I’m coming to terms with the truth about why I left the Church.
It wasn’t that I had an experience of deity that fell outside of the Church’s teaching. That would come later.
My experience of God was always mysterious, never concrete. I was taught that one could, if centered and open, feel a presence that you might identify as God or as the Holy Spirit, but I didn’t trouble myself too much with whether what I was feeling was the Grand Daddy of Them All, or something else. I was content with seeking out a feeling of reverence.
I didn’t leave the Church because I suddenly stopped believing in a literal interpretation of the Gospels or the Bible. I never believed in literal interpretation. Contrary to popular belief, not all Christians are literalists, or even dogmatists. I knew a great many mystic-minded people in the Episcopal church, many of whom used the scriptures as a launching point for deep, inner-dialogue. It was all metaphor for me: the Gospel, the Eucharist, all the aspects of church life and ritual. It was all meant to be symbolic of an inner reality of harmony and oneness with the divine. Or at least, a striving toward that state.
I didn’t even part ways with the Church because I felt like Christianity was insufficient in providing one with the means to build a meaningful spiritual life, a more present engagement with the world. People take Christianity to town on account of its patriarchal nature, but I was a part of a tradition that was led by a woman who referred to Jesus as “Mother Christ.” Christ was beginning to be understood, by some, as the Goddess might be understood to some Pagans; a universal force which is both masculine and feminine, whole unto Itself and also capable of keeping each of us within the reach of Her divine love.
This was the Christianity I walked away from.
Admittedly, I did have problems with certain aspects of the Church before I left. I was uncomfortable with saying the creeds, for one. “We believe” is rarely a true statement, and I didn’t believe a lot of what was being said. I didn’t believe that Christianity was the One True Faith, nor did I believe in original sin. I didn’t believe in proselytizing, but neither did most of my fellow church-goers (another misconception is that all Christians are fired up to convert — this wasn’t my experience).
But these problems weren’t what ultimately drove me away from the Church.
I left the Church because of the bureaucracy.
I left the Church because I was tired of having the legitimacy and acceptability of my sexuality put to a vote. I could not tolerate any longer a conversation about how inclusive the Church should be, because the answer seemed ridiculously clear to me: radically inclusive. Even having that conversation allowed people to entertain the notion that there was an acceptable amount of exclusivity, and that never sat right with me.
I watched leaders within my own tradition manage their churches like businesses, like corporations, and I watched leaders in other traditions swindle and lie.
The people. The ignorance, the narrow-mindedness, the rigidity — that is what led me to leave the Church and consider other possibilities.
I wonder if a Pagan who is part of an established, well-organized tradition could find herself at a similar point of crisis.
Bureaucracy is bureaucracy. There are a number of Pagan churches — I’m a member of one — and many of these traditions have hierarchical leadership structures. Leaders are people, and people are fallible, and politics are a part of institutions. I’m not sure there’s any way around that.
But do our Pagan organizations, with their structured forms of leadership, their real and legitimate financial needs, their need to keep the institution alive/functional/growing/ordered, run the risk of becoming like what the Church became for me?
I ask these questions not to hold up the evils of Christianity against the virtues of Paganism — that is not the discussion I’m hoping to have here. What I’m wondering about is the nuts and bolts of religious community, of Pagan religious communities.
Can they exists without becoming centered around power-dynamics? Do not the matriarchal traditions also deal with struggle for power?
Can Pagan churches fail in the same way that Christian churches do, in that they become so focussed on keeping order, upholding what is safe, resisting the transgressive even when the transgressive element may embody some central teaching or central truth about the tradition?
How does Paganism reconcile Pagan bureaucracy?