A few weeks ago I went to see the film Philomena, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I finally figured out why.
Philomena is based on the true story of an Irish woman who, as an unwed pregnant teenager, was left at a convent that took in women just like her and subjected them to hard labor in return for the service of taking them in when no one else would. As many of these women experienced, Philomena’s young son was taken from her and offered for adoption.
In the film, Philomena, now a much older woman played by Judi Dench, sets out to find her son. Her companion on the journey is a world-weary former BBC reporter, Martin Sixsmith, who, until he was fired, was not interested in telling “human interest stories.” But, he needs a job and this brings Martin and Philomena together for an odd, but touching, traveling “buddy” movie.
When the full extent of the injustice visited upon Philomena is made clear, there is a very moving scene where Philomena offers forgiveness for what was done to her. But, Martin is not prepared to forgive. He is very angry. Philomena, though, will have none of it. She dismisses his anger. She would rather forgive.
I’ve been struggling with this one aspect of the film. Philomena’s ability to forgive is extraordinary, but the dismissal of the anger is unsettling to me—probably because I share some of that anger. It’s not that anything remotely like what happened to Philomena has happened to me, or anyone I know, but the Church—Roman Catholic and Protestant— suffers in an important ways, still today, from the sins of church leaders of the past. Though certainly not all of the reason, but part of the reason, for the missing people in the pews of my church, the entire swaths of generations of people who do not attend church, can be traced back to the harm of priests, ministers, and nuns of the past.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard from quite a few people who are searching—searching for church, or some kind of spiritual community or connection to the holy. These people have reached out to me because of my occasional columns in the local paper or because of this blog or they’ve stumbled upon Old South’s webpage or Facebook page. They are drawn to the words that I write, the ideas that I try to convey, and so they reach out with questions.
Almost all of these people have had—either directly or through a family member or friend—a bad church experience. All of those bad experiences involve religious leaders—ministers, priests, nuns. All of the bad experiences involve terrible harm to the soul, and sometimes the body too. How is it possible that a trusted religious leader can tell a child that a parent is ill or has died because of the weakness of that child’s faith? How can trusted a religious leader abuse children, take advantage of trust, for his own needs?
These abused individuals left the church, but then there is still a place of searching in their lives, there is something missing, a connection that they want to make. Somehow, they discover the words that I write on a regular basis and wonder if it could be true: Can a Christian church really be an open, nonjudgmental, loving place? Can a religious leader really be trusted, can take seriously the emotional needs of those in the leader’s care?
And, though I try—sometimes in person or more often, through the power of email—to convince them that, yes, a Christian church can be an affirming, loving place with no judgment and with religious leaders who will not take advantage of them or their children, it is almost impossible to get these people to come to church more than once or twice.
The scars are deep, powerful, and abiding.
So, I find myself angry, righteously angry—at religious leaders of the past, ministers, priests, nuns. I am angry at those people who have harmed so many, and have left those people searching, still with deep wounds. I realize that the nuns who took in Philomena, and other young women like her, were offering help in a way no one else did, but how could they go so far in damaging those young women, even in adulthood, and the children they bore?
And I’m not just angry for what those religious leaders did to these individuals, I’m also angry for the damage to the church that’s been left in their wake. I serve a church with a population of people under fifty that is tiny. Now, there’s a range of reasons why this is—and lots of those other reasons I’ve written about in the past—but part of puzzle is the damage of religious leaders of the past, and the harm they have done to individuals that caused those individuals to flee the Church. The harm is not just upon the individual but the corporate body of Christ.
I find Philomena’s ability to forgive remarkable, but the language of anger is also an appropriate voice. While forgiveness is powerful, it is not the only response that can propel important change. Anger is also essential, especially anger from within (which, in the case of Philomena is not the case, as Martin is an atheist).
For anyone who finds this blog, who has experienced directly or indirectly, the harm of church leaders, I encourage you to come back and to raise your voice from within. The body of Christ needs you.