I don't remember the first time I stepped inside a church. I don't remember the first time I smelled incense or heard the tolling of early mass bells. I can't recall when I first saw a green-swathed altar or felt the discomfort of an old pew against my back. I didn't have a first communion, so I don't recall the first time I tasted a wafer or communion wine. But most importantly, I can't recall any time I walked into a church and felt a wave of reverence, divinity, or belonging. The last time I set foot in a church, I felt the same thing I did when I left a dentist's office.
I went to church frequently as a child. My mother jumped my brother and me from denomination to denomination before ultimately settling back into the church of her childhood, Roman Catholicism. I was never a fan of church growing up, but the quiet dignity of the Catholic church felt like a much calmer alternative to some of the charismatic churches to which we had once belonged. But my mom wasn't a good Catholic: she had only 2 children and didn't have the attention span to sit through mass twice a week. Eventually her interest in church waned and we stopped going.
In my 20's, I resumed church-going but to an Episcopal Church. I started going for a multitude of reasons: one, because it was a little blue dot in a big red state; two, because the priest and his family were wise and interesting; and three, because I had no other connections in the small Alabama town in which I lived even if the median age was 112 and my husband and I were the youngest members by 15 years. Furthermore, the Episcopal Church is very similar to the Catholic church just lighter and less stodgy. It was easy to fall back into the same routines.
For seven years, I went to that church. I became an active member -- volunteering for weekend church cleanings and brass polishing; donating food to the food pantry, and even sitting on the vestry in 2 different roles twice. But the more I became involved, the more I noticed issues with my fellow church goers. It started off with hearing murmurs about how a few older members were unhappy with the priest's message of love and unity. Then parishioners who lived close to the church complained about poor (black) people going to the food pantry and getting too close to their lily-white houses. Then the richest of parishioners began withdrawing their pledges for the year until they got the guitar and amplifier combo for the Sunday service. Before I knew it, factions were formed, lines were drawn, and then my priest -- one of my favorite people and truly one of the most gracious people in the world -- had been ousted by a group of angry, pitiful people with a lot more money and time than sense. I was no longer looking at a church but a pit of vipers. When I went to the priest for answers, he sighed and said this was behavior all churches, regardless of the denomination, face. It was disheartening news for me, so much so I stopped going to church altogether when I moved from that town.
I can't say that I miss it. Church politics aside, I'm not religious or spiritual. My beliefs or lack thereof are private and I don't really need or want a community based around that. I also believe that a church's original purpose of helping the needy, social justice, and outreach should be rolled into government programs; not left to the private market or religious institutions. And finally, I have no desire to participate in petty power grabs with bored old people. It isn't worth my time and energy.
Plus, I can enjoy sleeping in on Sundays.