DATE August 28, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Episcopalian minister Barbara Brown Taylor on being
a female in her career, teaching and her book "Leaving Church:
A Memoir of Faith"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Barbara Brown Taylor, is an Episcopal priest in a world in which she
says religion often seems to do more harm than good. She was ordained in 1983
then spent several years as an associate in a large urban church in Atlanta.
In the 10th year of her priesthood, she found what she thought she was looking
for, a small parish in north Georgia that was looking for a new rector. She
moved there with her husband in 1992. Although she expected that at this
point in her life she would be a seasoned parish minister wearing black clergy
shirts grown grey from frequent washing, she now makes her living teaching
religion at Piedmont College, not leading worship. She explains why in her
book "Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith."
Barbara Brown Taylor, welcome to FRESH AIR. I guess I'm most interested in
why you gave up your work as a priest; but before we get there, let's start
with what it was like to be a woman priest in an Episcopal Church in a small
town in Georgia. And as you write in your book, the Episcopal Church had been
ordaining women for almost 16 years when you became the reverend at
Grace-Calvary Church, but you were the first woman priest in the whole county,
and you say that many local churches still taught that scripture forbade women
to speak in church. So what are some of the things you faced as a woman
priest in the church?
Ms. BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR: Oh, I faced--first of all--a lot of excitement
about filling that role in this small town I had already fallen in love with,
and that they would invite me to be part of them was a great, great happiness
to me. I suppose the first vivid memory was being invited to the County
Ministerial Association, where I was the only woman present among 25 or 30 men
who met at the Western Sizzlin Restaurant. And they had invited me to speak
on Episcopal beliefs, so I thought I would break the ice by looking out at
them and saying, `I know you invited me to speak on Episcopal beliefs because
you don't think we have any.' And no one laughed. So it was not a great
start, but they were very polite. They never knew what to do with me, but no
one was ever less than kind.
GROSS: Did you feel like you were a big departure from what they were used
Ms. TAYLOR: I was such a departure from what they were used to that there
were a great many fears before I showed up, I think, about what I would look
like, how I would dress, what kind of car I would drive. I think people were
afraid I'd show up with two-inch red fingernails and wear bright lipstick and
open-toed sandals at the Communion rail or something like that. But I'm
fairly ordinary, so most of those fears were unmet. But other people simply
did not know how to address a woman priest. Some people thought the clerical
collar meant I was a Catholic nun. And then when I hired a male associate
later, many, many people at that point told me they were sorry I was leaving
and I asked them what they were talking about. And they said, `Well, we met
the new minister and he's wonderful.' He looked like everything, I suppose, I
should have looked like.
GROSS: Well, let's get to a couple of questions that the people had, like how
do you address a woman priest. Well, obviously they can't call you "father,"
and "sister" is a word for a nun, so what is the right way to call you in
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, there--I have been called Father Taylor, I've received
letters to Father Taylor and there are areas of the Episcopal Church where I
would be called Mother Taylor, but that has always struck me a sort of mix-up
of roles. So the churches I've served have always decided that the names we
were baptized with are the names to address one another by, so I've always
been on a first-name basis in parishes I've served.
GROSS: And how did you dress when you were a priest in church?
Ms. TAYLOR: I think because I came into the church in a high Anglican church
in New Haven, Connecticut, where priesthood was very vested, lots of brocade
on Sundays and black suits the rest of the week, so I immediately bought a lot
of black suits and all of my clergy shirts were long-sleeved black clergy
shirts. I really welcomed the uniform in the beginning, so that's how I
dressed: lots of grey, lots of black, and lots of grey and black strips.
GROSS: And a collar?
Ms. TAYLOR: And a white collar.
GROSS: And did you feel transformed when you put on the white collar?
Ms. TAYLOR: I felt very visible when I put on the white collar. I know that
I responded to collars in the world as people who clearly had nothing to do
but to give me directions or help me find my way, and people responded to me
in much the same way. I found that the collar opens doors, not only to
hospital rooms, but to conversations on buses and in subway stations and all
over the place.
GROSS: Now you write in your memoir that the thing that almost killed you was
becoming a professional holy person. What do you mean?
Ms. TAYLOR: That's true.
