ERB: Searching for Sunday is your story of “Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church.” What led you to leave the church you grew up in?
RHE: I remember sitting in the church I grew up in one Sunday morning thinking that it was by far the loneliest hour of the week. A lot of people bring secrets to church, and the secret I brought was my doubt. I had serious questions about our church’s teachings on gender roles, sexuality, evolution, climate change, theology, politics, and a host of other issues. In addition to all those questions, I struggled with some pretty unsettling doubts about my faith. As kind and gracious as the people in that church were to me, it became clear that as someone who supports women in ministry and the inclusion of LGBT people in the Church, I no longer “fit” in that community. It was a painful decision to leave, but my husband and I agreed we both needed a little space to process these big changes happening in our faith. So we said some tearful goodbyes to the people at our church and started out on a new journey together.
ERB: What brought you back to church, albeit a different congregation? Why not leave church altogether?
RHE: Norah Gallagher once said, “on those days when I have thought of giving up on church entirely, I have tried to figure out what I would do about Communion.” The same is true for me. It was the sacraments that brought me back to church. The sacraments of baptism and communion, confession and anointing reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. When I’d all but given up on church, the sacraments reminded me that, try as I might, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the Church. There have been times when it’s been very tempting to give up on church altogether, but I miss it when I’m not a part of a faith community. I miss communion, for instance, and not just the service of it in worship, but also just sharing food with other Christians. For me, it’s good to surround myself with people who aren’t exactly like me, and when I leave church and try to do community apart from a faith community, I miss that element of being around people who don’t necessarily see the world in the same way that I see it. Church forces us to be in community with people that we might not otherwise be in community with, and I think that is a really good thing. I need that in my life, especially in the internet age, when it’s so easy to surround ourselves with people who share our political or theological views. I need that for my health and for my faith, and I just can’t bring myself to quit church entirely.
ERB: You’ve made some comments online recently in reaction to the way in which some media outlets are oversimplifying your story as a journey from Evangelicalism to Episcopalianism. Can you say a little bit more about why this isn’t exactly a fair description?
RHE: We have this affection for categories, and too often expect that a person will have to fit perfectly into one category and not another; if we identify with a particular faith tradition and go to a church in that tradition, then we therefore have to reject all the others. It is a real oversimplification of what my church story has been and what I write about in the book, but it’s inevitable that people are going to want to give you a label, so that they can comfortably sort you somewhere and know whether or not you’re a good guy or a bad guy. That’s not how most people are; most people that I know are the type that might go to a Baptist church, for instance, but that is not the sum-total of the ways in which they see themselves as a Christian. As humans, we’re just more complicated than that. So, yes, I was raised evangelical and in many ways, I still consider myself evangelical. I relate to that culture and background, and I go to an Episcopal church, and in many ways I relate to that tradition. I have loved learning about it and have relished the liturgies. I am a complicated person just like everyone else. Searching for Sunday in no way demeans or trashes evangelicalism. I’m glad and very thankful that I was raised evangelical, and most of my closest friends and family remain in that tradition and culture, and I do in many ways too.
IMAGE CREDIT: Rachel Held Evans – Promo photo provided by the author