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View from a liberal Anglican vicar: the good, the bad and the ugly of religion

By Revd James Sharp

James Sharp is an ordained Anglican priest in Bournemouth, UK. He regularly visits schools as a member of the Many Faiths team, which represents Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Humanism and Christianity. James grew up in the evangelical/Pentecostalist wing of Christianity and he has moved in a liberal and humanistic direction. In this article, he writes frankly about the shortcomings of religion as well as its good points.

Thanks to David Warden for both asking and trusting me to write this article. As he and my ‘InterFaith’ colleagues know, I am on the liberal/progressive wing of the Anglican Church and aware that some of my views may be hard for evangelicals to swallow. This is in no way an academic paper, so what follows is opinion, observation, and a lack of bibliography and sources!

My upbringing was firmly in the fundamentalist/Pentecostal tradition, until we joined the local (Anglican) parish church in my teens. I remained in the evangelical tradition until my mid-30s, gradually heading left of centre over the last 20 years.

I can only write about religion from the Christian point of view – I have friends who follow other religious paths, but I am not practised enough in these to be able to critique effectively. Still, the many, many Christianities give quite enough source material to start us off.

In simple terms, like many others I see a sharp distinction between religion and spirituality. Christian religion tends to have formalised scriptures, creeds, leadership structures, accepted behaviours and boundaries depending on which denomination, sect or group. Spirituality on the other hand would tend to refer to the inner work of connecting with God and others in a deeper or more profound way than singing songs, reciting liturgies, attending services and other ‘organised’ forms. I realise that spirituality is a troubling term for most humanists; although whether consciousness and connection come from ‘without’ or ‘within’ could be seen as a technicality which rarely affects the actual experience. What a humanist may call neurology, I may call spirituality but in fact we experience the same sunset, baby, love etc., with the same wonder and appreciation.

The Good

I remain a Christian because I identify with and follow ‘the way’ of Jesus Christ, as brought to us in the gospels. The earliest Christians were not called Christians. They were ‘followers of the way’. Jesus seemed not to make the way about himself, but about how to turn up in the world, put others first, resist the powers of empire, and lampoon the religiosity of style over substance. This is not a gospel of niceness, but a tough, narrow way, which by definition is unlikely to render the individual popular, rich or powerful.

The best of organised religion is that it brings ritual, confession of wrongdoing, and a way of bringing a community together around occasions of thanksgiving and lament. It provides community for those who find connecting with others and making friends difficult. Churches should be full of people who simply don’t fit in anywhere else – hopefully they find a welcome there which may not be possible elsewhere.

This in turn makes heaven on earth possible, through acceptance, inclusion, celebration, forgiveness, healing, and feasting (according to the gospels Jesus was known as a glutton and a drunkard because of who he spent time with). Again, the best of religion makes a stand against hell on earth through the sharing of resources, holding leaders to account, providing sanctuary, food and friendship for the poor and vulnerable, and good old-fashioned solidarity.

That’s a snapshot of religion at its best. Rarely ideal, always imperfect people muddling through, but with acceptance and forgiveness at its core, with porous edges and boundaries, drawing other people into the ‘breaking bread together’ party.

I am in favour of the Church of England disestablishing and the entire abolition of the House of Lords, not just the ‘Lords Spiritual’ (the 26 bishops who sit as of right in the Lords). Rarely does a nation state built on specifically religious values play out too well.

Sadly, religion is not often that good. I have been part of Christian communities both Anglican and informal that have practised elements of this, but in general even the keenest young Christians will eventually find themselves in a dark night of the soul wondering whether the good of religion outweighs the bad.

‘Nowadays, Christianity seems to produce musically inane, self-indulgent soft-rock worship music styled on Coldplay with bedsores and erectile dysfunction.’

The Bad

Very often, organised religion is an escape from both the harsh realities and the joys of life – a holy, humourless huddle praying for Jesus to return and get us out of the whole mess we’ve created.

Over the centuries, Christianity has produced art, music and architecture that is still awe-inspiring. Nowadays, it seems to produce synods that take years to decide whether to include, welcome and bless (also known as ‘love’) people in same-sex relationships. It also seems to produce musically inane, self-indulgent soft-rock worship music styled on Coldplay with bedsores and erectile dysfunction.

