Friday, 16 August 2013

Why I feel I have a right to criticise

Not that I’m feeling defensive or anything, but a recent conversation prompts the following thoughts.

Churches promise the earth. They fling their doors open to the public claiming to offer a warm welcome and, more importantly, that if you accept their invitation to come in you’re going to hear something so amazing that it will change your life. They’re promising no less than the truth about life and death, morality and salvation, an explanation of our puny little place in a great big awesome universe. Who could say no? These are the questions every one of us is grappling with, and churches claim they can provide the answers … or at least that they know a man who can.

But what do you find inside most churches? Lacklustre music, a confusing, contradictory, boring or incoherent sermon, and people who don’t exactly give the impression that the secrets of the universe have been vouchsafed to them or that the assurance of salvation cheers them. And maybe a cup of tea if you’re lucky. Small wonder, then, if the church visitor comes away thinking that the product didn’t turn out quite as advertised.

Great claims, great expectations, great disappointments.

Over the past seven and a half months, I’ve realised two things: a) I actually really like going to church, and b) most churches aren’t worth going to. There are a whole lot of dreadful churches out there; the ones that have disappointed me vastly outnumber the ones I’ve enjoyed enough to consider going back to.

What do the churches make of my reviews? For the most part, I don’t know. I suspect that some who’ve felt the sharper end of my pen, if they are aware of my blog at all, go on the defensive, assume I bear a grudge, deny that I’ve accurately represented my experience. Well, that’s their business. Others, I’d like to think, will ask, “My goodness, is that really how we appear to an outsider? We should do something about that.”

I can count on the fingers of one hand (with room to spare) the number of invitations I’ve had to come back again and give a church a second chance. I can’t blame them for not wanting the likes of me to return, but on the other hand (not the one I was counting on) aren’t they in the business of saving souls? And doesn’t my soul appear to be in particular peril? I’ve bared enough of it for them to see how black it is. Surely nothing, not even taming my proud spirit, can be too great a challenge if God is on your side. Or am I not worth saving?

I suspect that I’m just too awkward a customer. There are easier targets for a church seeking malleable new members – people who are poor, socially disadvantaged, addicted, bereaved or otherwise weakened. It fits with the Christian tradition of surrendering power and status and worldly goods, stripping away all vanity and wandering the world as a mendicant … except that kirk sessions and leadership committees are packed with articulate, educated, professionally successful, middle-class men (and some women) whose job is to keep the wheels turning, and who have the advantage of not being plagued by doubts like mine, or at least not voicing them.

It’s been suggested that I’m poking fun, and that I’m clearly already an atheist so why hang around just to have a dig at organisations who are trying to do good things for people who are genuinely responsive to the message of salvation? Okay, so a little humour can add leaven to a dry write-up, but here’s a newsflash, folks: most people don’t think theology’s fun or funny. But I think it’s fascinating, and I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think it was important, or if I thought I was beyond the pale, because eternal damnation’s no laughing matter either. Knowing I was beyond God’s love or any hope of redemption would be a cause for existential angst, not gentle satire. And if I simply wanted to ridicule every church in Edinburgh, there would be easier ways to do it than braving a strange new church every weekend.

God’s got to have a sense of humour, don’t you think? Look at us. If we’re the pinnacle of his creation he’s got to be having a laugh. And a great big powerful god isn’t going to crumble or cower or cry in a corner if I ask a few questions about him, so why should his advocates on earth do so?

And if he created me, and endowed me with the intellectual wherewithal to wonder about him and write about him and maybe get a few others thinking about all the big stuff too, then I reckon I’m within my rights.

Not everyone let down by a church will complain about it. Some will, of course, and I daresay some can cause big problems for their former friends and colleagues if they feel sufficiently aggrieved. But fear not, church chaps. For all her rhetoric and superficial hostility to your cause, the Soul Searcher is a mild-mannered creature who means you no harm. She's just a bit lost, and so far none of you has really made a concerted effort to rescue her.


