Something like this may have happened to you: You step outside to fetch your morning newspaper and see your neighbor, an infirm old lady, struggling to retrieve her newspaper. You dash over, grab her paper, and bring it to her. She beams thankfully at you and insists on giving you a cookie she has just made.
When their faith wanes, [ministers] pay a heavy price for their play-acting.
How can you refuse? You take one bite — and regret it, but politely thank her and marvel at how delicious it is. The next day, you see her standing hopefully in her doorway looking at you, so you bring her newspaper to her again, and once more, this time reluctantly, accept the cookie. Yesterday you said it was scrumptious, and she’s made this one especially for you. You don’t want to hurt her feelings, so you gag it down, smiling, and once again praise her skill as a baker.
Clearly you have made her day, even her week. And, alas, a tradition has started: you take her the newspaper and she obliges you to eat a repulsive cookie.
How to get out of it? It’s too late to back out gracefully. Either you must now tell some whopping lies about how the doctor has advised you to avoid certain sorts of baked goods from now on, or pretend you’re not home, discontinue your subscription to the newspaper, and just disappear from her life.
If you’ve ever been lured by your own basic goodness into a situation where you (or your neighbor or both of you) must suffer unjustly, think how your predicament pales next to that of the preachers Linda LaScola and I describe in our 2010 pilot study of five Protestant pastors, “Preachers Who are Not Believers,” and our 2013 book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, which reports on 35 participants from diverse religious backgrounds.
How many little white lies, how many whoppers, how much dissembling, how much systemic hypocrisy have they accumulated in their quest to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
None of the secretly non-believing preachers and pastors who have poured out their hearts to Linda in confidential interviews went into the ministry for the money — a laughable goal — or for fame and glory or political influence. A few of them may have been particularly attracted to a career in the clergy by their self-assessment as natural-born preachers, relishing the spotlight for their eloquence or indulging their love of ceremony or showmanship in the service of God. But when their faith wanes, they pay a heavy price for their play-acting, since their congregations include many — or so they must assume — who would feel deeply betrayed to learn that their speech acts had been less than the candid truth.
“How could you?” the congregation would protest. “How could you lead us on, forgive our private confessions of sin, preside over the sacred ceremonies of birth, death and marriage, while knowing in your heart that you didn’t take seriously the defining beliefs of our lives?”
Maybe there is a gentle path out of this institutionalized hypocrisy. We might well hope so, for there is no telling how many clergy are in this predicament today. Many we interviewed believe they are the tip of a gigantic iceberg of secret disbelievers. They have no safe way of checking their hunch. Not a few clergy have confided their secret to a close friend or colleague only to be exposed as frauds and drummed out of their positions.
We can get at least a lower-bound estimate of their numbers by noting that The Clergy Project, a confidential, mutual-help website for current and former non-believing clergy, started just three years ago and now has nearly 600 members — about a quarter of them still retaining their pulpit and clerical garb.
We wonder if the time has come to start a public movement of support for revisionary — or we might say, visionary — churches that gently but firmly remove the presumptions that now trap some of their best leaders in lives of deceit.
Why might this be a welcome development? With falling membership rolls and rising costs, churches need effective leadership more than ever, but the attractions of the clerical life are not compelling these days. Churches in many denominations — and not just in mainstream liberal Protestantism — face not just declining populations of congregants but plummeting populations of able candidates for ordainment.
How might the transition to a more honest kind of church be propelled?
There seems to be a continuing and sincere yearning for community, and for moral teamwork, among people who are not now committed to any church. Many of these people miss the traditional ceremonies — the art and music, the processions and rituals — and the sheer opportunity for moments of solemnity in their hectic lives. Well, we already have a well-established set of traditions, needing no introduction, no training or reminders, that could serve here: the traditions of the theater.
When the curtain goes up, the audience goes quiet; everyone realizes that it would be anti-social, and an act of vandalism, to interrupt the actors in the middle of a scene, to stroll up and down the aisles, to talk to one’s companion. The respectful attention almost automatically paid to the activities on stage is at least close kin to the decorum observed when sitting in church. Dramatic ceremony requires a family of attitudes and postures that are infectious — and welcome. Whether laughing or crying, or frozen in horror, we in the audience feed off the synchrony of our reactions with those around us. Just like in church. A theater audience is almost a community.
The main ingredient distinguishing church ceremonies from dramatic ceremonies in theaters is the presumption that the performers actually believe the speech acts they utter so eloquently, actually adhere to the creeds their performances symbolize. Imagine a new kind of theater, which, instead of presenting revivals of beloved musical comedies or yet another version of Hamlet or MacBeth, performed carefully researched, respectfully mounted replicas of Latin masses, Quaker meetings, Congregational Easter Sundays, Southern Baptist baptisms, Oxford College evensongs, revivalist prayer meetings, and any and all variations and combinations of these — whatever the people wanted to experience — without the slightest pretense that the celebrants were anything other than professional actors.
Then add a program of good works, community service, outreach, and a collection plate, and you’d have gatherings that were all but indistinguishable from “real” church services.
The coexistence of both kinds of celebration, believing churches and theater churches, in the same towns and cities might make for some useful confusion. People might begin to wonder if it mattered which one they attended. Since many churchgoers are already in the position of non-believing supporters of their traditional churches, they would be hardly upset to contemplate the possibility that their own minister might be one of them, but just playing a more official role.
It is pleasant to imagine a “real” Baptist minister moonlighting on occasion and playing the role of a Baptist minister in the local theater-church — a role he knows so well — and telling a congregant that it didn’t matter which event she attended. They both serve the same ends.
Another nice transitional step would be for the pastor of a church to announce that next Sunday, “Ecumenical Sunday” perhaps, instead of leading the church’s regular ceremonies, she would be introducing to her congregation the rites and creeds of another religion, so that they could see firsthand what it is like to be an adherent of that religion. Nobody would expect her to believe the creed she declared, and nobody would expect her, or the congregation, to believe the words of the unfamiliar hymns they sang together. But they might well decide that they liked one of the hymns well enough to request it be added to their “real” services in the future, with or without the alien words.
Perhaps that is an unrealistic fantasy, but if so, we ought to try to devise some more realistic ways in which we might gradually tear down the wall of dissembling that now poisons the lives of so many churchgoers, clergy and laity alike.
Our interviewees differ in their own hopes for the future, but they are strikingly alike in one regard: even though they often feel trapped in their self-spun webs of pretenses, they comment on the wonderful freedom they experienced when they acknowledged to themselves their release from the obligation to hold the religious beliefs they were taught to profess. Our brave pastors have gratefully and finally left belief behind, and they set an example for others.