• Helen Dillon-Cottee

My story of deconstruction

I haven't written much about my faith reform on this platform - I suppose my initial deconstruction played out so publically that I needed to take the process 'off line' for a while to find my bearings. But I think it's helpful to explain what happened in my faith because it became the basis for the work I do in The Reform Academy.


This is my story of 'deconstruction'.


I became a Christian in my adolescence through several encounters with the church. The one that cemented my faith was when I joined a large evangelical church when I was about 19. I was invited to go by a friend who was concerned about how miserable I was in my life and had personally found a way of living with faith at the centre of the wheel that worked for him. I was not convinced but he was my friend, so I agreed to go.


The church we went to was in a large auditorium with hundreds of rows of red chairs facing a raised stage littered with electric guitars and amps and microphones. Hundreds of people gathered at their Sunday meeting which started with a bang as a man on a microphone counted us in to a rousing set of songs. This was a full-on, arm-waving, clapping, jumping up and down experience of church that was not familiar but not entirely unwelcome. The first time I went I thought it was all a bit odd – random people waving their arms as they joined in with the band singing about God and Jesus and a ton of stuff that was both familiar and unfamiliar to me.


Despite thinking the whole thing was utterly bizarre, I kept on going each Sunday. And within a few months, I had found a place where I was completely welcome. I normalised to some of the things I’d found strange and jarring and found a home where I could ask all the big questions that I had swirling around inside me about life and death and God and what the point of it all was.


I stayed at this church for 18 years. I met my husband there and we raised our babies there. I could often be seen singing away, one arm in the air, one round a baby on my hip. I joined the band and before long I was asked to lead the band and then I was asked to work for the church as my job. Within a few years of starting to attend this church, I was the one on the raised platform with the microphone in my hand rousing the hundreds of people sat in red chairs to stand and join in the fray. And I was all in. A fully card-carrying, arm waving, always there, reliable church member.


The church was my life and I loved it.


When I was about 30, I had my first round of questioning. Can it really be true that it's as black and white as either you are ‘in’ or ‘out’ when it comes to God? If you are ‘out’ does that really mean that this God who is all about love and grace and mercy would condemn you forever? Can there really be swathes of humanity who are going to suffer this fate because of where they are born or who their family is or what religion they were seeped in from birth or who they happen to love?


And the answer I always got to my questions was that we didn’t make the rules and we just have to trust God, even if it seems violently unfair or wrong. The unspoken answer I got was not to question to order of things. Cleverer men than I had explored these questions over generations and worked out the ‘truth’ and my job was not to question it. Well, that’s not quite true. I was allowed to question as long as I came back to the ‘right’ answer at the end of my questioning.


If you know this particular system at all, you’ll know that ‘doubt’ is a dirty word. In evangelicalism, ‘certainty’ is key and the more certain you are, the more you get to climb the ladder of success within the system. So when people who have climbed that ladder to any degree find themselves with doubt, they do it quietly. There is an unwritten (and sometimes actually written) code of conduct about who we are and what we do here. In the church system, you are rewarded for faith and faith looks like being sure. If you find yourself ‘not sure’ there are consequences. If you verbalise your doubts, you plant a seed of doubt about your suitability to be allowed to say things and do things that will influence others within the group with the people who are in charge.


Church itself is not a cage, religion isn’t even a cage. We find ourselves in a cage whenever we stuff down what we actually think in order to agree with what we’re told to think. We become caged when we stop being who we are and play the role of who we are supposed to be. My discontent with having to tolerate intolerable beliefs was beginning to fuel my discontent.


By this time, I was part of the preaching team. I was given the privilege of a platform and a microphone and the trust to say things that would help to grow and develop people within the church. You can imagine that someone with doubts about some key fundamentals – and a microphone in their hand – was somewhat unnerving for the powers that be.


And so, I faced my first experience of pushing up against the edge of the space drawn around my feet when it came to faith. I knew there was a line, I knew what it meant to stay within the lines and I had a good sense of what it meant to cross over the line too.


I had an important question to answer - do I stay and keep the benefits of belonging here – family, friendships, doing the work I love of sharing ideas and thoughts on things that really matters to me with others – knowing that the only way to do this was to keep my questions quiet? Or do I follow my gut about going down the rabbit hole of my doubts and questions and cross the line, effectively quitting the life I had – my job, my place of belonging, my friendships, all of it?


I chose to stay silent in order to stay within the lines.


Until a few years later when I got my second batch of doubts and questions. Why do men always do better in this church system? Why are women inherently mistrusted unless they are there with a husband on their arm? Why exactly are we so homophobic if we believe everyone is created in God’s image? What if other people of other faiths are simply on a different path up the same mountain?


And this time, I didn’t stay silent with my questions. I arranged to meet with the man who ran the church who was also my friend and my boss, and I started to ask them. We did this for a number of months until the time came where I couldn’t agree to stay within the confines of the space that had been drawn out for me, and you cannot have someone like that full of questions and doubts that seem to go to the very core of the thing, with a microphone in their hand. I became a liability. And so, I was taken off the preaching list and removed from my role leading and teaching in the training program they ran through the church, and the books I’d written got taken off the shelves in the bookshop and people started to gossip about how I lost my faith. I lost my job, but more so I lost the place which had been my home for almost two decades along with many of the friends I’d made over those years.


I couldn’t quit my faith – it was too important to me as a human being - and I also couldn’t tolerate certain things that seemed to be essential to remain in the church system. I needed a third option.


There are currently thousands of people going through this same process when it comes to the Evangelical Christian Church. They are people who would say faith is vital to them, but they have big questions about the system of the church. When these people go down the rabbit hole of their discontents and allow the doubts and questions to take the place of the cemented-down certainty they were taught was non-negotiable, they fall into a process known as ‘deconstruction’.


It was ‘deconstruction’ that helped me to name this third option I had been seeking in other areas of my life and in the lives of my clients. ‘Deconstruction’ is the beginning of a new third-option path which is neither staying and tolerating nor quitting, but is the journey I have called ‘reform’.


For the final few years of attending church, I couldn’t be fully alive or thrive, because I only had two bad options: to stay in a faith system that didn’t fit and didn’t work, or to quit my faith entirely.


I did what we all do. I danced with discontent whilst remaining within my cage. And living in a cage is living half alive.


Wherever we are settling for fear of everything falling apart – we are half alive.

Wherever we are hiding what we think is real – we are half alive.

Wherever we are denying our own doubts and questions – we are half alive.

Wherever we are closeted – we are half alive.

Wherever we are agreeing with someone or something that we know is wrong – we are half alive.

Wherever we are tolerating the intolerable – we are half alive.

Wherever we are not speaking up – we are half alive.

Wherever we are existing according to someone else’s structure or system or rules or values that are in direct opposition to what we know is true, we will be half alive.


I found myself on the path of reform the moment my discontent within my faith system gave me the courage to use my key to open my cage. The journey of reform begins the moment we put the key in the lock.


From there, we start a process of deconstruction: of unlearning, of letting go, of questioning, of naming what is unacceptable to us. We journey through a strange place between two lands – one which was sure and certain and a new land that is full of freedom and life. This journey is not an easy one but it is worth it.


And so now I act as a guide to people who are choosing this third option of reform, for those refusing to stay and tolerate things which they don't believe, but who also refuse to 'quit' the thing entirely.


Deconstruction is a hard road: it can be scary and you can feel like you're risking everything - but I can tell you story after story of people with reformed faiths, marriages, businesses, self-images... and the thing each of these people have in common is that they were crazy enough to believe that on the other side of deconstruction was the possibility of a better future.