God: alive, well and changing genders daily

April 23, 1995|By George Minot | George Minot,Special to The Sun

In matters of religion (the word comes from religare: to tie back, tie up, tie fast), it's best to proclaim a few preliminary prejudices. As a card-carrying, dues-paying (but not tithing) Presbyterian - one of the few, the proud: God's frozen chosen - I confess to being nothing more than a domestic wayfarer. I'm a regular traveler, who, like Ulysses, made a good many journeys when young and then came home, full of experience and half-wisdom, ready to live out a real life in a community.

Surely, it's the sacred and profane buzz of everyday activity that gives human life its rigor and imagination and meaning. It's in the ordinary domestic details where the great dramas take place - the struggles with self and faith and the works of love. It's the homely, the routine, the "habit of being," as Flannery O'Connor ,, knew, that finally defines us in the divine comedy.

Thus, I was delighted to come to Gary Dorsey's book, "Congregation: The Journey Back to Church," a tale told by an ordinary man (Viking. 388 pages. $24.95) - "I'm probably like you," he writes, "curious, oblique . . . largely unoriginal" - but a story that's shot through with the sacredness of the everyday and the habits of the spiritual life. It's the story of a year in the life of an ordinary mainstream church, and the story of a journalist midway through the journey of his life who has come in search of himself.

The story begins this way: In 1988, after a period of prolonged travel, Dorsey came home to Connecticut settled down. "I married a second time, bought a home in the country, and hired out to a magazine. I might have found more comfort or happiness at midlife, but then nothing satisfies like the next risk. For instance, I could have stayed home on Sundays. Instead, I went back to church." (Dorsey is the husband of Jan Winburn, an editor at the Sun.)

Like many of us, Dorsey has attended churches at different times in his life. He was born and baptized Protestant, became an agnostic, turned mystic, self-actualized, individuated, joined the Quakers, opted out - "the usual course," he writes, "for my generation in the American psycho-religious carnival."

In our age of exotic spiritual quests - searching for inner children, dancing with wolves, wearing $40 Dalai Lama T-shirts - what's unusual and refreshing about Dorsey's carnival ride is that it seems so ordinary. His midlife journey didn't begin with drum pounding and manly chest beating in the Himalayas, but at the 360-year-old First Congregational Church that Dorsey chose as the subject for his book. Described as "part Massachusetts Bay Colony, part Hotel New Hampshire," First Church turned out not only to be a place for the banal routine business of institutional religion, but also - against all odds - a community of genuine, faithful folks who acted as mysterious catalysts for the motions of grace.

The beginning of Dorsey's story defies conventional wisdom, of course, which demands that our religious quests be dramatic and full of high melodrama. As we all know, American society is in the midst of a spectacular spiritual and religious revival. God is no longer dead, as Time magazine declared famously on its cover in 1967, but alive and well and changing genders daily. Millions of good, decent Americans are embarking on breathtaking pilgrimages of personhood, exploring black hole cosmologies of awe and embracing channelers and crystals and the comforting self-righteousness of "Christian" coalitions. Thus, the last place in the world to go on a quest for spiritual meaning would seem to be the old-fashioned mainline Protestant church, which, as everyone knows, is a thing of the past, a dinosaur, an institution as dead as a doornail.

Indeed, America's so-called mainline churches - traditionally, the Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians - are withering away. For generations, the mainline Protestants ruled the American religious roost. As recently as the 1950s - when "all we had to do was ring the bell, open the doors, and get the heck out of the way," as an old pastor laments in "Congregation" - the growth rate in mainline churches equaled or exceeded that of the United States.

Since the '60s, however, the mainline churches have lost nearly 5 million souls. Presbyterians erased more than 500,000 inactive members in 1984-87. The proportion of Americans affiliated with all the mainline churches has now reached a 20th century low, which has led the Rev. Jerry Falwell to boast in a headline in The Fundamentalist Journal, "The Mainline is now a Sideline!"

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