Well, what I mean is, as eager as I was to move in with God on a full-time
basis and as eager as I was to do that in the only way I knew how, which was
to become an ordained person to work full-time, beyond full-time, in the
church, it soon dawned on me that that meant I received a salary for loving
people, that I received everything from dental insurance to long-term
disability that was associated with my job of loving people. And I had lost
the pleasure of an amateur, which is to love for free, to do what I did simply
for the love of it. So I do think there are ways in which, both through my
own fault, and in some ways the lures of the institution, becoming a
professional holy person set up some walls between me and God, and me and
other people, that ended up not being good for my soul.
GROSS: Did people have certain expectations of you in terms of your closeness
with God and your ability to really understand God that you felt you couldn't
Ms. TAYLOR: Oh, all the time, every day. I would wake up every morning and
thank God for being alive and then be curious about whom I would disappoint
that day, there had to be someone. Sometimes it was only myself I
disappointed, but I did of course find people had reasonable expectations
which included the fact that I'd gone to seminary. I'd spent three years in
higher education in a graduate school of theology, so people expected me to
know scripture and theology and history and ancient languages. But people
also expected that inspiration would rise up for me out of my pillow at night,
that I could preach fabulous sermons on Sunday with absolutely no time to work
on them, that I would have some kind of direct line to God with answers to
questions that have been insoluble forever. And again, it's always hard to
separate those expectations from my own, but I did feel sometimes either like
the Virgin Mary's younger sister or like some mediator, confidante of God's
who had this secret answer, and of course I didn't.
GROSS: By the Virgin Mary's younger sister, you mean someone who needed to be
kind of protected from worldly things and from any sexual reference?
Ms. TAYLOR: Yes. I spent a lot of time in this book thinking about that
funny paradox. On the one hand, people who treated me really with just the
loveliest reverence, the kindest politeness, who hid beers behind their backs
when I walked into rooms, who immediately changed the subject to Sunday School
whenever they saw me coming and again, treated me as a very proper lady. And
then, on the other hand, many of these same people would call at midnight to
tell me that I was their one phone call from jail and that they needed to be
bailed out. I would hear from people who had been admitted to treatment
facilities for addiction. I would hear from these same people when a husband
or wife collapsed in the bathroom or had been taken to the emergency room. So
at the same time I was treated with great deference in public, in private I
think I saw just about every part of the human condition there was to see.
GROSS: What did it say to you that people treated you in both ways, in two
such extreme ways, getting exposed to the people in your parish's worst
problems but them also trying to be very protective of you?
Ms. TAYLOR: I wonder sometimes if it's not the same way in which people
approach the Holy One, i.e., God. I think of ways in which people work very
hard to compose perfect prayers, reverent prayers, polite prayers, and then
within minutes are in tears, confessing the messy, broken, despairing parts of
themselves as well. So I'm not sure that I didn't just get a piece of the pie
that God is served on a daily basis.
GROSS: My guest is Barbara Brown Taylor. Her new memoir is called "Leaving
Church: A Memoir of Faith." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: My guest is Barbara Brown Taylor. She's an Episcopal priest who left
active ministry after nearly 15 years at the pulpit. She now teaches religion
at Piedmont College. Her new memoir is called "Leaving Church."
You say that at some point you got "compassion fatigue." What do you think
brought it on and how did you know that was what you were experiencing?
Ms. TAYLOR: Hm. That's a wonderful question. I first of all would say, I
know that compassion fatigue is not at all particular to ordained ministry. I
know physicians, emergency room nurses--I don't know any dentists with
compassion fatigue, but I'm sure that some of them have it. I think that
anyone who is in the business of emotional labor, that is, whose job includes
feeling certain ways and even perhaps producing certain feelings in other
people are sitting ducks for compassion fatigue. How I knew I was suffering
from it is an even deeper question because I'm fairly stoic. I'm an eldest
child. I sometimes say I was raised as my father's oldest son, because I
learned to shoot guns and ride horses before I ever played with a Barbie doll.
But because I'm pretty stoic I did not know how tired I was, really, until I
resigned from parish ministry, and then for about three months following that
felt as if I were recuperating from a debilitating illness. It was as if my
heart had gone to sleep under a heavy, heavy load, and I didn't know how
asleep it was until it began to wake up.
