Several months ago I decided, for the umpteenth time in my life, that I needed a break from church. All the usual factors were at play, from frustration with the expectations surrounding gender and marriage to frustration with the culture of obedience and family-worship. The immediate catalyst for my leaving was not unrelated to these things. My older sister moved into the ward, and we started going to church together. This should have been fun, and of course I was happy she was there. But watching the sharp differences in the ways we were treated by other members of the ward just brought home to me that no, I was not imagining my marginalization in the community. People who barely registered my existence went out of their way to talk to and include her. People would literally talk over me, if I was sitting next to her, to engage her in conversation, without appearing to notice I was even there. I may as well have been a piece of furniture. She was asked to speak in sacrament meeting soon after moving in, and had a calling shortly thereafter—very different from my experience moving into the ward nearly a year earlier.
To be fair, I suspect there were multiple factors at play in this dynamic. She’d lived in the ward years earlier, and in some cases people were just re-connecting. And for all her genuine introversion, she might be more talkative in social settings than I am. But I also think a huge factor was—and this is the kicker—she has young children. I watched with a combination of fascination and alienation as that reality integrated her into the community in a way that eluded me. My experience in the ward was by no means all negative. There were a handful of amazing individuals who went out of their way to be friendly and welcoming when I moved in, and that made a huge difference. But my experience in general was all too typical of what happens to older, single women in our communities: I was basically invisible. (The bishop, after I’d been in the ward maybe five or six months, finally shook my hand and said something about my being a visitor. I didn’t really take that personally, though, as various people assured me that he ignored all the single women.)
I don’t want to overstate the significance of what happened with this ward; if I hadn’t had a mountain’s worth of baggage with the church already, I probably would have grit my teeth and found a way to navigate the social dynamics. But as someone who already exists in deep tension with the church, I find that I just don’t have a lot left over for dealing with difficult local communities. In my last ward, in the Bay Area, where I felt welcome and included and even like my contributions were valued, I’d gotten the idea that I could make this church thing work despite all the craziness. But in the past year and a half, that’s come back into serious question.
So I took a few months off from church. But I started to miss it, started wanting to have some kind of formal religious worship in my life again. Still, the idea of going back to an LDS church made me feel alternately sick and overwhelmed. I decided instead to go church-hopping, to check out some of the beautiful churches downtown in the city where I live. I’d been to the Episcopal church before, for things like Lessons and Carols at Christmas. When I looked at their website and saw that they had an 11:15 am service, I was sold. (In addition to all my other problems with attending Mormon church, I have to admit that sacrament meeting at 9:00 was proving to be a bit of a challenge.)
I’ve only been going to services there for a couple of weeks, but I have to say, I find it incredibly refreshing. I love the building. I love the music. I love that the service lasts only a little over an hour, that only about ten minutes of that is someone preaching, and that that someone is a trained and engaging speaker. I love that people are friendly and welcoming. One of the reasons I’ve particularly enjoyed Episcopal services in the past is that they go out of their way to be user-friendly—they have the whole order of worship helpfully printed out in the bulletin. And I love love love seeing women in positions of real authority in the church.
But what I love most of all is that no one cares, not one whit, about my marital status or whether I have kids or even whether I’m straight. Those are non-issues. It dawned on me one week that those questions are actually theologically irrelevant in this setting, because they don’t see salvation as being contingent on marriage and raising children. I can’t even tell you what that feels like. It’s like after years of resigning myself to the reality that I’d never quite be an actual person at church, I get to be a full-fledged human being again. The worship is centered around Jesus, and the importance of Defending the Family doesn’t even come up.
My very first week there, I read in the announcements that confirmation classes would be starting soon, and they were open to anyone, even the merely curious. I thought, that sounds great—but really, can I crash the confirmation classes of a church I’ve barely attended, when I have no intention of converting? But I had a nagging feeling that I should go. So I showed up the Sunday before last, not knowing anyone there, and no one batted an eyelid. I didn’t really talk the first week, but this past Sunday I felt more comfortable participating, and I’m really enjoying the experience. There are eight of us, plus the two women running the class. We read a lot of prayers and discuss scriptural passages and parts of the catechism and the baptismal vows. It’s kind of a combination of more abstract theology, and discussion of how to apply these ideas to our lived religious experience. It’s all pretty basic, but perhaps because it’s not my native religious tongue, I find it new and fresh. To my surprise, the rote prayers in particular have started to grow on me. Lifelong Mormon that I am, I confess to some wariness of set prayers, to having had some sense that they were less authentic. But I’m appreciating more and more the value in reciting the same thing again and again and slowly coming to internalize its message.
I don’t know where I’m going from here. My friends are teasing me that I’m going to convert, which is certainly fair given my enthusiasm, but as of yet I don’t see that happening. I don’t feel a driving desire or need to formally leave the LDS church. I don’t know that I’m gone from it forever. I’m still very, very Mormon in the way I think and the way I see the world. But for better or for worse, I’ve hit a point in my life where I care less about doctrinal questions, at least in the sense of finding the church with the absolutely correct beliefs and teachings. I’ve definitely encountered the divine in the LDS faith, and that’s sustained me a lot over the years, but I’ve grown more skeptical over the years about the idea that you seek out The One True Church and then sacrifice everything, including sometimes your sanity, to be involved with it. Right now, I simply hunger for a community which sees me as a real person, and a setting where I can nurture my Christian faith and engage with age-old religious questions. And right now, the Episcopal church is feeding me spiritually. It’s a good feeling.