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Another way with words

16 August 2013

Barbara Brown Taylor has a considerable reputation in the US as a preacher and a writer. Next week, for the first time, she takes to the platform at the Greenbelt festival. She speaks to Martin Wroe

Country life: Barbara Brown Taylor, with two white Silkies, at home on her farm

Country life: Barbara Brown Taylor, with two white Silkies, at home on her farm

BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR is not your average Episcopalian priest. Routinely nominated in the "top ten preachers" in North America (where they keep such lists), she is a poet of the pulpit, and lauded as a writer by serious writers. The Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist Annie Dillard describes her sermons as "wonderfully intelligent, moving, and direct". She "tends an elegant epistle to the parish of the seldom, or sorely, or no longer 'churched', to the doubting and dumbfounded and blessedly vexed", the poet Thomas Lynch says.

She writes in her memoir Leaving Church, which made the New York Times bestsellers list: "God uses whatever is usable in a life, both to speak and to act, and those who insist on fireworks in the sky may miss the electricity that sparks the human heart."

That memoir described her departure from parish ministry in rural Georgia to academia. Becoming a "professional holy person" had almost done for her.

Now a professor of religion at Piedmont College, in Georgia, she lives with her husband on a working farm in the foothills of the Appalachians. Her visit to speak at the Greenbelt Festival coincides with the publication of The Preaching Life: Living out your vocation, and When God is Silent: Divine language beyond words.


In the age of the screen and social media, is the sermon at risk?

I KNOW plenty of people who will happily listen to a good storyteller, lecturer, or stand-up comedian for 20 minutes; so technology does not seem to be the problem. The problem has more to do with the setting, content, and purpose of the traditional sermon, which too many people experience as predictable, manipulative, or both.

As long as sermons are conceived as being about affirming a certain belief system, and recruiting new believers to it, then they are going to attract only people who are in the market for those things.

When I preach, my goal is to say something that sounds like good news to anyone who is listening, no strings attached. There's no substitute for the unmediated presence of a live speaker, which is dangerous and potentially catalytic in a way that watching a screen will never be.


As more women become the leaders of the Church, will they reimagine this traditionally male form?

I OFTEN hear people say that women are better at telling stories, and men are better at making cases, but those seem like generalisations. Since I learned to preach by listening to men who were gifted storytellers - and I've listened to women who make persuasive cases - the gender lines do not hold.

The main thing I notice, as I listen to more and more women preach, is that they gather their material from different places than their male counterparts do. There are fewer ball games, and more kitchens, fewer military metaphors, and more family ones.

If I were to go way out on a limb, I would say that the women preachers I listen to seem more comfortable using sensual language, by which I mean language that is at home in the body. Many of us preach from somewhere lower down than our frontal lobes. We are also more likely to end sentences with question marks instead of exclamation points, inviting our listeners to wonder about things with us instead of making convincing points about things.


You describe in Leaving Church how you left parish ministry to focus on teaching and writing. What can you see now that you could not see then?

WHEN I worked full-time in a church, I lived by the church calendar. I could use Christian language without stopping to explain my terms, and I could use the plural first-person pronoun with some confidence, speaking of what "we" believed and what "we" were called by God to be and do.

Now that I work in a college, I live by the academic calendar. Since I teach religion, I am still very much in the business of supporting people who want to make meaning of their lives, but no single language works for all of them. Some are Muslim, some are Mormon, some are Catholic, and some are Protestant. I cannot use "we" with any confidence unless I am speaking of what it means to be human.


What do you miss, and what do you not miss?

I MISS doing baptisms and funerals, visiting nursing homes, and being called to the emergency room in the middle of the night. I miss being immersed in a great worship service, which is like conducting a great symphony. I miss the children, and watching them grow up.

I do not miss being the object of people's inordinate adulation, or hostility. I do not miss breaking up church fights - or causing them -or trying to meet my own expectations of what a good priest should be and do. I do not miss being the CEO of a small non-profit organisation that relies on overworking its volunteers. But, in hindsight, I bless it all.


When is it the right path for someone to leave church, and why would someone hang in there?

I WROTE Leaving Church to find out what I really did leave when I left parish ministry, and the answer is that I left an idea of church - a way of conceiving church, and my place in it, that had become such a tight fit that I could hardly take a good deep breath in it any more.

Now, I have a broader vision of church as the hugely divided, but equally devoted, body of people who are trying to figure out what it means to be little Christs in this world. We are doing it all over the place, in all kinds of ways.

Some of us do it in defined communities, and some of us do it in twos or threes. What holds us together is a certain way of seeing the world; a certain set of sacred stories that keep that view in place; and a certain way of responding to them that gives our lives meaning.

