sacred spaces and Fowler’s stage 5

i’m in the midst of writing proposals and rationales… i always think it’s going to be mindnumbing work, but it never is. it’s by doing this kind of thing that the missing connections always come together in my mind.

until the last few weeks, the majority of people who got in contact with me were those from within the church, wanting me to come and do stuff with them, or to find out about workshops or resources, etc. That balance has changed. The majority of uninitiated contact – emails, phone calls, etc. – is now coming from people who aren’t part of the church – never have been, or never want to be again.

I’m writing a rationale for the body who auspice this project, about why we would want to get involved in an alternative space in the city that might never have any impact on the church – which wouldn’t privilege christianity over other faiths, and in which the uniting church would not be the ones offering hospitality, but rather just one of the parties at the table. in the rationale i’ve been reflecting on what i’ve heard as i’ve been in conversation with people recently – and i wrote this paragraph:

Unexpectedly, we’ve discovered a growing number of people in the second and third groupings [those who have left the church and christianity, but still see themselves as having faith; those who have never been to church and never will] who are contacting us to find out more about alternative worship and sacred spaces. Their trust takes a long time to be earned. Their involvement is deeply hesitant. They aren’t necessarily anti-church, often they haven’t been hurt by the church, but they simply aren’t interested in the world of the church. They say, quite openly, that they never intend to go into a church [and, if asked, will look completely bewildered as to why they would be expected to]. They don’t come to an event or space because they want to talk [except, perhaps, one on one in a different space and time], they are [often] quite faithful to a set of beliefs, they aren’t particularly lonely, they don’t want / need to be ‘fixed’, they’re not looking for a new group of friends, they’re involved in community and, often, in acts of justice. They know about christianity, and have often been formed by it, but they’re not there any more. They’re not searching for constructed meaning or belief, they’re looking for a place that will bring to life the stuff that is at their heart.

They do speak of wanting a constructed space, which they call sacred, where they can place their hopes, fears and faith against other resonating stories. It’s this kind of space that we are looking to create in the city.

i used the language ‘post christian’ to describe this group yesterday, but i think they’re perhaps better described by Fowler’s Stage 5 – conjunctive faith. Fowler himself says that stage 5 is hardest to grasp, but he describes it as the following:

Stage 5 accepts as axiomatic that truth is more multidimensional and organically interdependent than most theories or accounts of truth can grasp. Religiously, it knows that the symbols, stories, doctrines and liturgies offered by its own or other traditions are inevitably partial, limited to a particular people’s experience of God and incomplete…

– from Fowler’s Stages of Faith

I think within the Uniting Church we have created communities that are expressions of Fowler’s stages 3 and 4 – even if we don’t always do them well. There’s plenty of space for conversation and disagreement within the church [much to the frustration of many who think the uniting church doesn’t actually believe anything]. There are strong progressive theology networks, plenty of spaces for deconstruction, leaders are trained within a theological college that probably privileges stage 4… but i think, largely, that we let people drop off the edge when they transition into stage 5… or else that people stay around but get their life and energy from somewhere else. we assume people leave the church because they’ve lost their faith, but maybe it’s because their faith has taken them into another space that the church doesn’t reach?

which leaves me wondering what kind of spaces can we construct that might be ‘home’ to those within stage 5… which also reflect the realities of a postmodern culture and context.

and it also leaves me hoping that the uniting church has the capacity and vision to be involved in resourcing these kinds of spaces, knowing that in reality it’s not going to get anything in return… people aren’t going to come to church in response to them, and they aren’t going to sign up to christianity… because even if they resonate most strongly with an expression of the christian faith, they’re on the search for the truth in the ‘other’…


  1. Jeff

    Hi Cheryl,
    I showed my partner this post and it resonated strongly with her as it does with me. We got to talking about sacred space. She remembered (the most sacred space) being in Israel in a museum that had within it a memorial to children killed in the holocaust. A completely darkened room with all walls and ceilings mirrored. One candle burning and a quiet repeating of the names of the children on a loop. She wondered about a similar space where people could add their names and maybe come again but where there were so many others named that you might never hear yours. A kind of infinity link!!

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