Is Christianity a ‘Toxic Brand’?

Shirley du Boulay’s autobiography is called ‘A Silent Melody’ and I suspect the title is influenced to some extent by that of William Johnston’s book, Silent Music. Du Boulay refers to that book in a number of places as having a particular influence on her when she read it in the mid ’70s. Both books talk a lot about meditation and it is the practice of meditation that has remained with du Boulay as she has travelled first deeper into the Christian church and then further away from it until she finds herself saying – not without pain – that she can no longer call herself a Christian.

Shirley du Boulay has been influential in the religious life of these islands for many years, first as a producer of religious programmes for the BBC and then as the biographer of Cicely Saunders, Desmond Tutu, Theresa of Avila, Bede Griffiths and Abhishiktananda. So her autobiography is a fascinating survey of contemporary spiritual life as it is experienced by increasing numbers of people. Drawn first of all by the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, then becoming a Roman Catholic and finally practising Zen Buddhism for over 20 years, she has travelled a long way from her conventional Anglican origins. She writes eloquently and with humility about the complexity of describing a fixed religious identity and talks about how this is true for many people through history. The notion of ‘dual belonging’ or even multiple belonging is not a new one and it is unlikely that the early Jewish-Christians were the first hyphenated believers! Du Boulay makes a strong case for the fluidity of our religious belonging and, in a world where unshakable certainty about religious purity leads to such violence and exclusion, I find it hard to disagree.

But why is it that, given this willingness to embrace plurality of religious identity, she no longer wishes to identify with the Christian church? It is not that she has ‘lost her faith’ or that she does not wish to see the churches flourish, but there are two major factors in her coming to the place where she now finds it impossible to claim that belonging. The first is that the church has failed to meet her spiritual needs. Bill Johnston frequently said that the church must be mystical if it is to make sense to modern people. If the churches do not offer an experience of spiritual depth and a practical approach to exploring such depths, then spiritual seekers will find it cold, doctrinaire and dislocated from their spiritual longings. The second is that the churches have tolerated the abuse perpetrated by members of their own clergy while strongly condemning the loving, committed relationships of their gay members. The commitment of many Christians to justice and peace and to the practice of compassion and inclusion has not been sufficient for people like Shirley du Boulay to find a way past this clear and appalling contradiction. For many people, yes, Christianity has become a toxic brand.

What is the way out? I think that nothing less than a death and resurrection will suffice. A death to the old ways of privilege, exclusion and judgementalism. A death of self-interest and introspection giving way to a new life of humility, service, spiritual depth, openness and joyfully embraced pluralism may be what is needed to present this profound tradition of spiritual truth afresh for our generation.

3 thoughts on “Is Christianity a ‘Toxic Brand’?

  1. John

    Perhaps you remember sitting on an Indian Restaurant with me after our cycle ride to St Andrews, about 14 years ago As we got to the subject of religion I began to try to express my own thoughts. As a non religious person, I suggested in a flippant manner, I could walk into the supermarket of Faith and see the diffetrent faiths lined up on the shelf. Checking the ingrediants I would try to make an informed choice to ensure there were no unwanted e numbers.

    Jokingly I said the Catholic tin would include incense, colourful robes, and an acceptance of leadership from men in copes. Protestants were offering guilt and minimalism, muslims a lot of time on my knees, which might be a benefit to my stomach muscles and buddists were saysing I could come back and have another go. As an outsider which would I choose.

    You thought it was a little more complicated than that.

    I am of much the same mind, and I now see lots of e numbers that were not on the tins at that time and none look likely to do me any good.

    De Boulay (any relation of Patti?) seems to have done just what I suggested and looked at the ingrediuants in a more thoughtful and considered way than I could ever contemplate.

    She wants to embrace “religious plurality”. That sounds like having your cake and eating it, to mix my metaphors. Picking out the good bits and leaving out the bad bits seems a bit wishy washy to me.

    If her reasons for rejecting the Christian label are “that the church has failed to meet her spiritual needs.” and “that the churches have tolerated the abuse perpetrated by members of their own clergy while strongly condemning the loving, committed relationships of their gay members.” then I wonder what she thinks Christianity is.

    I wonder what her “spiritual needs” are. Is this about a sense of well being and living a good life? Is it about an ethereal connection with the cosmos as defined by a feeling of contentment? Is it about communicating with her community which sets rules, boundaries and limitations ( to quote Cersar Milan, the Dog Whisperer!). Anyway it sounds a bit wiffle and self serving to me.

    Then the toleration of abuse issue that looms over her choice of faith in that supermarket. Is this abuse a facet of Christianity or of the church, I think I would say the latter caused by bad management within an organisatin with a sense of moral superiority and an overwheening desire to protect itself. In any case using this as a reason to say she is no longer comfortable with the label seems a little disingenuous.

    So what am I saying.

    From what you have said above this lady has gone on a journey that has allowed her the luxury of testing a variety of faiths to try to make sense of her own inner turmoil. Her desire seems to be to find a way to express her spirituality, what ever that may mean. The upshot is a rejection of a broad range of sects operating under the Christian lable. Her book would appear to be a way to share this journey to help others in thier journey. It sounds like she did not reach a destination and rather wants to see the good and bad in all such groups and find the parts that suit to cling to.

    Good for her. Does this really take anyone else anywhere useful, other than to see the various religions as part of our infancy as a species. When I was a child…who said that?


    1. Yes, I agree with a lot of that! One of the things I didn’t have space to say is that she has adopted a serious and very demanding spiritual practice of long hours of zazen and that her spirituality is anything but introverted. I do think that it’s perfectly natural to have an eclectic approach to religion. Indeed, I think it is essential to join with Gandhi in declaring the equality of religions. But I tend towards thinking that it is preferable to stick principally to one path while benefiting from dialogue with and even participation in others. I do not, of course, share your view that religion is infantile per se, any more than culture or politics are infantile per se. Is it not natural to seek to express gratitude and to wonder whether or not conscious life is more than a cruel twist of evolution?
      I was particularly interested in her story because it is the story of many people who should be natural allies for the churches, and I think she is honest in how she portrays her current position.
      Thank you for your thoughts!


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