Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor: A Review

Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor: A Review

About Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara Brown Taylor is a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has been described as one of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world (check this article). In 1992 she became the rector of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in Clarkesville, Georgia. Eventually, however, she decided to leave this ministry and become a university professor.

Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor: A Summary

Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor is made up of three parts: Finding, Losing, and Keeping.

Finding recounts her journey towards becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Losing demonstrates how and why she left this ministry.

Keeping outlines what she’s kept – what continues to inform her spirituality – from the experiences and education she received as a priest.

What Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor Is Not

If you’re looking for a book to expound hard theological truths, then this isn’t the book for you. Whilst you can usually search out an odd sentence somewhere outlining her theological leanings on most of the key topics of the book (if you’re interested enough to look carefully), she usually presents these views almost in passing and certainly doesn’t want to impose them on you.

This isn’t a book about what to believe. Instead, it presents an attitude of belief – one which values trusting God in the face of not always being sure. In fact, Barbara Brown Taylor states that it’s damaging how people in churches so often vet each other’s beliefs – especially given that most Christians understand God to be bigger than our comprehension of Him.

Furthermore, Barbara Brown Taylor favours a generally hands-off approach to spiritual guidance. This can be seen in a chapter dealing with her observations of Cherokee spirituality. Here she expresses her admiration for how their spiritual leaders don’t give directional advice unless asked. The logic she presents behind this is that a sincere seeker of God will eventually work out what is right through the inevitable bad consequences of getting it wrong.

Barbara Brown Taylor – Is Truth Subjective?

In doing so, Brown Taylor treads carefully the important issue (especially within the spiritual vs religious debate) of whether truth is subjective. For Brown Taylor, truth is something very real and alive which can hurt you if you get it wrong. Nevertheless, our access to that truth is limited. This being so, she regards the discernment of truth as deeply personal.   

The advice she gives in Chapter 17 about choosing a church isn’t based, as a result, on the ‘right’ doctrines a church should hold. Instead, it’s based on whether you can sense spiritual life in the church. She claims that you can sometimes sense whether a church is spiritually dead or not from the moment you enter. When she decided to join the Episcopal Church, for example, it was in large part because of the strong sense of God’s presence she felt at the Episcopal church she attended while a graduate student.

On account of this belief in the personal nature of discerning truth, the pearls of wisdom Brown Taylor does offer the reader at the end of the book are presented in a very particular way. Brown Taylor doesn’t provide a series of articles of faith to follow or any kind of call to action. The closest she gets to telling us what to do is by sharing what is ‘saving her life’ right now. There is no sense, therefore, that what holds resurrection power in her life, at her particular stage on her spiritual journey with God, will necessarily work for you. Then again, it very possibly could given that God is God wherever we stand.

What Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor Is

If you’re looking for a book which raises extremely relevant questions surrounding the role of the church and the position of the ever-growing number of spiritual but not religious people living on its edge, then this is the book for you. Here are just a few of the questions it raises.

How should churches regard the growing number of ‘spiritual but not religious’ people who aren’t church attenders?

As somebody who now keeps herself largely on the periphery of the church, this is a hot topic for Brown Taylor in Leaving Church. Whilst Barbara Brown Taylor believes that there is value in having a centre (aka the church) which preserves the stories and traditions of Christianity, she also believes that the Christian map has always had an edge or wilderness too – which should be valued for its contribution. In fact, many very important figures (including Jesus) came from this edge or wilderness, outside of the received wisdom of the church or other religious structures of the day.

Notably, she doesn’t direct us as to where we should place ourselves on that map. Rather, she leaves it to us to find our way with God’s guidance.

What is the role of the church in the modern world?

Barbara Brown Taylor believes that God lives in the world and not in the church. The church’s role is instead to equip people for recognising God in the world.

She also expresses concern over clergy acting as a surrogate to God – filling the God-shaped hole in people’s lives themselves. When she was a priest, she so often found herself being called on to do so in a way that she ultimately felt herself incapable. After all, how could anyone be everything in the job-description of a priest? How could anyone be God’s representative without getting burned out along the way?

Of course, characteristically, her expression of concern over the role of clergy comes with a disclaimer. Perhaps the problem is in the role itself? Or perhaps it was simply in how she herself tried to fill that role when she was in ministry?

What is the role of religious symbols, religious texts and other ‘religious apparatus’ Christianity has inherited?

Barbara Brown Taylor shows concern over how certain Christian religious symbols, particularly the cross, have been abused. This being so, she herself rarely chooses to wear a cross (as she once used to). Instead she often chooses to use her own symbol for the Trinity. Of course, it isn’t an officially recognised symbol of the Trinity – only she knows what it means to her – but then, that also means it doesn’t have any of the historical baggage of the official symbols.

Brown Taylor also discusses what she means when she says that the Bible is the ‘Word of God’. She sees it as a ‘field guide’ which she uses to complement and assist the experience of finding God in the world around us.

When it comes to other religious texts, such as prayer books – she again continues to use them. This is because she so often finds words in them for situations so much wiser than any she could come up with herself.

My Rating

I would give this book a 5-star rating. It’s a particularly beautifully written book which raises important questions about the spiritual vs religious debate.

Whilst some people who would like to be given black and white, clear answers to these questions might find the book frustrating in its refusal to do so, that very refusal is indicative of some of the key points Brown Taylor is trying to make (aka the hands-off approach to spiritual guidance and the personal nature of discerning truth) and so should be respected as such.

That being said, not all Christian books should be as vague about the core accepted Christian beliefs as this one. While it’s helpful for people (like me) who know what these beliefs are already, I do think there is an important place for people who do the work of teaching these beliefs plainly.

But then, I think Brown Taylor would agree with me on this. As far as I can tell, for Brown Taylor, that someone who does the work of teaching Christian beliefs plainly should come from the ‘centre’ of the Christian map from the church. That being so, she no longer is that person. Instead, having pitched her tent outside of the church, it is appropriate that Brown Taylor should present her views in the vague and enigmatic terms best suited to her position as a wilderness-dweller.

Prompts For Thought

Where are you on the Christian map Barbara Brown Taylor describes? Are you at the centre in the church? Or are you somewhere in the wilderness right now?

How do you think people in the church should relate to spiritual but not religious people and vice versa?

What do you think about the abuse of Christian symbols (e.g. the burning of crosses by the Ku Klux Klan)? Do you feel comfortable using these symbols despite how they’ve been used in the past? Or would you prefer to use symbols with less historical baggage?

How directional do you think Christian spiritual leaders should be? Do you like the approach Barbara Brown Taylor admires of only giving straight answers when asked … leaving people mostly to work things out with God themselves? Or do you think a more hands on approach is better?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.