GROSS: And you felt it woke up after you resigned?
Ms. TAYLOR: It did. My heart, of course, had to be very alive in parish
ministry. You don't survive long without a working heart in that job. But I
guess one way I would talk about it is there is in my life a great deal of
public truth. I've been in the business of public truth for 20 years, that
is, saying the truth from the pulpit, in the Sunday School classroom, in
various articles. Public truth, the truth I believe is good for everyone,
perhaps true for everyone, but whole milk truth. And in this present book I
have explored private truth, truth that for many years I boxed up and took
down to the basement until there finally wasn't room for any more boxes. And
I realized some of my best stuff was down there. So the compassion fatigue
perhaps came from being such a careful censor of truth, of what was
appropriate and what was not, of what seemed holy, and what did not. And the
great relief following the giving up of that was to keep my truth all in one
place and to feel the liberation of that, the salvation, if you will, deep
down in my bones.
GROSS: Now in the Episcopal tradition, priests can marry.
Ms. TAYLOR: Right.
GROSS: And you were married while you were in the ministry.
Ms. TAYLOR: Yeah.
GROSS: Do you think your experience as a woman priest, a married woman
priest, was very different than the experience of male priests, and do you
think people treated you differently because you were a wife as well as a
Ms. TAYLOR: I think so. Early on, one of the rumors when I came to
Grace-Calvary Church was that somehow my husband had finessed my hiring. It
was the oddest, oddest rumor in the world, as if he could go get me a job or
buy me a church or just fix me up any way I wanted to be fixed up. There are
statistics in the Episcopal Church that have sort of a rank of wellness, and I
guess the people who are happiest among clergy and spouses are the husbands of
women priests. They rank high on the wellness scale, and then come women
clergy, then come male clergy, and at the bottom of the heap are women married
to male clergy. So I do think I was treated differently because I was a wife.
I think I had ways to say, `I need to go home now. I have, you know, someone
to be with, someone to cook supper for, someplace to go.' I think--we--I do
not have children, so that was not part of the equation, but I do think that I
was treated differently in many different ways. You know, some people
wondering if I were not controlled by my husband and his spokesperson, which
was really laughable, but on the other hand, I think I was given some leeway
to be a family person and a wife, as well as a priest, so that was the happy
side of that.
GROSS: What do you think explains that the husbands of women priests rank
really high on the satisfaction level, and that the wives of male priests rank
Ms. TAYLOR: I think that has everything to do with expectation. No one in
the world knows what to do--or, no one in the world knew what to do at first
with men married to women clergy. My husband still receives invitations to
tea parties for clergy spouses, and the first time he was invited to a clergy
spouse retreat, he just had a great time wondering who his roommate would be.
So there is a way in which I really chalk that up to the differences in
expectations that women marry the male clergy have, oh, decades of
expectations heaped on them about who they will be and what they will do,
whereas men are relatively free from that. There's also a kind of cultural
bias that the men have jobs that they're supposed to be at. They're supposed
to be out being breadwinners, so there's not the same expectation that you get
a two-for-one or that men married to women clergy will be fully involved in
the life of the church.
GROSS: What kind of work does your husband do?
Ms. TAYLOR: He's a retired engineer who is now a organic vegetable farmer
and stone carver, so he's having a wonderful time.
GROSS: In the Episcopal Church there's been quite a big and ongoing debate
about the ordination of gay bishops, and in fact, this debate threatens to
split apart the Worldwide Anglican Church, of which the Episcopal Church is
part. And at the church level, you probably didn't have to worry--think much
about the ordination of gay priests, but I'm sure the issue of gay members,
openly gay members, a blessing of gay relationships did come up. How was that
addressed at your church?
Ms. TAYLOR: It was a live issue and I think because I was one of the earlier
women clergy, I have always thought now of the discussion, the debate, the
upset around gay and lesbian clergy as being about sexuality as much as it is
about homosexuality. And I think that the fears in many cases are the same.
I've even had some friends who have become pregnant and who've served churches
find that they stirred up quite a bit simply by being very pregnant at the
communion rail or behind the altar. So I do register what is going on in the
Anglican communion and not only there but in many, many mainline churches in
the United States as being about sexuality.