Many churches are closing because, like Kodak and Blockbusters, they have failed to spot that things have moved on somewhat. Those that do thrive develop ‘sage on the stage’ patriarchal leaders in chinos and denim shirts dispensing the ‘Alpha Course’ cure for all ills, with good coffee, small groups, and decent hospitality. This softens the blow of having to accept medieval theology and give eye-watering amounts of money to finance auditorium-vanity projects because old church buildings aren’t cool enough for millennials.

The orthopraxy of the early church (which means doing the right thing) was based around loving your enemies, sharing resources and taking care of widows and orphans (shorthand for the most vulnerable in Graeco/Roman society). This gradually gave way to orthodoxy (believing the right thing) and working out who was ‘in’ or ‘out’. The practice of excommunication upheld the prevailing doctrines and creeds and reminded everyone of what they were supposed to believe – or else.

The centrality of a radical and inclusive lifestyle gave way to a belief structure. The figure of Jesus moved from someone whose teachings were followed, to someone who was believed in. The most important things about him were no longer his ‘way’ but his being born of a virgin, suffering on a cross, and dying and rising again on the third day. Following the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire and the rise of orthodoxy, you could live like a demon but if you recited the creeds without crossing your fingers behind your back then eternal life was yours.

They view religion as hypocritical and pointless at best – toxic and abusive at worst.

The Ugly

That’s bad enough, but it only really results in guilt trips for the holy in-crowd. Where it gets ugly is the abuse and predatory behaviours, division, manipulation, gossip and highly-controlling leadership that so many of us have come across. I have many, many friends and family who simply walked away from the church and have never looked back. They view religion as hypocritical and pointless at best, toxic and abusive at worst.

Maybe these things are just human nature though, and to be found in any organisation. Whatever sphere of public life or large organisation you find yourself in, the same factors will often crop up. The problem I have is that I have experienced far more of this ugliness inside the church than outside of it. There is something about religious power that seems to legitimise terrible behaviour, and then continue in this vein for hundreds and hundreds of years, seemingly without learning the lessons.

Perhaps this started in Babylon, where God’s people were in exile and remembering their stories, both those written down and those passed on orally. (I need to say here that I believe the Jewish and Christian scriptures are among the most spectacular human achievements. In no way do I minimise their scope and importance. I also refuse to minimise them by taking them as literal, historical fact.)

The scriptures, written over centuries by multiple authors and communities are a beautiful record of how the people at those different times understood God and what ‘He’ demanded (as they saw it) of them. But as soon as we say that the Bible IS the infallible Word of God, we legitimise violence on both a national and personal level. There is a great deal of violence, rape, abuse and torture in the Bible. Ascribing those things to ‘the will of God’ is something of a leap however! My relationship with scripture became a whole lot easier and healthier when I realised this was simply how people – usually very sincerely and honestly – saw God.

No doubt Christians in the fourth century, having prayed for liberation from persecution, saw the conversion of the Roman Empire as an answer to prayer. But this proved, ultimately, to be an unholy alliance. Previously, Jesus’ teaching against violence was taken seriously and Christians were not allowed to serve in the military. But within forty years of the conversion of Constantine, you couldn’t be in the army UNLESS you were Christian! Scores of empires were then legitimised by organised religion, with lands being grabbed, forced conversions of indigenous people (or slaughter for not converting), so-called holy wars being waged at home and abroad whilst the church got ever richer through looting, entitlement, superstition and forced tithing.

So where does this leave someone like me?

One of the most important principles is to see the good/divine image in everything and everyone. There’s always something to learn from people of different philosophies and religions. There is joy and energy in the world, that I experience, for instance, when gathering with like-minded people or walking on a clifftop listening to The Who. I still call myself a Christian because the life and example of Jesus still compels me. I have no idea how accurate the gospels are factually, but in terms of truth and a life-changing ethic? Well, they’ve still got the lot – even though the writers of the gospel leant hard on Buddhist as well as Jewish tradition and thought.

I still call myself an evangelist, not because I try to convert anyone, but because the good news is that we’re all loved, all connected and all here to look after one another, especially the poor and vulnerable. This love and connection is what I mean when I use the word God, or as a favourite writer of mine put it, ‘God is just another name for everything’.

So, there is indeed good which is worth celebrating and not chucking down the plug-hole with the water. There is bad and there is ugly which I plead guilty to and wish the church would also do at an organisational level. There is enough good to outweigh the bad and the ugly and there is also 58 years of life-journeying for me. I’m not ready to become a born-again humanist just yet – there’s not enough beautiful music and architecture for me!

Further reading

Humanistically Speaking dedicated an entire issue to the question "Can humanists be spiritual?" in May 2022. The link is here.

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