What I learned from twenty years in the Anglican Church

Photo above borrowed from here

I grew up going to an Anglican Church in Wellington, and while it took me a few years to find one in Christchurch when I moved there after I’d finished school, I stayed with the Anglicans until well after graduating University. Leaving Anglicanism for good in 2016 is a post worthy of another page, but I’ve been reflecting on that time recently. Looking back, I cringed at the traditions and habits I picked up, and painted that part of my life as bad.

This is a habit I have had my whole life: when I’m trying to let something go, I demonise it. I struggle to see experiences or decisions as holding shadow, depth, or echoes of teachings years into the future. It’s good or bad, and bad = leave, forget, ignore. To see the nuance or mourn my decision is to get caught up in what could have been, and I need to use that mental energy to move forward, to convince myself I was right.

I can’t find the good in it because if there was some good, I would have stayed where I was, right? I stop myself from being interested and learning from my past, because I can’t bear to look back there. Unpacking this is teaching me that in demonising what was, it’s painted a big red cross through that experience, and prevents me from approaching what happened with curiosity or kindness.

I’m coming to see my past experiences like swimming laps in a pool. We need something to push off when we get to the end, so we can propel ourselves back through the water. The tiles at the end are hard and uncompromising, but they’re exactly what we need because they help us move forward faster. If a pool edge were made of sand or smoke, we wouldn’t have a pool to swim in, let alone an edge to propel off.

For me, the hard, uncompromising nature of Anglicanism functioned as the end of my lane in 2016. When I pushed off the wall away from it, I wanted to get as far away as I could. Everything became cringe-worthy, desperate, embarrassing, pathetic. The robes, the traditions, the repetitive prayer book phrases, the watery sermons, the pitiable music, the cardboard wafer they used for communion that stuck in my teeth, the smell of the carpet, the constant pressure to volunteer, the dysfunction that wasn’t spoken about, the politics of old families, the mistreatment of those who were different, the pursuit of the correct dogma at the cost of a person’s dignity. When I did my tumble turn after twenty years of splashing around at that end of the pool, I pushed hard.

Growing up religious and then dismantling your faith in order to understand what you have been taught for yourself is called deconstruction. Given the amount of resources available for someone in this stage of their faith, I now see the critical thinking and separation as something to be grateful for – a much-needed signpost of maturation. It’s exceedingly rare to grow up in a spiritual community you want to stay in for your whole life, and it turns out that’s a good thing.

However, deconstruction seems to be centred around the belief that you must throw away everything you’ve learned as a child and young adult in order to come to understand and embrace a faith that will serve you as an adult. As we grow, what we believe to be true changes. It was important for me to grow up and grow out of the Anglican Church, so that I could try to figure out exactly what truth I believed, for myself. Emptying the pool and smashing down the walls was not hard. Trying to build my own pool looking from the outside in? Not so much.

Finding what was glinting amidst the shadows of my Anglican memories was hard. It’s taken me years to realise and acknowledge that some of what has stayed with me from my religious upbringing is good. I’m still not sure what to make of how I grew up, but there are some traditions, some relationships, and some things that I learned that I am now immensely grateful for. I don’t need to denounce everything Anglicans do to see that there was beauty and truth amongst the frustration, silence, pettiness and politics that every spiritual community has to deal with. Here are the four parts of what I learned growing up in church that I’m exceptionally glad for. One might even call them “foundational”.

Love of literature

If you attend church regularly, you come to notice how often the Bible is quoted. Some believe the Bible is God’s inerrant word directly from His mouth, to be taken literally. Most do not. The power this book has over the direction and decisions of the church most likely result in someone spending 30 minutes on a Sunday morning “unpacking a Bible passage” to interpret it for the those listening. People don’t tend to agree on each other’s interpretations of the Bible very often, and so they’ll go looking for others who agree with them, and spend rather a lot of energy espousing these beliefs. This made for an intellectual and opinion-rich environment where I spent most Sundays.

Because of this, before I stumbled into English Literature 101, I had first-hand, weekly experience that texts could be interpreted in different ways; I understood that as much time as the author put into the words they wrote, exponentially more could be spent trying to decipher what they actually meant.

While I learned not to give everyone the same amount of attention when they started to tell me their opinion, I also learned that there was an incredible world of spiritual literature out there that was far more helpful than a Bible ever would be. Sure, the words of Jesus are the starting point, but as poetic and beautiful as they are, I also found them confusing and unsettling.

In this tension, as I grew up and into my faith, the Anglicans showed me an incredible variety of books, music, podcasts, and blogs centred around religion and spirituality. I found ideas that challenged what I was being taught on a Sunday. While I was exploring the power and inadequacy of words at the University, this was echoed at church. While it’s common to hear about church-going children and teenagers not being allowed to watch or read certain things, I’m immensely grateful that this was never imposed on me. In the Anglican Church, I came to discover my love of words, of literature, of controversial ideas, of the value of old poets and mystics, of those critical of Western theology, of learning to figure out what I thought.