The fears at the local level were huge. I left before the consecration of the
first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, so that was not something
that I dealt with at the parish level, but I did--I was required by the
diocese, along with every parish priest in the diocese, to convene a group to
talk about human sexuality, and the subtext was homosexuality. But I was very
interested in that group to find out the broad, broad range of unhappiness, of
tension, of fear that people brought to that discussion, so I think we're
acting that out nationally and internationally. At least one way I register
that is its penance. The church is paying for centuries of saying nothing
about sexuality except "don't."
GROSS: So did this discussion of homosexuality lead to larger discussions of
sexuality, you know, of just all kinds of human sexuality?
Ms. TAYLOR: It did, although I think it's very human to wish to stay focused
on a small group of people who happen not to be me, or my people, and to call
their sexuality up into the light of day to be examined for its holiness or
its parallel with scripture, and then to let everybody else off the hook. So
that conversation did not remain as broad as I would like for it to have been.
But another important thing that happened in that meeting is that several
people said to the larger group, `Well, you may not know you're talking about
me, but I am a gay person, I am a lesbian person.' And it was remarkable what
could happen at that point when the issue stopped being a, quote, "issue," and
ended up being a person with a face, and a life and a voice and a heart that
GROSS: So how were those people who did come out accepted?
Ms. TAYLOR: Loved. They were loved before, loved after. There may have
been a jump point at one point while people rearranged their image of this
person who was already a beloved person to them, but for the most part, I
found that the old country rural rule held, and that was a version of,
`Whatever you do is your own business, just don't rub my nose in it.'
GROSS: Let me read something that you write in the book about this. You
write, "Since I was responsible for the care of souls who did not share my
conviction, I learned to feign neutrality as I presided over increasingly
bitter debates about homosexuality." So why did you feel you had to feign
Ms. TAYLOR: When one is ordained, there is a lot of language about being a
shepherd of a flock, even at the level of bishop in the Episcopal Church. A
bishop walks down the aisle of a cathedral church with a great big shepherd's
staff. And what all of that language and imagery said to me, and says to many
of us who are ordained, is that we are shepherds of the whole flock, that we
are responsible for leading all to fresh water and good pasture and not to
those whose ideologies match ours or even those whose commitments or reading
of scripture match ours. So I felt responsible in that regard for not
dividing the flock into sheep and goats. That's God's business, not mine.
But it is one of the reliefs I experienced when I finally left parish
ministry. The way that the question began to form itself for me went like
this, `At what point does being a shepherd keep me from following the
shepherd?' That is, `At what point does my trying to keep the whole flock
together interfere with my ability to do and be what I believe God is calling
me to do and be, especially in terms of the inclusion of all people in the
GROSS: Barbara Brown Taylor is the author of the new book, "Leaving Church:
A Memoir of Faith." She now teaches religion at Piedmont College and is a
columnist and editor at large for The Christian Century. She'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Barbara Brown Taylor.
She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1983, served as an associate in a
large urban church in Atlanta, then in 1992 became the first woman rector of
Grace-Calvary Church in a small town in north Georgia. Five years later, she
left active ministry to accept an endowed chair in religion at Piedmont
college. She says taking her collar off turned out to be as necessary to her
salvation as putting in on. She's written a memoir called, "Leaving Church:
A Memoir of Faith."
You've given us some sense of the reasons why you resigned from parish
ministry, but was there a last straw for you?
Ms. TAYLOR: I think the last straw really came when by all standards of
success the ministry at Grace-Calvary had succeeded. We had doubled in
membership. We had doubled in budget. We had doubled in terms of the number
of people in worship on Sunday mornings to the point that we had gone from two
services to four. And it became very clear that in order, even to have a
wedding or a funeral that everyone could attend at the same time, we needed a
larger space in which to meet. So like many other churches in other places,
we began to talk about our physical space, and that caused such furor in this
gorgeous little white clabbered chapel in the woods, built in 1842, an
absolute jewel of Victorian architecture, it caused such furor among
parishioners. I think again, fear got cranked up. `What will happen if we
become large? What happens to our intimacy with one another? What happens to
our love of this small, beautiful space where we worship God.' So the last
straw for me was realizing that after about a year of engaging in these
conversations, I had no vision for how to move forward. I had no ability to
help that congregation take that step. And in fact, if I did, I was looking
at two to three years of capital funds campaigns and building programs and
spending a lot of days bent over a blueprint and a hole in the ground, and I
think that was the last straw.
