IN THIS unusually frank priestly memoir, William C. Mills describes himself as a “low-Church kind of guy in a very high-Church world”.
Known to his parishioners as “Father Bill”, Mills infuses Losing My Religion with that same kind of unpretentious informality. He’s remarkably irreverent at times, and easily annoyed by pious pompousness, as when he pokes fun at the name of his own parish church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He wishes it were simply St Mary’s, but, no, it’s Nativity of the Holy Theotokos Orthodox Church. “It barely fits on my business card,” he writes, adding wryly, “When was the last time you heard the word Theotokos? Never, right?”
That made me chortle, as it would any Western Christian familiar with how utterly strange Orthodoxy can seem, especially in the little things. Yet one of Mills’s strengths as a memoirist is to strip away as much of that strangeness as possible, which empowers his story to appeal to as wide a Christian readership as possible.
Not that the Orthodoxy is ignored: he beautifully describes, at length and often accompanied by sections of the liturgy that priests recite silently to themselves, little-known parts of the Orthodox Church’s ancient ceremonial. His story, however, is ecumenical overall. A young, bookish, and well-intentioned seminarian becomes pastor of a small Christian community. Before long, he falls foul of a small group of ill-intentioned and perhaps even evil parishioners. Illusions shattered and faith undermined, he nearly loses his mind.
That sounds more dramatic than it plays out on the page. In plot terms, nothing much happens, not really, and Father Bill’s return journey, up and out of the psychological hole that he falls into, isn’t particularly revelatory. Rather more revelatory is that informal, irreverent tone, which, I’m ashamed to admit, sometimes left me feeling scandalised. Obsessed with the cut of his clerical garments, desperate to sleep in on Sundays, as TV- and movie-obsessed as the worst of us — surely priests, especially Orthodox priests, aren’t so . . . normal; or at least they shouldn’t be!
But that’s really Mills’s point: pastors are just like you and me, just as prone to anxiety, depression, and self-doubt — and it does nobody any good pretending that they aren’t. The candidness of the author’s inner voice reminded me at times of St Augustine; the comparison is perhaps inevitable, and yet I was struck by the extent to which Mills, unlike the Bishop of Hippo, hides his personal spirituality from the reader. Plagued by doubt and despair, Mills addresses his own thoughts with admirable frankness, but never his Lord — at least, not in the text, not directly.
This became, for me, almost worrying. I know very well the power that therapy can have to soothe our inner demons, and I admit that it was helpful and humbling to see just how human our priests and pastors can be. Even so, deep down I do want them to be a little more-than-human as well, not vulgar and flippant as I am, and more prayerfully confident in the faith that we all share.
That said, read this book. It makes you think. Even if, unlike Father Bill, you’re a high-church kind of guy in an excessively low-church world.
Thomas Small is a documentary filmmaker, author, and host of “Conflicted”, a new podcast from Message Heard.
Losing My Religion: A memoir of faith and finding
William C. Mills
Resource Publications £16
Church Times Bookshop £14.40