A Churchless Faith. Faith Journeys beyond evangelical, Pentecostal & charismatic churches by Alan Jamieson
2000. Published by Philip Garside Publishing Ltd, Wellington, New Zealand ISBN 0-473-07021-9
Reviewed by Noel Cheer
This book is a remarkable accomplishment and not just for the fact that in all its 189 pages about people who leave churches it does not mention the Sea of Faith Network! This is even more surprising perhaps because the author uses several marine analogies which SoF members would warm to. One of the most effective is that of the desire of some people who are playing ball on the beach under an instructor's supervision to "swim outside the flags". Another talks of people who desert a cruise liner in a foreign port in order to see some unapproved scenery.
This book is based on the author's PhD thesis and describes the various motivations of people who have left the "EPC" (evangelical, Pentecostal and charismatic) Christian churches. Little reference is made to mainstream churches.
Despite a sympathetic treatment of James Fowler's "Stages of Faith" the author carries two assumptions through the book: the first is that Christianity is "right" and the second is that the church is the appropriate place in which to express it, even though the church should be tolerant of, and supportive of, those who leave it. Fowler's classic Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (San Francisco, Harper first published 1981) details six stages of spiritual development. Fowler looks on them as positive. Jamieson seems more ambivalent, perhaps because the loss of people with growth potential from a church organisation (and typically their spouse and children with them) can sap the church of vigour. Interestingly, too, Fowler wrote the Foreword to this book.
The author occasionally discloses his own theological vocabulary as on page 73 the word "faith" is synonymous with dogmatic orthodoxy.
Those disaffected by their church are identified in four groups: “Disillusioned Followers”, “Reflective Exiles”, “Transitional Explorers” and “Integrated Wayfarers”. SoF people would probably fit into the last two categories. Their approach to faith (and the way that the author uses that word suggests that he means the content of what one believes to be both true and valuable) moves through the spectrum from "unexamined" to "self-examining" to "emerging self ownership" to "autonomous".
None of those interviewed would accept the criticism of the church that they left that they were "back-sliders" and even some would say that the reason why they left was that their church was becoming too liberal. But most left for reasons more familiar to SoF people: stodgy liturgy, static theology, inept leadership.
Perhaps most valuable for SoF readers is the comparison that the author develops near the end (p170) between "marginal" and "liminal" orientations to the faith structures that the leavers have quit. The marginal view depends upon the old structure as its point of reference -- in fact the person defines herself as a "leaver" or an "ex".
The liminal view takes one over the threshold (a "limen" is a threshold) and into a new way of doing things. It is not itself the new way, but it is the end of the old way. We might say that many approach SoF with a marginalised perspective but eventually see the worth of crossing the threshold into Fowler's fifth stage where we move on from polar tensions; a simplistic view of truth; the reduction of myth to the literal; and we move on to where we can appreciate other expressions of faith.
But, and again perhaps disclosing his calling as a Baptist pastor, the author quotes with approval Paul Ricouer "beyond the desert of criticism, where we wished to be called again". The implication being that even the Integrated Wayfarer might return to happily playing ball on the beach under the watchful eye of the instructor.