2020 is going to be the year we start taking shame seriously in the church, and one of the reasons for that is the number of good books coming out about the subject. I’ve been looking forward to this one by Sally Nash, a very readable re-working of her PhD thesis on shame and shaming behaviour in churches. (I’m also looking forward to Judith Rossall’s “Forbidden Fruit and Fig Leaves: Reading the Bible with the Shamed”, and Te-Li Lau’s “Defending Shame”.)
One of the themes of my book is how the church ought to be a healing community from shame, where we treat each other based on the image of God in one another, and not according to the values of the world. In a way, I paint a picture of the ideal church. The problem, of course, is that the real church is a long way from that – in fact, I think we all know that it can be a place where people are made to feel even more ashamed. Sally’s book is a clear-headed and helpful look at the real church, at the shaming behaviour that goes on inside churches, and at what can be done about it.
The first part of the book looks at what shame is and what the Bible says about it, then dives into the reasons why people feel shame in church contexts, and how they express and respond to that shame. Based on her qualitative research and focus group interviews, she divides shame in the church into six types – personal, communal, relational, structural, theological and historical – breaking down each of the types into example behaviours that trigger them. The most helpful thing about this part is the real examples and quote drawn from the survey and interviews, although it did often feel a little repetitive as the categories and behaviours in the typology are necessarily overlapping; fitting the various shame experiences into the typology generated by the research meant that some of the distinctions between the categories ended up being pretty thin. (I can see the difference between “non-conformity” and “difference”, for example, but much of the effect is the same).
The second part deals with ways in which churches can reduce and mitigate shaming practices in their liturgy and worship, through pastoral care, and also in organisational structures and hierarchies. I was particularly challenged as a teacher by Sally’s reflections on challenging shame in theological education. This section was tremendously rich with a wide range of ideas of things to avoid and things to do instead, but as a result it felt a little rushed as so much ground was being covered. To be fair, to thoroughly unpack how to restructure our church praxis to avoid shame would take a much longer book, and I think Sally does a really important job in raising all of the issues and offering suggestions. But to fit everything in, we have a paragraph on confession, then a paragraph on prayer, then one on sharing the peace, two on worship, one on preaching – each of which could have been a chapter in itself! I know I’m guilty of the same thing myself, but in a way, I think this just shows us quite how much we need to think through and work out if we are going to make our churches a place of healing for shame.
If you’re a church leader or someone with responsibility in your church, this book is going to make you much more aware of the social dynamics going on in church life, and especially the needs and feelings of those who are susceptible to shame. So much of this shaming is unconscious and unintended, but it still happens.
Each of us has a predisposition to shame which we bring to our membership of church and it may be helpful to be aware of the situations which trigger us… my intention in writing this book is to raise awareness of the way that shame in the church may be triggered or manifested in the hope that I and others may engage in more faithful practice in the light of a gracious and loving God.
As well as raising awareness, Shame and the Church will also show you how to begin to build a less critical and less shaming culture within your community and your worship practices. If anyone asks me what we can practically do to make churches a place of refuge for the shamed, I will be pointing them at this book!