All the generations

Growing up in a church, you are surrounded by all ages – those you wish you were old enough to hang out with, those you’re glad you’ve outgrown, your parents’ friends, middle-aged couples who ‘adopt’ you, new-born babies, surrogate grandparents and babysitters you pine to be like. This is something I loved about going to church – not growing up with any extended whānau (family) in New Zealand, the affection and care I felt growing up in an Anglican church was foreign and delightful.

When you move cities to go to university, you have to work very hard to get yourself into a conversation with someone who wasn’t also 19. Getting out to church meant that you could spend the morning talking about the best part of the playground to an eight year old, or your university assignment with a professional engineer, or Kate Middleton’s wedding dress with a seamstress, or the latest Liturgists Podcast with the vicar.  

This paved the way for me to warm to some of the leaders in the Anglican Church and come to rely on them for advice and wisdom in my own life when I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. When JCB and I were both in our final year of study, I spent many hours in the Curate’s office, dissecting how hard everything was, and whether we would survive the academic pressure. That relationship, and the wisdom, care and vulnerability she modelled, paved the way for me to start counselling. Having the perspective and empathy of an adult who wasn’t my parent got me through my Honours year – of that I have no doubt.

The beauty of an unanswerable question

As a teenager, you’re constantly wondering what this whole thing is about. You can see some who try to channel their questions into academia. Others try sports. Some try relationships; most try sex. Many try to find answers in alcohol, drugs, self-harm. I think this is because we don’t know how to express what’s going on inside us, and white society doesn’t naturally have a safe space to ask questions we don’t know the answer to. We need somewhere to put those questions if we’re not willing to face them, because they’ll fester inside us if we don’t get them out. While the Anglican Church did step up and proved to be a safe space for me to put those questions, they also tried to answer some of them for me too quickly. Unimpressed, I bit back.

Luckily, this was a church that learned, and instead of trying to give me answers the second time, simply provided a space to ask the questions. I learned who was dependable and when the timing was appropriate… but their openness cracked open the door to wild, expansive conversations about life, death, the multiverse, sex, heaven, sin, science, evolution, and the inherent ‘goodness’ of humans that young adults crave a concrete answer about. I will never forget the safe spaces that the Anglicans created for me, where I could speak my mind or listen to others. It didn’t always happen on Sundays, but what happened on Sundays made it possible.

“Peace be with you”

The most dreaded part of the Anglican service is called ‘Passing The Peace’. To anyone who’s been in this situation, extrovert or not, you will know the unbearable embarrassment that settles in your stomach when the priest says those well-worn lines that precede Passing The Peace.

It was designed as a beautiful way of clearing any nonsense that might exist between you and a fellow church-goer before you all have communion together, because Jesus said we should do it. Honestly, it’s awkward as all hell. Here’s how it looks. After the priest says, “May the peace of Christ be always with you,” and the congregation replies, “And also with you,” you have to go around shaking hands with those around you, saying, “Peace be with you”.

It’s genuinely as weird and clunky as it sounds. If you’re in a smaller or more traditional Anglican church, the priest will often make sure that they’re given enough time to get around everyone, which means that there’s a lot of shuffling in and out of pews, and “Oh, haha, we’ve already ‘peaced’,” – yes, we made up words to hide the awkwardness of the situation. In the youth service I attended in my early twenties, where old traditions were revitalised by actually explaining why we did them, we ended up with a Peace Conga Line, to make sure no-one missed out. It was bizarre and cringeworthy, and after twenty years of this shit, I couldn’t wait to be rid of it. Passing the Peace became tokenised, and because it happened so often, the power was lost on me entirely. Or so I thought.

Now, JCB came to church for the people, not the content. I was never really sure how much he absorbed; he was certainly quite vocal about the parts he didn’t like, and Passing the Peace was one he loved to hate. But one day, probably four years ago, we’d had a very loud, very tense argument. I had gone off to a separate room to cool off (more likely to cry and mutter to myself about how I wasn’t going to apologise first) when he came back in. He stood at the door, and said, very quietly, “Peace be with you.”

We had severed something between us with our words, and he had come to fix it. This was a true offering of grace, and I was floored. He passed the peace, but he meant it when he said it. He said those four words, and what he wanted me to understand was, “I see you, I love you, I apologise, and I want the best for you, right now and always. I have made you weary and upset. I acknowledge I’ve put something heavy on you. I want you to lay that burden down. I am so sorry.”

“Peace be with you.”

In four words, the whole dynamic of our argument and how we related to each other changed. This was what the vicar was getting at when he told us to do this every week. This was why we couldn’t stay angry at one another – we are only hurting ourselves.

As I look back, I can see how I bundled up my youthful angst and frustration with the light and love that I found in those services and friendships. Anglicanism was where I discovered my voice, people who surprised me with their orthodoxy, a genuine sense of community, the beauty of volunteering, and new ways to talk about God.

These delights had been lost to me as I came to the end of my religious lap and knew it was time to propel off the end and away from it. Unpacking Anglicanism has helped me realise that we can learn from our experiences, for there is light and shadow in every one.

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