My husband and I just returned from a trip to the British Isles, particularly Scotland and Ireland. We had the opportunity to see lots of castles and battlefields and ruined abbeys. The history of this beautiful place is inescapable—reminders of invasions, wars, and bloodshed everywhere. I was most touched by the abbeys—their walls, windows, and arches still standing, but their roofs long gone. There was something profound about being in a chapel that was open to the skies. I could imagine the people who had prayed there, people who had suffered unspeakable horrors in the name of power, land, or God and sometimes all of the above. Their pain echoed through the landscape; whispers of suffering filled my ears. The absence of a roof seemed right. It allowed those prayers to rise up to God without church doctrine and pettiness getting in the way.
Historically, churches literally provided sanctuary to the victims of war, pillaging, poverty, rape. No matter who you were, where you were from or what religion you professed, they took you in, no questions asked, and provided you with food, a bed, and meaningful work to do. Nowadays, the church seems to have forgotten how to do that. Their roofs and their rules seem to keep out the ones who need sanctuary the most. Many survivors of child sexual abuse have difficulty with organized religion. They are sometimes rejected by the church, not because of the abuse, but because of its aftermath—things like drug and alcohol abuse, self-harm, and other hard-to-shake coping mechanisms. It’s not easy to attend church when you feel that everyone is judging you. And it’s hard not to equate God with the church, but they are not the same. God is God, whatever you conceive the Divine to be, and church is a deeply flawed human institution that keeps on trying to be godly, and fails just as often as it gets it right. Maybe they would do better to take the roof off, allow the prayers of human suffering to rise, no longer held within the walls, but received by the vastness of the heavens and the One who listens and offers sanctuary even when no one else will.