It is no news to the writers and readers of AATW that Christianity has an image problem. Indeed, Christianity has always had its detractors: those who thought Jesus was not God; those who thought the gods of the nations and the emperor himself should be worshipped. But today I wish to relate an experience I had in my office at work.
I had mentioned to my co-workers that I would briefly be seeing a friend at the staff canteen, who wished to give me a gift she had bought at Lourdes on her recent pilgrimage. This led to one of my colleagues relating how one side of his family was Irish and were staunchly Catholic. As a teacher of history this colleague was also interested in the history and abuses of the Church, including its role as an “institution of control”. Furthermore, this colleague, before working at the current establishment, had served as a teacher at a Catholic boarding-school, which was also a monastery.
This colleague’s opinion of the Catholic Church was not complementary. I listened to a grave list of complaints and charges of hypocrisy, which I could neither deny nor refute. Indeed, it was probably best that I simply listened for much of the time: I do not believe that a brazen attempt to “correct” him would have helped matters. Rather, I feel that would have confirmed him in his opinions. The answers that I did give were explanatory, and to some extent, taken from my own context and experience. He touched on a variety of topics, and I could not possibly give him an in-depth answer for every one, owing to the nature of the conversation. Moreover, as I am not a Catholic myself, I could not serve as an apologist for a number of his specific claims.
By contrast, he had a favourable view of the Anglican Church, for the reason that it had a much more tolerant and egalitarian view towards women and the LGBT community. At this point another non-Christian colleague joined the conversation and expressed her disgust at what she perceived as the Church’s low view of women. I was unable to ascertain at that point whether this was a long-standing position, or whether it was a response to a recent conversation I had with another Christian colleague regarding St. Paul’s command that women wear veils in corporate worship (1 Cor. 11).
The effect of this conversation was to leave me feeling sad and ashamed. Here were people who I count as friends, people I hope will one day see Christ and come to love Him and acknowledge Him as their God. But I could do nothing in that moment to get them to see past the failures of the Church – His body – and look upon His glory. I try as far as I am able to discuss my faith with people at work, but I do not “preach at them”. I know a number of evangelicals would be appalled at my “cowardice”, but I take a long-term view. As Ecclesiastes teaches, there is a time for doing something and a time not to do it. I try to respond to questions as they arise, and I try to share how I live my faith with my friends at work. This includes the struggles, doubts, questions, and temptations.
Some would say I am exposing the “underside” to people who should not see it. Maybe. But I believe honesty is important in my relationship with God and my relationships with other people. They should know that being a Christian means adopting a certain worldview, and that worldview involves difficult questions at times. I want them to see what Christianity looks like in a real person, not just as a set of propositions that they must accept.
I wish to close this post by affirming my solidarity with Catholics. This post was not intended as a criticism of you, nor as a way of separating you from the rest of your Christian brethren: what affects you affects the rest of us, and vice versa. But we do have an image problem that we need to address. The outside world is watching us: they are looking for signs of integrity (righteousness) on the one hand, and signs of true love and compassion on the other. I have always considered Jess to be an admirable example of both, and it is fitting to express this admiration for her on her blog. But above that, we are to be imitators of Christ and perhaps that is something that gets lost in a lot of our sermons and posts and dialogue. How would the Carpenter from Nazareth respond to my friends at work?