GROSS: It must be really hard to resign from a church the way you did. I
mean, it's always, I think, hard to resign from a job, but you're resigning
as--you know, you're resigning from parish ministry. So you could also feel
like you're betraying the members of your congregation, and you could feel
that you're betraying God because you planned to at this point leave the
ministry altogether and teach instead. Can you describe some of the things
that went through your mind and some of the things you had to wrestle with
before feeling confident that you're weren't doing a terrible thing by
Ms. TAYLOR: Oh, well, you just read my mind. Everything you just said went
through my mind at that point. And in fact, I could not write this book for
five years. The events in this book happened now nine going on 10 years ago,
so it took me four or five years even to be able to speak of what I had done
as anything positive instead of only the kind of betrayals that you mentioned.
Some people read the book and wonder what the big deal is about, because
clearly I'm still a priest, I'm still active in churches across the country,
but the big deal was the death of an identity, that I was and would forever be
a parish priest who spent her life doing that work. The death of some faith
in the institution of the church as a place in which transformation was
happening. I lost some faith in that. I had some disillusionment around
that. There was a great deal of grief and sense of betrayal in all that. So
the working out of this book was, in a way, telling a story I needed to hear
which was how someone who had left parish ministry after 20 years could, first
of all, still be a priest, and second of all, still be engaged in lively work
in the world. And I believe I found a way to say that all of those are so.
One other thing I should mention is my predecessor at Grace-Calvary had died
in office, and the two before him had been ridden out of town, so at least one
person thanked me afterward. She thanked me for leaving in the regular way.
She thought that was a great plus.
GROSS: When you told the members of your church that you were leaving, did
you say, `Ladies and gentlemen, I have compassion fatigue and I can no longer
be your priest.'
Ms. TAYLOR: I did not. I truly, in some ways, don't remember what I said.
I even saved the letter so I could read it later. At that point I was almost
blind with anxiety about leaving this path that I thought would be my path for
a much longer time than it was. So I believe I phrased it this way: that I
could not see a way forward, that I been offered a teaching job, that I am the
daughter of a college teacher, had always dreamed of teaching college. I
think I phrased it more in terms of wanting to do this new work that was being
offered to me, so that was the public face of it. And the more private truth
of it was that I exhausted and that I found myself at a dead end.
GROSS: Did you think being a priest, that when you were exhausted, that
somehow God should heal you, make you whole, revive your energy, and allow you
Ms. TAYLOR: That's wonderful. Yes, I did. And I think that's a huge
illusion that somehow if I would work all the time, never complain, be a good
person, be a terrific eldest child, be the world's best priest, that the
energy would appear, that my plate would be full every day, that I would never
run out of gas. And I think, looking back, that was like failing to take
responsibility for the care of my own soul. That anyone who wants to remain
in that vocation for a long time had better learn how to cook him or herself a
meal because the Holy One has a lot else to do. So certainly I did. I
operated under that illusion for a long time. If I would just do my job well,
I would never grow weary, my feet would never fail. I think there's even a
scriptural passage like that, but in my case, it meant I fell flat on my face.
So I learned to walk beside the still waters myself. I learned how to graze
in some pastures. I learned how to be quiet, how to take time apart, and how
to do for myself the same things I encouraged other people to do.
GROSS: OK. But wasn't there a voice in your head saying, `This is supposed
to be a self-sacrificing position? This isn't about your well being, or your
ability to enjoy solitude. This is about you helping the people in your
church, so tough it out.'
