Sunday afternoon was probably the most boring, tedious, excruciatingly dull period of time ever when I was growing up. I hated it. I can recall it so vividly now. Nowhere was open, nothing was on the telly – even if we were allowed to switch it on. We would have enjoyed a roast dinner. Nana P came round to play ‘Under the Queen’ with matchsticks for money, which was fun until you lost all your matches and you were out. I was the youngest so that was invariably me. I probably begged to be let back in but my older brothers were having none of it. Dad might have nodded off by this stage for a post lunch snooze, he did that a lot. The only thing to look forward to was the chart show on the radio at 6 and Sunday tea. Always the same, week in week out, Sunday, bloody Sunday. Every now and again mum would suggest that we should all go to Sunday school. At the local Anglican Church there would be an act of worship or two in the morning and then in the afternoon the children would be educated in the ways of the lord. It was bad but it was better than watching Dad sleep off a heavy lunch.
Fast forward 10 years or so and I am at high school when my best mate Glenn suggests we go to the youth club at the local church. I was enticed by the promise of girls but balked when I found out I had to go to actual church once a month to be eligible to attend the club. Turns out the girls went to church as well so it wasn’t all bad and it actually was the start of an on-off but mostly on relationship with the church that lasted well into my late thirties. During this time I got married and between us we brought 3 children into the world and, in turn, into the church. I ran young peoples activities, drama clubs, weekends away. I became an elder, a church leader and I even had a set of keys to the building. I made life-long friendships with people of all ages. But, throughout it all God never so much as said ‘hi’. God was so completely absent from my ‘church life’ it is a real miracle that I stuck with it for so long. Whatever religion was or is, whatever spirituality feels like, I never got it, not once. I always thought that I was alone in this and that somehow everyone else got it.
Then in the mid 2000s I attended a Christian conference where one of the speakers suggested that perhaps I wasn’t so alone in my sense of spiritual isolation. I started to read a few books and go to other conferences and festivals and had conversations with people who were as disaffected as I was. By this stage we had started a group at church in which we tried to deconstruct what our Christian faith meant and the more of this I did the more I realised how little actual faith I had but, more importantly, how this lack of belief actually released me from the most burdensome elements of ‘being a Christian’.
We had now all but given up on most kinds of organised religious activity. We still attended an arts festival that described itself as being ‘steeped in Christian tradition’, which seemed quite an apt description of myself, but stopped sufficiently short of the term ‘Christian Festival’ for me to deem it worthy of my attendance. Closer to home, Anne was trying out local churches with me tagging along every now and then an old friend suggested we try a place called Inspire in Levenshulme. We were somewhat familiar with the story of how this community centre-cum-church had come about through previous dealings with its leader Ed Cox. Basically Ed had got involved with a rundown, dilapidated church in a prominent location on the main road that linked Stockport to Manchester and through many difficult years of planning and hard work had managed to bring together various agencies to invest in a project that incorporated living, business and community space in the one building. The church that met on Sunday mornings were essentially renting the space in the same way as other groups do throughout the week. The lack of entitlement this engendered gave the whole thing an almost temporary autonomous zone (TAZ) feel. It felt like all the groups belonged there yet none were bestowed with any greater right than any other to do so. And, what’s more, of all the churches we had been to throughout our entire lives this one had the comfiest chairs. We were hooked and have been attending regularly ever since*.
I am not a Christian and I don’t think I ever have been though the ‘Lord’ alone knows how much I have tried to be. I recall a poster from my youth that depicted a judge in his wig and probably a gavel pointing at some petrified defendant in the dock. Beneath this image were the words “If you were accused of being a Christian how much evidence would there be to convict you?”. The obvious message being how much do you demonstrate your Christianity to those around you. Back then the answer would have been a resounding and, somewhat ashamedly, “not much”. Case dismissed. Ironically, if I found myself in the dock today they might lock me up and throw away the key! Why do I expose myself to such a risk week-in and week-out if I don’t believe in it? It is a question I have asked myself many times. Part of it is habit, the weekend seems to have a good shape to it when I go to church. Part of it is that it provides a good space in which one can contemplate the bigger questions concerning the meaning of life and death and all the interesting bits in-between. Neither are sufficiently compelling enough though and both could easily be replaced in some other way.
The answer lies in everything that was wrong about the Sunday school of my childhood and most things that were, in retrospect, right with the rest of my church attendance. It was, and is, the people that go there with me.
Sunday school was just that, school on a Sunday. Whilst it only lasted a couple of hours at most, we were all children with an adult in charge trying to teach us stuff about God. My only real memory is wax crayons in an old biscuit tin. Youth club was largely inhabited by youths but when we had to go to church we were interacting with people of all ages – 0 to 80 and sometimes beyond. The added element at Inspire is that there is a much broader range of people from differing social groupings as well as age. There are few places in which I could be sat between to a homeless woman and a man who owns their own cleaning business; or sat in front of an adopted child to a single parent and behind a university professor. There are virtually no other places where I would be able to tell these people my story and hear theirs with both having equal validity and worth. There are none where you would then get up and sing some awful song together proclaiming your undying love for some unseeable and unknowable deity. Nowhere is perfect. You may choose to participate to whatever level you feel comfortable with but the proximity to ‘other’ people is unavoidable and it is this that is the reason I have put ‘Going to Church’ in this section of the book.
Much of church and possibly most of religion itself is spent in contemplation of the vertical. We look up to God in both physical and metaphorical ways. Up is good, up is in control, up is where we aspire to go. Down, on the other hand, is bad and the further down you go the worse it gets. Down is where we are. At least that is what they would have you believe. My lived experience of both church and religion is that if you stop looking up and down and instead look from side to side the view is remarkably different.
What we see are not perfect examples of humankind that we have no hope of ever matching; thus condemning ourselves to lives filled with guilt and shame.
What we see are beautifully flawed individuals who’s stories and lives are inspirational, exceptional and beautiful.
What we see are victims of trauma, pain and suffering but they are not defined by those difficulties. They aren’t bitter and resentful, they are accepting and humble.
What we see is each other.
What we see is ourselves, each of us engaged in trying to cope with the same struggles, appreciating the good and revelling in the exuberant joy of abundant life.
We seem to spend an increasing amount of our lives in isolation. Sometimes this is forced on us but many more times we choose it, spending our time in spaces shared by those that we feel most comfortable with. We resist any challenge to our preferred view of ourselves and the world. We need to drop our guard from time to time and we need to turn to the person next to us and engage with them. A Church is one of the safest places in which you can do that and I would encourage you all to give it a try this Sunday.
* I must confess that I wrote this sometime ago and since everything closed down in March 2020 and church went on-line, I have neglected to attend. Everything has a time and a place and Inspire may well be part of my future as significantly as it has been in my past. But right now it is not. I still stand by everything I have written here and I do encourage you still to find out for yourselves.
But what do I know?