea,
actually; Susan Sarandon as BBT?), a director might return dramatically
via flashback again and again, as Taylor herself does, to the scene
of her opening the box with her first clergy shirts, and readying
herself to wear a clerical collar. “Who did I think I was?
More to the point, who would other people think I was once I put
these things on?”
confesses to great doubt in the midst of pastoral work, and she
also confesses to levels of certainty that are somehow unfair when
presented to people in the pews, and do not carry over into her
life after the collar. Other occasions—of confessed naiveté—become
clear to her only after her professional ministry ended: “When
it came time to decide what to do with my life, I decided to go
to seminary. What else do you do when you are in love with God?”
can be a joy to be there with Taylor as she remembers a scene, painting
a picture with simple lines like, “Since the man was intent
on what he was doing, I did not introduce myself right away. Instead
I leaned against the counter and watched him work.” At other
times, she writes like a poet, and the rhythms of her most introspective
prose remind me of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I even keep the Sabbath with a cup of steaming Assam tea on
my front porch, watching towhees vie for the highest perch in
the poplar tree while God watches me.
poignant in Leaving Church are the revelations of an ironic
fulfillment of her ordained ministry after her priestly work has
ended. This priest has found not just solace, but
intense meaning, in the change from parish priest to full-time college
professor and spiritual explorer. “I have never felt more
engaged in what I was ordained to do,” she explains. In fact,
I would not be surprised if many parishioners in churches may want
to screen their pastors and priests from reading such an honest
account of clergy troubles that are ultimately solved by “leaving
from her pulpit, Taylor revels in being a religious amateur once
again. Her first Sunday after leaving her post seems perfect. She
sits on her front porch and reads the Book of Common Prayer
in solitude. “No one complained about the hymns. I did not
sweat the sermon. The best part was the silence.”
the climax to her story comes on page 120, just past the midway
point in the book and after she has given notice at the church.
She is playfully pushed into a swimming pool during an outdoor party.
Others had already gone in, both kids and adults, and Taylor wished
that she, too, would be shoved in as one of the gang. “Whatever
changes were occurring inside of me, I still looked waterproof to
them,” she worries, while standing there as an observer. But
then, she feels two hands on her shoulder, and in she goes with
revelation at that moment reminds me of the monk, Thomas
Merton, standing on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets
in downtown Louisville, realizing for the first time that he is
connected to every stranger he passes on the street. In The
Seven Storey Mountain, Merton wrote: “I was suddenly
overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people. . . .
even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream
of separateness.” Taylor reflects:
looked around at all of those shining people with makeup running
down their cheeks, with hair plastered to their heads, and I
was so happy to be one of them.
If being ordained meant being set apart from them, then I did
not want to be ordained anymore. I simply wanted to be human.
I wanted to spit food and let snot run down my chin. I wanted
to confess being as lost and found as anyone else without caring
that my underwear showed through my wet clothes. Bobbing in
that healing pool with all those other flawed beings of light,
I looked around and saw them as I had never seen them before,
while some of them looked at me the same way. Why had it taken
me so long to get into the pool?
the final section of the book, Taylor really gets humming about
what it means to be human, and church, and Christian—reflecting
as one who has deliberately left the priesthood—and every
reader will be underlining passages, as I did.
have looked closely at the author photo on the cover of Leaving
Church. It is cleverly done, perhaps by Taylor’s publisher.
She wears a solid black shirt—seemingly identical in fabric
and design to a clergy shirt—only without the white clerical
collar at the top. Her clerical readers will immediately recognize
her, but many newcomers will also feel invited to her writing.
without the collar, Barbara Brown Taylor is one of our most important
spiritual writers today. And without that piece of plastic, like
it or not, her wisdom will undoubtedly reach that broader audience
to which her ordination had originally pledged her.
Barbara Brown Taylor on the meaning of the words of Good Friday.
©2006 Jon M. Sweeney
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