Thursday, 29 May 2008

My long journey home

I thought it would be interesting to try to chart the journey that led me to becoming a Quaker.

I began to develop a faith of my own at an early age. I don't remember a time when I didn't believe in God.

I come from a staunchly Anglican (Church of England) family. I don't mean that we always attended at Easter and Christmas - I mean that we had, at one point, an unbroken 100-year record of service to the same church, concluding with my father as churchwarden and my sister and I as sidesmen (ushers taking care of the side aisles). Church was an important thing, and my father in particular had a very strong faith.

We attended a pretty Victorian church with stained glass windows and wooden pews, which still used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and had a service of Sung Communion once a month. I didn't bother for long with Sunday School, but began to go straight into church with Dad.

Although we had a very erudite vicar, who used to give long sermons full of learned and abstruse theology, I loved being in the church. It made me feel comfortable, and the beauty and poetry of the seventeenth-century language in the prayer book and in the King James' Bible sank into me so deeply that I can still repeat parts verbatim now.

Of course, I didn't always understand what I was hearing back then, but I loved the music of the phrases!

When I was about 12, we got a new vicar who was the polar opposite of the old one. David Goddard was a bear of a man, an ex-rugby player with a shock of white hair and a love of bone-crunching hugs. He was one of the biggest influences on my life, and a wonderful man.

His sermons were lively and interesting, and he was particularly good with children. His love for God shone out of him, and the congregation grew rapidly as a result of his welcoming attitude. We began to use a more modern Bible translation for the lessons, and the new ASB modern prayer book. David also set up Bible study groups and prayer groups, which I joined with enthusiasm. I still miss the Sunday evening singsong in the Vicarage dining room.

Around this time (1973), I changed schools when my parents sent me to a local Catholic convent school. They wanted smaller class sizes than the state school could offer, as well as a single-sex intake. I was getting far too distracted by boys at my old school!

I was surprised at how little difference there was between the words spoken at an Anglican Communion service and at the Catholic Mass. I'd never really had anything to do with other denominations before, and this completely puzzled me. I also had a stand-up argument with the Headmistress, a rather formidable nun, because she told me that I was a heathen and was going to Hell unless I became a Catholic: 'Only we Catholics have the pearl of great price.'

At 14, while reading a Gospel account of the crucifixion from 'Good News for Modern Man' (later 'The Good News Bible'), I had a deep emotional reaction to the reality of how much God must love us, and became what I soon discovered was called 'born again'.

I really was pretty obnoxious for the next few years. I had all the answers, and no one else knew anything. I even explained to my father, straight-faced, that he had to accept Jesus in his heart and be born again, or he would not enter Heaven. Luckily he was always very kind and understanding to all three of us children, and didn't laugh me out of the room! I can honestly say now that I have met few people less in need of 'conversion' than my father.

I felt guilty if I read anything other than Christian evangelical books, or listened to anything but Christian music. I was so relieved when Bob Dylan announced he was becoming a Christian, as it meant I could go back to listening to him without guilt!

I had it drummed into me by the books that I read that I had to start and end each day with a Bible study and a 'quiet time'. I kept 'shopping lists' of all the people and situations that I thought I should pray for, and would work my way diligently through them, telling God what I thought He should do.

Every book I read gave me more things to do, more people to pray for, more spiritual exercises to complete or things I should avoid. I worried incessantly that I was not a good witness, that I should pray in tongues, that I should memorise more Bible verses, that I should evangelise on street corners, or sneak out at night to convert the homeless. More than once I stayed awake for hours at night, praying for forgiveness for things I'd done in my past, repeating prayers and the words of hymns over and over again.

I joined the Christian Union at my sixth-form college, and at university, as well as two evangelical street theatre groups. Even at university, I spent hours studying the Bible and going through my prayer 'shopping lists', worrying because I had never converted anyone, or performed even a small miracle.

Finally, in my third year, I moved out of my college and into my fiance's house, which was quieter, so that I could concentrate on my studies more. As it turned out, I certainly got more time to study. I felt so guilty about moving in that I constantly argued with myself that it was against God's law for me to be there.

Eventually something in me seemed to snap, and I went from one extreme to the other, renouncing all my beliefs and claiming I was now an atheist. I refused to have anything to do with religion for the next 19 years.

That seems like a natural break point, and I'm exhausted, so - more next time.

1 comment:

Mary Anne said...

this was a fascinating account of your journey, Part 1. I hope you will continue with Part 2. I quite enjoyed reading your story.