Ms. TAYLOR: That's right. That's right. Give and give and give until
there's nothing left to give. That's a central paradigm in the Christian
tradition. Walk into any church, after all, and you're usually looking at a
cross, and in that understanding the way of life is the way of loving until it
kills you. I had to work hard to find in my own tradition resources both in
scripture and in the teachings of the tradition that Paul, for instance,
pointed out how often Jesus said to his followers, `Let's go away for a little
while to a quiet place and rest.' The fact that when they got there there were
5,000 hungry people waiting for them, somehow in my mind x-ed out his
invitation to rest. And it took a long time for me to understand the
invitation to rest still stands, regardless of how many hungry people there
are. This never makes it easy, and in some ways the huge discovery for me in
the past seven or eight years has been that there is this distinct possibility
that what God most wants from me is not the worn out empty sack of myself, but
my full and whole humanity--granted, at the service of other people--but to be
at the service of other people, you've got to have something to serve. So
it's taken a long time to win that wisdom.
GROSS: My guest is Barbara Brown Taylor. Her new memoir is called "Leaving
Church: A Memoir of Faith." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barbara Brown Taylor, and her
new memoir, "Leaving Church," is about her work as a priest in a small church
in a small town, in Georgia, and then her decision to resign as a parish
minister and to instead teach religion at a college.
Leaving the parish ministry meant that you dressed differently and people
would look at you differently. As you said, it's a new identity going from,
you know, priest in a church to teacher in a college. So what are some of the
ways that you think perceptions of you changed from people who didn't know
your previous life as, you know, as a church priest?
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, on the plus side, if you go to my closet now, you'll see
much more than black, gray and black and gray stripes. You'll see red and
green and blue and lots of colors, so it was terrific fun for me to break out
of, really, the uniform I chose for myself. I know clergy who wear Hawaiian,
you know, luau clergy shirts for Pete sakes, so there's a lot of variety there
I never made use of. A downside, I'm now just--I look exactly like any other
54-year-old woman who hasn't bothered to dye her hair, so I get ignored as
easily as anyone else who no longer has a clerical collar to peak their
curiosity. I have, since I gave up the clerical collar, traveled with my
husband, who's an artist, to some occasions where people sidle up to me and
say, `So what do you do?' And it's been also a kind of demotion, which has
been both welcome and puzzling as I've relearned my way in the world without
my uniform. As I have said before, sometimes people see me and they have to
shake their heads and try to remember why they know me or where they know me
from without the uniform. But I have largely experienced it as a great
liberation. I still wear the collar on Sundays, but during the week I travel
incognito and it means I can be part of much more colorful conversations than
I used to before.
GROSS: Yeah, well, now that strangers don't know that you're a priest because
you're not wearing the collar, do they talk differently around you?
Ms. TAYLOR: They do. In fact, just last week I was out with three Roman
Catholic friends, two of whom are priests and one of whom is a campus
chaplain. And the person who was serving our table had no clue whom she was
talking to, so she was treating us all quite sassily. And we just howled
because no one back home in our parishes treats us that way. So I have found
a wonderful and welcome kind of irreverence as I learn how people really talk
when they don't think there's a minister around. It's really very
GROSS: Why do you wear your collar on Sunday?
Ms. TAYLOR: Well, I wear my collar on Sundays because I am a priest. I
still am a priest in good standing in the Episcopal Church, and Sundays seem
to me a like a formal occasional. I would no more go to an evening wedding,
you know, wearing a denim skirt than I would show up on Sunday without a
clerical collar. That's the proper dress for that occasion, and it is a sign
of my office, and it's an office that I have not left behind even though I
longer exercise that office on a full-time basis in the parish so...
GROSS: I want to ask you a larger question about the Episcopal Church. You
know, as we discussed earlier, the larger Anglican Church is in danger of
actually splitting apart over the issue of the ordination of gay bishops. Do
you think that it's worth compromising on that to keep the church together?
Or do you think if the church is so opposed to the spiritual possi--spiritual
lives of homosexuals that it's maybe worth leaving?
Ms. TAYLOR: I'm first of all grateful I'm not the presiding bishop of the
Episcopal Church or even the bishop of a diocese. You spoke earlier about
some of the occupational hazards of leadership and at least one of those is
needing to be attentive to the life of the whole community, and I do have a
presiding bishop in the Episcopal Church who's attentive to that. At my very
local level, now that I am no longer, you know, reflecting on a particular
congregation of people, I am free to say that I find this a justice issue.