For me, that meaning has everything to do with the central Christian truth that God is found in the neighbour, or not at all. That is the best argument for choosing to become part of a religious community, because the great religions of the world are repositories of spiritual wisdom; and digging deeply into one offers you a much better chance of finding living water than digging into a dozen at a much shallower level.

If you have left church, or are thinking about [leaving] it, then what has gone missing? Was it illusory, or real? If it was real, then I hope you keep searching for it somewhere else, or perhaps even figure out a way to give birth to it where you are, instead of leaving.

That is why the Rule of St Benedict included a vow of constancy, requiring monks to stay put in one monastery instead of hopping around. What better way for them to learn that, nine times out of ten, the problem was inside of them, and not outside of them?

Most people who speak of leaving church are thinking of a defined community, with a budget, and an address. That's fine, but there have been so many ways of being and doing church through the millennia, that giving up the whole thing because you don't like a particular leader, or a particular way of worship, at a certain address, may be a little short-sighted. Find another address. Or start something of your own.

Of course, some people have genuinely come to the end of faith. Religion has become a noisy gong for them, or a clanging cymbal. Then I would say by all means go -go find some other way to make meaning for yourself, and your neighbour. Do not torture yourself any longer.


In An Altar in the World you describe a way of finding an authentic spirituality for people who may not think that they are doing religion, or people who are tired by the religion that they think they are doing. In what ways does religion get in the way of God?

I LOVE your locution: "doing religion" makes a lot more sense to me than "believing religion". In my view, religion and spirituality are made for each other.

Religion is the deep well that connects me to the wisdom of the ages. Spirituality is the daily experience of hauling up living water, and carrying it into a dry world. Without Christian religion, I am pretty sure I would never have thought very deeply about the nature of God, the reality of evil, the meaning of salvation, or the purpose of being human. I might never have met the desert Fathers and Mothers, Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross. But all of those rich resources dry out pretty quickly if they are not refreshed by some direct experience of the divine, which is what spirituality exists to recognise and assist.

In my view, religion gets in the way of God when the well becomes more interesting than the water -protecting the well, funding the well, analysing the history of the well, restricting access to the well, selling picture postcards of the well - all the things that we do instead of celebrating and sharing the water.

If my metaphor holds, then God is the living water that rises up in all life-giving wells. Religion gets in God's way when we think that we have God surrounded, when we think that our well is the only one with God in it.


Is it easier to preach to a congregation that includes no one you will argue with in a meeting the next day, or meet at the shops? Are there things that a writer can say that a preacher can't?

YOU have just named all the reasons why guest preachers and writers are gutless wonders, compared with parish clergy. But I hope there is still a place for us. I sometimes ask resident pastors what they would like me to say that they cannot say without getting pummelled for it. That is always fun, since I can get on my horse and ride away afterwards.

As a writer, I am always surprised by how many complete strangers write, or call me, to tell me their stories or ask me impossibly difficult questions. Plenty of them have local pastors, too, but it is almost as if they are seeking the anonymity of the confessional. They want to talk to someone whom they will never see in the doctor's office, or run into at the grocery store. Most of the time, I tell them that I am no good at being an oracle, and they need to talk to someone who knows them better; but you're right that writers can sometimes say things that preachers can't.


Years ago you were invited to preach at a church with the request: 'Tell us what is saving your life now?' What is saving your life now?

WHAT is saving my life now is the awareness that my days are numbered. It is one of the painful blessings of later life - to have recovered from the illusion that anything is possible, that the best is yet to come, that time never ends. When I hear people say, "If I die, I want you to have the picture in the dining room," I think, "'If' you die? Don't you mean 'when' you die?"

Right now, I am putting off the revision of my last will and testament, because I know the lawyer will ask me to decide things that I am not ready to decide. But the more I can breathe into this awareness, the more my days open up.

The morning song of a mockingbird is enough to stop me in my tracks. The smell of a coming storm has lightning and thunder in it. Cooking fresh vegetables from the garden for supper becomes part of my evening prayer. My sense of communion with other people facing limits reduces me to tears.

I experience all of this as salvation - from shallowness, from busyness, from denial and distraction. I also experience it as salvation for something. Let's call it the awareness of the holy, in every moment of the day. There is no substitute for that, no greater gift. It is what is saving my life now.


Taylor-made reading

Books by Barbara Brown Taylor: 

Leaving Church: A memoir of faith, Canterbury Press, £9.99 

An Altar in the World: Finding the sacred beneath our feet, Canterbury Press, £9.99 

The Preaching Life: Living out your vocation, Canterbury Press, £12.99 

When God is Silent: Divine language beyond words, Canter­bury Press, £9.99 

The Healing Word: Gospel medicine for the soul, SPCK, £9.99 

Home By Another Way: Biblical meditations through the Christian year, SPCK, £12.99 

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