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‘I no longer have any faith in the church’ - Agony Uncle with Robin Herne

PUBLISHED: 13:40 21 May 2017 | UPDATED: 13:00 22 May 2017

Members of the media wait outside an American cathedral in 2015 for news after an historic clergy sex-abuse scandal prompted numerous lawsuits from victims and led to bankruptcy. Picture: AP Photo/Craig Lassig

Members of the media wait outside an American cathedral in 2015 for news after an historic clergy sex-abuse scandal prompted numerous lawsuits from victims and led to bankruptcy. Picture: AP Photo/Craig Lassig

Robin Herne, who runs the religious studies and ethics degree at the University of Suffolk at West Suffolk College, solves your dilemmas.

Dear Robin,

Before moving to the region I was a devout Christian. I still believe in Christ but no longer have any faith in the Church. Our minister, a man I greatly admired, was accused of historical crimes of a revolting nature which split the congregation. Eventually more evidence exposed numerous similar crimes and led to a conviction. The rift had become very ugly, and I haven’t been able to attend a service since. My life feels so empty and rudderless, and I have become very embittered. What should I do?

Mrs K

Dear Mrs K,

What an awful situation to live through. Sexual abuse damages so many people – the immediate victim and their family, and in cases such as this not only the abuser’s family but all those people who may have liked or admired the person whose inner nature they were oblivious to.

A number of religious institutions have been rocked by sex scandals of this sort. In fairness, schools, hospitals, business corporations and other large-scale employers have all had similar scandals about workers who turn out to be engaging in appalling behaviour – and sometimes using the opportunities presented by their employment to gain access to victims.

The focus on churches and other religious organisations may in part be a reaction to the expectation we have of clergy to be paragons of moral virtue, interpreting the divine will as they tend to do. The wickedness of individual clergymen is considerably added to where it is also revealed that those higher up the ecclesiastic hierarchy have tried to conceal the crimes, or even abetted them by moving the miscreants to fresh parishes where they can continue their sordid habits.

Plus, there is an element of media prurience – tales of sexually-depraved priests sell more headlines than tales of debauched accountants or traffic wardens.

All that said, the vast majority of clergymen (and accountants and traffic wardens, lest they feel besmirched) are perfectly decent people doing a very hard job. Many people have, like you, lost faith in the human administrators of their respective religions due to corruption of one sort or another.

It is, perhaps, a mistake to place too much weight of expectation on the shoulders of any religious leader – they are only human after all, and sometimes in the most disappointing of ways.

Even had he not been engaging in such extremely unpleasant activities, he might still have had more mundane foibles or shortcomings that could one day have left you feeling let down. The same might be said of your fellow congregationalists, as it seems the ugliness of that rift perhaps also led you to see a side of the other believers that pushed you away from them.

That you have retained the core of your faith is a good sign, and something that can be built back up. Non-religious people often underestimate how significant a role religion can play in the lives of the devout. It sounds to me as if you were probably quite involved in a wide range of church activities, rather than just being a Sunday Christian. When you walked away from all that, it sounds as if it has left a considerable hole in your life – as well it might for anyone who suddenly stops engaging in some activity that has taken up half their time.

Your two main alternatives are to either rebuild your relationship with the Church (just with a different congregation this time) or to find new activities with which to fill your life. If you go down the latter path, simply doing any old nonsense to fill an evening is unlikely to give you the sense of fulfilment your previous life did. Therein lies one of the problems – religion is not simply some kind of hobby where a person can substitute bird watching or stamp collecting and be just as engaged.

Your letter does not mention which denomination of Christianity you belonged to. If it was a branch that integrates women into strong leadership roles, then perhaps it is worth considering becoming a force for reformation within the hierarchy – changing the system from within. However, you may have belonged to a church that relegates women to a passive position and so have much less opportunity to overcome your feelings of alienation by constructive change.

Canadian minister Carey Nieuwhof makes the point that those who believe in Christ cannot, as such, leave the Church, because they all form the body of the Church. Even if you haven’t set foot inside the building in years or participated in a service, your belief in the central teachings mean you are still part of the theological community.

If the scandal involving the clergyman led to a rift in the church, I wonder if you became sufficiently embroiled in the feud that you said or did (or even just thought) things which you now regret or possibly feel ashamed of. If so, it might have contributed towards your withdrawal from the community into a sort of exile.

The Narrative Theology first espoused by people such as Hans Frei and George Lindbeck has developed since the ’90s and now incorporates the idea that stories of the New Testament are lived out in the lives of the faithful who come to recognise Jesus’s saga as a template for their own personal narratives.

Perhaps this period of separation from the congregation is your time in the wilderness. Much as the early Church Fathers (and Mothers) adjourned to the desert in order to embrace silence and solitude, away from the frenetic demands of the cities and the politics and machinations of the congregations – schisms and feuds being nothing new – where they could find the still, silent centre of their souls, or God. Much as with the Vedic teachings on Atman, early Christianity tended to regard finding one as essentially the same as finding the other.

Narrative theology is no longer applied exclusively in a Christian context, with many other religions reflecting on the ways in which their respective mythologies shape the lives of the people who embrace them.

There may be members of other religions reading this who are also going through a time of withdrawal and disillusionment with their fellow believers; who might equally ultimately find a deeper connection during that isolation. The sense of being rudderless and empty you describe could be compared to the emptiness of the desert – a gift, maybe: space in which to find something fresh.

One of those desert-dwelling monks, Abba Macarius, is credited with saying, “If we keep remembering the wrongs which men have done us, we destroy the power of the remembrance of God”. Possibly something worth contemplating?

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