Our monthly feature seeks to offer open-minded, clarifying, and meaningful responses to readers’ questions about spirituality. Send your questions to The Resident.
A reader asks: Why has the church lost its faith?
Once upon a time the Church (capital C) possessed substantial authority by which it could determine who was “in” and who was “out,” with real-world consequences – just ask Galileo! We’re fortunate that this is no longer the case. Salvation (however one defines it) enforced by law or fiat is hardly consistent with the kind of freedom Christians generally associate with being created in the image of God. Now the Church has fragmented, for better or worse, into a multiplicity of denominations.
A multiplicity of denominations allows seekers to choose a community that may largely conform to the seeker’s own tastes. Correspondingly, churches now have less of a grip on their own dogma. Of course, these small-c churches continue to engage in the exercise of dividing themselves into who is in or out, but the consequences are less perilous these days.
Any member of any community may eventually find that the organising principles of the community are out of phase with their own beliefs, for reasons either institutional or personal. Many Episcopalians were disappointed by the decision of their denomination to celebrate same-sex marriage, just as many Methodists have been disappointed by their denomination’s refusal to do so. Conflicts such as this are cast in theological terms, and the institution is invariably accused by the disappointed ones of apostasy.
I think it’s more accurate to say that the “faith” of an institution is dependent upon the loyalty vel non of individual members to its self-defined central principles: welcoming or exclusive, strict or liberal, outwardly engaged or inwardly focused. Institutional drift or dissolution can happen to any community, spiritual or secular.
An individual may experience conflict with a pastor or another church member, and elect to leave the community on that account. The intensity of our personal conflicts can lead to deep communal fractures that are often masked as doctrinal differences. Hence, it’s always important for the spiritual or religious individual to recognise and acknowledge their own deepest feelings and inner motivations. The human need for community is strong, and our communities are stronger if we are reflective and truthful with ourselves and genuinely caring of one another.
The Rev. Reid Hamilton
St Vincent’s Church