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Rising above the clouds of creeds

I’m now a Humanist celebrant, a legal representative of Humanism in ceremonies and the public arena.  I was once an ordained Presbyterian minister.  With a B.A. and M.Div. in Religion, Philosophy and something called “Divinity,” I finally achieved recognition by “The People of God” for a “call” into ministry.  This was a goal I’d been working toward for many years.  I could finally call myself “Reverend.”

In 2001, I left my ordination, standing in front of hundreds of ministers and elders who were once my “colleagues,” though I often felt little support from most of them in my innovative chaplaincy work.

The following is the statement I made that November day.  There was no challenge, no questions and no tears when I walked out.  I left the church and The Church.  All those years, the time, the expense, the stress. . .gone.  It was the beginning of my walk away from faith itself.  There was nothing more to say.

(Reprinted from Life After Faith)


A Statement of Conscience

Chris Highland

Why I Am Letting Go of My Ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA)

A statement read before the Presbytery of the Redwoods
Westminster Woods, Occidental, California
November 2001

Members of Presbytery,

Fourteen years ago this month (November 1987) I was accepted for ordination here in these woods, under these majestic trees, with the scent of the wilderness.  The uphill climb with the candidates’ committee reached a summit of spirit here.  I had been urged to face and express my own beliefs and my personal sense of call in a manner that was pleasing and acceptable to the members gathered here.  If it wasn’t for Janie Spahr and Lillie Irvine I probably would never have stood up here to be unanimously received into membership as a minister of word and sacrament.  Little did I know what kind of wilderness was ahead.  There was something wild in the air, and I was about to wind down a trail of adventure with—as I thought—the full support of colleagues in the church that I was raised in.

I was ordained to a strangely wonderful journey of ministry called chaplaincy and have served as a chaplain over these fourteen years.  Indeed, I have never served as a parish pastor and still do not desire that role.  Chaplaincy has been my professional life and it has been my high mountain meadow of growth and my deepest and most challenging valley of wonder and questioning.  I have served with two incredible boards who brought direction to my path:  for ten years the Interfaith Jail Chaplaincy, and for the past six years the Marin Interfaith Homeless Chaplaincy.  By serving with goodhearted people of many faith traditions, among goodhearted people who are outcast castaways of both church and community, I came to develop a personal spiritual walk that is wider than any one tradition could be.  “Interfaith” (or simply “compassionate”) comes closer to defining me than any label.  Practicing interfaith, compassionate chaplaincy has been my seminary of the streets.

Along this path I have appreciated the few, the very few, within presbytery and the Presbyterian church, who have stood with me, inviting my insights gleaned from the marginalized community, open to what the Spirit may be saying to the church from outsiders.  St. Luke, where I have worn my Parish Associate hat for over ten years, holds some of those welcoming folk and I am immensely grateful to Dan White for his mentoring friendship.  I continue to feel deep gratitude for that small number.  To those who have honored and supported my call, I thank you, because my call does not cease today.  Sadly, I have felt something even stronger from my church family.  I have felt distanced and even disrespected at times by colleagues and congregants.  I have experienced a marginalization parallel to those I have been pastor to in both jail and street.  I do not think that presbytery or most congregations fully understand or appreciate a chaplain’s work. In my experience, a chaplain remains a second class minister along with all “specialized clergy” (have you noticed we’re listed under “miscellaneous” in the presbytery directory?).  A chaplain is not specialized, unless we are to say that Jesus’ ministry was specialized.  If so, where does that leave parish pastors, since the Rabbi himself had no “church home”? (Indeed, he was not a Christian).  I have few answers.  But I can tell you, I have been most disappointed and dismayed.   As people on the street say, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.  I know what it’s like to be locked out of a church and I do not desire to be locked in.