And while I do not expect the ordination of gay and lesbian people or even the
blessing of same-sex unions to be justice issues in every part of the world,
they are where I live. And those two things concern not only people I love
but people through whom God is acting and speaking and moving in this world,
and to in any way cut off that ministry, in any way to dishonor that image of
God in these people strikes me, as in religious language, a sin. I don't see
any solution in the short term, but I do--I have no hesitation in myself in
saying where I stand on both of those.
GROSS: Do you stand in favor of gay equality within the church at any cost,
you know, at the cost of the church splitting apart?
Ms. TAYLOR: I believe that in fact the church is both split and together.
One of the reasons I chose the Episcopal Church in the first place was it was
not a church that insisted on my doctrinal conformity. It was a book--it was
a church whose book was called the book of common prayer, and not the book of
common belief, so I think in many ways we are already so different that you
could call us split, and in many ways we are still so alike, united chiefly
through our prayers, that we are still together. Both are true. Both are
GROSS: But the thing I'm really asking you is that, you know, you know that
some people are not willing to stay in the same church with gay priests or
with people who want to ordain more gay--gay bishops, I mean--with people who
want to ordain more gay bishops. So there might be not--there might be a more
literal split. Would you...
Ms. TAYLOR: Oh, I think the Episcopal Church as a whole may have found a way
to avoid that, but I'll be very direct. If there is something worth schism,
this may be it. The Episcopal Church has always had a saying that heresy is
not as bad as schism. It's better to hang together with a lot of variety in
belief than it is to split up so that we don't talk to each other any more.
But I am a Southerner and I'm very mindful that the Episcopal Church did not
split over slavery, as some other denominations did. That would have been
something worth splitting over, and this may be another. And a split would be
a grave, grave sadness, a tragedy.
GROSS: I thought I'd end with a light, simple question.
Ms. TAYLOR: Do that.
GROSS: Yeah, well. You've used the word "God" a lot during this interview.
So my light simple question is, when you say the word God, what does God
mean--like, what do you think when you use the word God? What are you
Ms. TAYLOR: When I use the word God, I am so aware I'm using a code word and
that everyone who hears that word, and probably everyone who uses it.
imagines something different, imagines a different posture in front of that
being, that presence. I suppose my own image, my own idea of God, as
imperfect and as evolving as it is, right now would be the glue that hooks
everything together, the consciousness that moves between all living things.
When I use the word God, I do not envision a large person with two arms, two
legs, a nose and two eyes. I envision instead some presence so beyond my
being, a presence that both knows the stars by name and knows me by name as
well, that is not here to be useful to me, that is not here to give me things,
as much as to ask me to give myself away for love. I of course get a great
deal of what I mean by God from the tradition in which I stand--the Christian
tradition, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament. But when I say I believe in
God, I mean I trust in the goodness of life, of being. I trust that beyond
all reason, I trust that with my life, and that's what I mean by God.
GROSS: And do you consider different religions, different expressions or
different interpretations of that same presence that you're describing?
Ms. TAYLOR: I do and I get in a lot of trouble for that. I teach World
Religions at Piedmont College so I've had, going on nine years now, to make
friends in most of the major world traditions, to read pretty widely in them
and to become clear that none of us has a corner on absolute truth, which may
well exist, but we are absolutely incapable of knowing it. And what we do
have is one another. We have other human beings, with hearts like ours,
longings like ours, joys like ours, and that human to human level has reliably
been the place where I experience the divine most directly. So that's the
direction I'm still headed in.
GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. TAYLOR: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed talking to you too.
GROSS: Barbara Brown Taylor is the author of the new book "Leaving Church: A
Memoir of Faith." She teaches religion at Piedmont College and is a columnist
and editor at large for The Christian Century.
Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg looks back on the days of "Plutomania"
and considers the new definition of planet. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Linguist Geoff Nunberg talks about the wider
implications of downgrading Pluto to dwarf planet
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our linguist Geoff Nunberg doesn't profess to know much about astronomy, but
when astronomers change the definition of the world "planet," they enter
Geoff's territory, language.
Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: It isn't completely certain that Mickey Mouse's dog Pluto
was named after the planet. Actually, Pluto was a fairly common name for dogs
and horses in the early part of the 20th century. But Disney's bloodhound
first appeared under the name Pluto in the cartoon "The Moose Hunt" in 1931,
just a year after the announcement that Clyde Tombaugh of the Lowell
Observatory in Arizona had discovered a new planet beyond the orbit of
Neptune. And it's hard to believe that Disney wouldn't have tried to take
advantage of the Plutomania that was sweeping the nation. After the
announcement, thousands of people wrote in to suggest names for the planet.
The popular story has it that the name Pluto was submitted by an 11-year-old
British schoolgirl, but was more likely devised by the Italian astronomers who
corroborated the discovery.
Meanwhile, Tombaugh himself was lionized as an American hero on the model of
Charles Lindbergh, a 22-year-old "aw-shucks" Kansas farm boy and self-taught
astronomer who had beat the best scientists of the world in the search for the
elusive Planet X that was thought to be perturbing the orbit of Neptune. And
the public's imagination quickened even more when it was mistakenly announced
that the new planet was the Earth's near twin in mass. As the papers put it,
it was the only planet a human being could go without changing his weight.
This had all happened before, of course. William Herschel's discovery of
Uranus in 1781 so excited the world that from that moment on the detection of
a new planet epitomized the ecstasy of scientific discovery. The feeling that
Keats famously captured in the lines from "On First Looking into Chapman's
Homer," "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims
into his ken." And the discovery of Neptune in 1846 provoked a similar popular
sensation, along with a spirited controversy when the French and English both
claimed credit for the first sighting.
But after last week, it's not likely that any of that will ever happen again.
The more restrictive definition of a planet that was adopted last Thursday at
the meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Prague didn't simply
demote Pluto from a planet to what's now called a "dwarf planet." As several
astronomers pointed out, it also made it extremely unlikely that any new
objects will be found in the solar system that can qualify for the planet
label. The new definition was chosen over one that would have kept Pluto a
planet, but would also admit several other bodies to planethood, almost
certainly with more in the offing. From here on in, the number of the planets
is necessarily eight, what the astronomers now refer to as the "classical
planets." Which is just another way of saying a planet that was known in the
day of Jules Verne.
Actually, both the winning and losing definitions of a planet had a decidedly
legalistic cast to them. The astronomers were clearly less interested in
carving nature at the joints than in finding plausible-sounding criteria that
would give due honor to the cultural significance that people have always
accorded the notion of a planet. In fact, the astronomers implicitly conceded
that the winning definition was ad hoc when they stipulated that it would only
apply to objects in our own solar system. That's like hearing biologists
propose a definition of mammals that only holds for North America. It's a
good example of what legal theorists disparage as result, or
anti-jurisprudence. You couldn't help being reminded of the Supreme Court's
decision in Bush v. Gore, another result-oriented decision that was limited
to the present circumstances, as the court put it, and which couldn't be cited
as precedent in other cases.
The only interesting question was why it was necessary for the astronomers to
go through the whole business in the first place and why anybody else should
care. After all, language routinely recognizes natural categories that have
no good scientific basis. There's no geological reason why we should consider
Europe a separate continent from Asia, and no botanical reason why we should
refer to tomatoes as vegetables rather than fruits. There's no way to define
the lily that doesn't include a lot of tulips as well. And there are other
words like shrub and weed that don't have any kind of scientific definition at
So why can't we just keep using planet however we damn well please? But then
planet is a word that's been intimately connected with science since
Herschel's day. You can be interested in lilies or tomatoes without caring
much about botany, but being interested in planets pretty much guarantees
you're a science buff. For generations the very idea of other planets has
given school children their first taste of the romance of science. And it was
no hope in the hope of preserving that romance that the astronomers decided to
adopt a definition that closed off the club rather than using one that
included Pluto, but would also require them to acknowledge a new member every
time some astronomer discovered a big-ish iceball in the far reaches of the
The irony is that nobody will ever again thrill to the news of a planetary
discovery in our own solar system. Astronomers will continue to locate
curious objects orbiting the sun beyond the orbit of Neptune, and the
discoveries will be given respectful mention in the science papers. But from
here on in, none of them is going to have a cartoon character named after it.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley. His new book on political
language is called "Talking Right."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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