A Short History of the Secular Church
by Charles C. Cole
Standing in the doorway of his mostly empty workshop, CAREY CLAY sips his coffee and daydreams aloud about improving the community. His wife, ELLA, listens and observes.
CAREY: In my dream I was buried in the yard, presumably dead. From where I lay on my back, just below the grass, I could look up at our house, which had broken windows and graffiti and a smoldering pile of discarded furniture.
ELLA: That must have been awful! Sorry.
CAREY: Ella, I think it was a sign — not from God, but my higher self — to put my house in order and, by extension, our community.
ELLA: Our community is just fine, Carey.
CAREY: Our neighborhood, then.
ELLA: What neighborhood? Our driveway is as long as the street I grew up on. You can’t see another house except in the winter, when the leaves are off the trees. We’ve had moose drinking out of our birdbath for Goodness sake. That never happened in my neighborhood. Just saying.
CAREY: The kids are in the other room on the Internet on a Sunday morning when we should be breaking bread with the neighbors.
ELLA: Honey, this is not exactly the mid-life crisis I was expecting. Can we discuss this when we go for groceries and nobody under 18 is listening in?
CAREY: My mom’s been dead eight years, and she’s still our only neighbor I’d know by face.
ELLA: So take your rusty truck and go borrow a cup of sugar from the McNairs. Anya and Wilson will probably get a kick out of it.
CAREY: Anya and Wilson?
ELLA: The McNairs.
CAREY: Maybe I will. Which house do they live in?
ELLA: Sweety, you haven’t been looking at your ‘honey do’ list, have you?
CAREY: No. Why? Have you been adding to it?
ELLA: I remember when we were at college, when you had a huge paper to do, you suddenly got this urge to go for a hike, anything to distract you from the work at hand.
CAREY: That was to clear my head, that’s all. I thought you understood that. I wasn’t avoiding anything.
ELLA: The more intense the work meant the more arduous the hike, as I recall.
CAREY: What are you saying?
ELLA: Maybe you need to go for a hike. I’ll join you. When’s the last time we climbed Bradbury Mountain?
CAREY: (Ignoring the question.) Remember when I wanted to use the workshop for my man cave, and you said I didn’t have enough tools to justify it?
ELLA: But you did it anyway. And I, for the sake of peace and not for the last time, bit my tongue.
CAREY: You were absolutely right.
ELLA: That’s nice to hear. A little late, but nice to hear.
CAREY: It took me a while to admit it, but I’m admitting it now. I don’t need it. I never use it. It’s going to waste, all this space. I think we should use it for something else.
ELLA: Interesting. We could convert it to a family game room. The kids would love it. They can have sleepovers, stay up late and play loud party music and ping-pong. And you wouldn’t hear a thing. Or we can make it into a cozy mini-movie theater.
CAREY: Actually, I was thinking of turning it into a church.
(ELLA chokes on her coffee. She grabs a dishtowel and wipes her face.)
CAREY: Are you okay?
ELLA: That’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said in your entire life.
CAREY: You’re always saying your grandfather was a minister. I’d be continuing a family tradition.
ELLA: My family’s tradition. He was a chaplain in the war, so they tell me. Honey, except for Christmas, we haven’t been in a church in fifteen years, not since Chase was baptized, and I remember how much you loved that.
CAREY: It was a hot July day. I was so sweaty that I thought I was going to drop him. Besides it’s not about religion. It would be a community hall where we all meet on Sundays to give thanks for everything good in our lives. For food. For fellowship.
ELLA: Why Sundays? What about Saturdays?
CAREY: I like sleeping late on Saturdays. It’s a tradition. Besides, we don’t usually have plans on Sunday mornings.
ELLA: Other people might.
CAREY: Like what?
ELLA: Is that a serious question? Don’t take this the wrong way. I don’t know what you’ve done with him but, when you see my husband, please send him home. We miss him.
CAREY: Hear me out. I’m thinking of building a secular church, with no emphasis on religion. We don’t even talk about God or Creation or the Bible. We sing easygoing songs from the ’70s and maybe share stories about raising kids or struggles with car maintenance. It’s like “open mic” night at Seadogs bar but for the sole purpose of creating a sense of community. Being there for each other. Listening. Instilling a higher purpose to our lives.
ELLA: We have a higher purpose: it’s called raising our children right, so that they want to grow up to become good citizens on our little planet. That sounds pretty noble to me.
CAREY: Do you think your mother would let us borrow her electric piano? She never uses it.
ELLA: Hold on. What are the rules of this church, the tenets? Does it have rules? Assuming you talk me into building a church out of your man cave, why would someone want to come here and not go into town to a brand-name house of worship with a long history of weekly inspiration?
CAREY: First of all, we’re convenient, just up the hill, which beats a twenty-minute ride into town, especially in bad weather. No more “I’ve heard it a thousand times” holier-than-thou stories from the Good Book. No more formality; they can dress any way they want, pajamas even. And we’re all equals. And we’re all neighbors.
ELLA: Are you listening to yourself? You just put it pretty succinctly; your neighbors don’t know you.
CAREY: But they know you. You’ve been teaching first grade long enough in town that I bet you can’t stop at the post office without bumping into a former parent. You were nominated for teacher of the year once.
ELLA: That was over ten years ago.
CAREY: My point is that you’re a good person. I’m married to a good person. I may not be a baseball coach or a Boy Scout leader, but I vote in every election, and I’ve never had so much as a speeding ticket in my life.