My life with the church I was raised in has come to an end.  Today I publicly call attention to the main reasons why I am leaving my Presbyterian denomination and ordination behind.  I am speaking out of personal integrity of conscience and my statement will be more if it serves to stir honest debate and shake awake a dead system overgrown with the weeds of creeds and the brown grasses of complacency.  Perhaps others among you feel some of what I say is true for you.  If so, be encouraged. These may be difficult words for some to hear but I hope you will keep in mind and heart that I say what is true for me and what I must say.  I ask for several minutes of your time at the end of my fourteen years among you. What I must, in honesty, say to you all today is this:

1.  I am no longer a “Christian” by the Church’s definition.

a.  I do not worship Jesus but I seek to follow his way, as I do the way of Lao Tzu, Buddha and other great and unknown spiritual teachers.  It is a way of lovingkindness; of truth-telling and justice; of action beyond words; of peacemaking, not piety-faking.  I do not accept traditional titles placed upon him and I cannot assent to the idolizing of a person who broke all idols.
b.  There is no “one way” to the living God I search for and find each day.  No one can dam the flow or channel the direction of the Great River of Grace.  All paths of love and compassion and justice are blessed by the Creator and lead to the Great Spirit.
c.  I am convinced that Jesus would not be welcomed in any churches who use his name.  I feel that he would primarily be present among the poorest and most judged of society’s least and lowest. He would tip over the tables and pulpits of the Church as he did the Synagogue.  I would say, he would be a reformer, not a conformer.  Chances are most of us would seek his crucifixion in some form.
d.  I see the Church as primarily focused on wealth, comfort and judgment of outcasts who are locked out literally, verbally and spiritually from the places called “sanctuaries.”  I would say, true sanctuary cannot be owned or locked.  Displaced and defaced persons follow God elsewhere.
e.  I hear “God’s Word” not only from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures but from other sacred texts including Nature, where, as John Muir said, we see the Word writ large.   I would say, the wino on the street or the murderer in jail can and does speak the Word needed by the Church and the World.  Beyond the words, I am deeply inspired by “the sound of sheer silence” in meditative moments, especially in the cathedral of Nature.
f.  I have most often experienced “sacraments” as dry and crusty rituals devoid of taste, meaning or power to significantly effect the heart or the mind of contemporary humankind.  I have never performed a baptism.  It is a drama that perpetuates the myth of sin and separation.  Like communion, it is mostly an empty performance for the entertainment and comfort of members-only.  I would say, all of life is a sacrament and ought to be celebrated in new and creative ways.
g.  I do not accept the historic creeds of the Church as having any bearing on my life or the life of most in our world.  The creeds reflect vote counts and do not speak to the enlightened mind of our time.  Someday, probably not in my lifetime, the church must “come of age.”  I would say, our faith is in our deeds rather than our creeds.
h.  I do not see strong, healthy leadership in the church.  I hear wordy sermons and bible worship that lack the tough-minded questioning and dialogue essential to a healthy community.  I see business.  I see an institutionalized irrelevance that values facilities, income, acceptance and performance over telling the truth in relationships.  I hear the unfulfilled (and often unspoken) voices of weary congregants and tired clergy who hunger for liberating and courageous leadership. I see how dishonest we become when we expend precious energy protecting others from the hard truths and realities of the spiritual life, when we hide the way we really believe and live.
I would say, we are losing our soul, as we live in fear of losing members, our positions, respect.

2.  I am no longer a “Presbyterian” by the church’s definitions.

a.  I practice a daily awareness that the Spirit is alive in all things and in all people.
b.  I do not attend a church on a regular basis and find as much inspiration in the forest or on a mountain, in making love or meditating.
c.  My spiritual community is found in many and varied places, with people of different or no faiths, or in God’s natural temple on the sacred Mother Earth.  I have not attended Presbytery for some time; my experience is Presbytery is essentially out of touch and out of step with the contemporary world.  Like many who are mentally ill, it speaks only with itself.
d.  The Presbyterian church does not speak or act for me.  I find many words, decisions and actions of the national and local church not merely troubling, but meaningless, irrelevant and even oppressive.
e.  This is not the church of God’s people who are poor, houseless, homosexual, or of anyone who is untouchable or unacceptable.  It does not stand in courageous solidarity with God’s outsiders or with the Rabbi of Nazareth who began the two major addresses of his life with the words:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to speak something truly good
to those who are poor,”

and

“Blessed are those with nothing, for everything God has
in God’s sanctuary-home belongs to them.”
I would ask, what happened to the spirit of reformation?
I would say, I stand as a new millenium protestant.

3.  My present and future intentions are:

~To move on along this path of seeking truth and the spirit within all.
~To continue to learn from and serve the outsiders and castaways and to practice some form of chaplaincy.
~To write a few more books and to teach.

With this statement I formally request that the Presbytery of the Redwoods accept my resignation from membership and dissolve any and all responsibilities between the Presbytery and me.

In truth of conscience,

Chris Highland


(I would say some things differently today, but I stand by the truth of much of this statement)

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