  1. I endeded up with legal threats when I wrote about my experiences of one church. It does make you wonder.

  2. That hasn't happened yet, thank goodness. But we're a consumer society and people can shop around for a church, so why should they expect to be immune from the "TripAdviser effect"? I very much doubt I wield that much power anyway, but you never know.

  3. Dear Soul Searcher,

    Have really enjoyed your ‘musings’ on this site. By all accounts, Jesus was a good guy. I mean, you can’t argue against love and acceptance on any level unless you’re making judgments against some a priori criteria. Surely Jesus would baulk at all the bling (the leading) white males in the cloth are surrounding by. The behavior of the church hierarchy says more about power (structures) and their own conceit than any ‘essence of God’ (in my humble...).

  4. Thanks for your kind comment. The power structures would make a riveting study for any sociologist, anthropologist or psychologist. As a feminist, I see patriarchy everywhere and it's especially evident in churches. In the past, though, I actually belonged to a church where women were excluded from leadership and I managed to live with that quite happily ... for a while, at least. At the time, it didn't seem the most important issue, but looking back I'm amazed I ever accepted it. I still haven't quite got my thoughts organised on the subject, but I've a feeling there could be future blog posts specifically on the subject of power and patriarchy.

  5. Do you have Niddrie Community Church on your list?

  6. The list is always evolving. Who knows where the Soul Searcher may strike next?

  7. I'm really enjoying your blog and the "reviews" - who knows, maybe 'Church Advisor'isn't such a bad idea after all. In this consumerist age, it might help increase congregation numbers?

    I was brought up in the Church of Scotland, went to Sunday School and Bible Class. Yet now I don't go to church on a regular basis - weddings and funerals more often than not. I admire those who have found faith and are so sure, but at the same time, I personally have my doubts. I've seen and met too many professing Christians who display the most un-Christian attitude towards others, so much so, that if that's Christianity, then they can keep it. So, I'll just muddle on through, thanks very much.

    How times have changed since the respected (and not to be questioned!) men of a town or village were the Minister, the Doctor and the Bank Manager....

    You're over two thirds through your search now and you've indicated that you like going to church. Do you think you'll find somewhere you like and feel welcomed by the end of the year? Wishing you well in the remainder of your search!

  8. Gone are the days when we respected bank managers!

    Thanks for your comments. I honestly don't know if I'll find somewhere. Even when you find somewhere you like, there's a difference between dropping in occasionally and actually becoming a member - that's when all the cracks begin to show. I think you're right to say that the main problem with Christianity is the Christians. Some of them are truly awful specimens of humanity, and smug with it.

    At this stage, I think I'm more or less muddling my way out, but you never know ... anything could happen.

  9. Thanks to Alan for another comment. Blogger doesn't give me the option to edit comments to remove people's e-mail addresses from the text, so this is Soul Searcher posting what Alan had to say:
    "'She's just a bit lost, and so far none of you has really made a concerted effort to rescue her.'
    John Sentamu once said that when it came to discussing faith he was just one beggar telling another where he found bread. If your year of church searching still leaves you soul searching, can I try doing the same? You're welcome to email [address removed] (don't necessarily wait til the year is out!) and I'd be glad to tell you my story and/or hear your musings.... ..any questions you have may be poorly answered I'm afraid, and my theology is probably a bit frayed in places, but your thoughts would be well received and genuinely answered."

    Since I wrote this post there have been one or two kind people who have taken time to talk to me in depth, and it's much appreciated. More on one of these in particular to come in a future blog post on the subject of prayer.

  10. Hi,
    If you are still interested, I would be more than happy to meet up and chat about my experiences as a Christian...or come to our house group and see what you think. Not sure how to leave my details in a way that can't be seen publically but let me know and I'll pass them on.

  11. Thanks. You could tweet me a direct message @soulsearch2013 and we could take it from there.