CAREY: If we’re judged by the company we keep, then people have no need to be afraid of me.
ELLA: Afraid, no. But trust has to be built, earned, through actions. Are you planning on being the minister or are we hiring someone?
CAREY: I’ll be more like a facilitator or emcee. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m putting myself above anyone else. This is not about me.
ELLA: Of course it isn’t. What do we call you? I’m sure you’ve considered it.
CAREY: I was thinking ‘Brother Clay’ doesn’t sound too pretentious. It has the ring of family without any hierarchical connotation. The only difference between me and them is I pay the electric bills and sweep the floor.
ELLA: Fine. We’ll give it a shot. But, if it doesn’t work, this becomes a family play room. Deal?
CAREY: Why wouldn’t it work?
(Two months later. With folding metal chairs stacked to the side, CLAY vacuums the new sanctuary when ELLA ENTERS. She waves for his attention over the din. He stops immediately. Their dog, Ginger, BARKS o.s.)
ELLA: Carey, honey, we have company. There’s a strange car in the drive, one of those new hybrids. Someone in a suit just got out. Is your alter ego, Brother Clay, expecting anyone?
CAREY: Not today. Am I in trouble, you think? Sounds like a business call.
ELLA: We’ll know in a minute. One of the kids is letting him in. I’m going to let you two to talk privately. Do me a favor, do NOT encourage him to attend services here, at least not until you get to know him. Let’s stick with soliciting neighbors for the first year. (ELLA EXITS as the REV WILLIAMS enters. He wears penny loafers with bright white socks.)
REV WILLIAMS: Are you Brother Clay?
CAREY: I am. How can I help you?
REV WILLIAMS: I just thought I’d meet the competition that I’ve heard so much about. I’m Luke Williams, the pastor from Newry Little Falls Church. Maybe you’ve heard of us.
CAREY: Nice bell tower, very old-fashioned. I think my in-laws were married there once upon a time. Ron and Yvonne Brooks.
REV WILLIAMS: I know Yvonne well. I actually presided over Ron’s funeral. We do what we can to bring God and lay people together under the same roof, keeping the communication open and honest, instilling hope.
CAREY: (Defensive.) So do we, bringing love and support front and center, but without the whole God part.
REV WILLIAMS: Has anyone ever told you, that’s a very novel approach you’ve got going? I wouldn’t expect it to work, not in the long run. People think of church as a community, but they really come for God. I like to say people would quit going to Dunkin’ Donuts if it weren’t for the coffee.
CAREY: To be honest, we’ve had a few laughs at our own expense, but people are trickling in. It’s been a good way to connect. I believe in practicing what you preach, and I’m not particularly religious. So I had this Town Council idea of offering non-professional community leadership within some familiar Sunday service trappings. I can see how it would strike you as ironic or sarcastic but, I promise, we’re sincere in caring for our friends.
REV WILLIAMS: I believe you, but I bet that if your wife had a gallstone, while you’d sincerely love her, would you be the best man to take care of her?
CAREY: (Ignoring the question.) I think of this space as a home away from home for folks who don’t know God personally, but still share common values of decency and philanthropy, for people who believe in strength in numbers.
REV WILLIAMS: Gotcha. I’ve heard some good things. Apparently, for one, you replaced the damper in Peggy Cumming’s wood stove.
CAREY: Peggy Cummings reminds me of my late mother: pushing eighty and still living life on her terms but not able to do everything she used to. She asked. We answered.
REV WILLIAMS: She stopped by our house to get her hair done. My wife has been her hairdresser for years. It’s clear that Peggy has faith in you. That says a lot really. She wouldn’t abide by my casual cynicism. In fact, she insisted we meet. That’s the only reason I’m here.
CAREY: So this isn’t a white-collar shakedown?
REV WILLIAMS: (Chuckling.) Not at all, so long as you don’t pretend to be something you’re not. I hope my visit can be seen as a sort of outreach from a colleague, and I use the term loosely. There’s room in town for both of us, I think.
CAREY: Good. Because we’re not going anywhere.
REV WILLIAMS: Apparently, you’re not tapping into Peggy’s retirement fund as far as I can determine, and she hasn’t given you power of attorney over her house and property.
CAREY: That’s not what we do. We deliver casseroles and cut flowers and fudge, door to door, absolutely free of charge. And, occasionally, we offer some basic home repair and yard work.
REV WILLIAMS: Anyway, I came to say, whatever you’re doing here, I’ve been doing something very similar for a lot longer so, if I can be of any service in any way, if you have any questions or rough spots, I would be honored to share what I’ve learned from experience.
CAREY: (Abruptly.) I’ve got the Internet. Lots of people giving advice. No offense, but we’re starting something new here; it doesn’t make sense to use the old playbook.
REV WILLIAMS: I respect that, but you may find a guest lecturer who’s comfortable at the pulpit and who knows his way around the New Testament might kick-start the attendance you need to make your church viable.
CAREY: Sounds like a step backward to me. No thanks.
REV WILLIAMS: Sounds like I’ve worn out my welcome. If you see Peggy first, let her know we’ve met. I can’t approve non-religion, but I won’t disapprove your good intentions. And, Brother Clay, don’t be too hard on yourself if this new idea of yours, the secular church, doesn’t catch on right away; some truly great ideas were way ahead of their time. Who knows? Maybe next time, you’ll reinvent democracy minus the tedious voting part.
CAREY: Maybe we will. Thanks for the idea.
Copyright © 2015 by Charles C. Cole