Faith, for me, has truly been a journey, and as the title suggests, full of doubts and hope. But surely a vicar’s wife has got it all sorted hasn’t she? Her faith must be firm as a rock, set on a sure foundation, never wavering about what she truly thinks or believes.
Well, maybe not. So as I come ever closer to the Biblical three score years and ten I have decided to give an honest account of my journey in the hope that it may be an encouragement to at least some who read it. Because I rather suspect that there others who, like me, struggle to get to grips with the mystery of life. Religion, and religion, does not always give us the answers we search for, much as we would want it to. So those who like me struggle to believe certain things they have been told to believe, I hope that my musings may be of some comfort to you, even if the things that you wrestle with are different from mine.
Each of us is very much a part of or ancestry (nature) and our upbringing (nurture). Our early years especially have a very profound effect on the person we eventually become, and it’s often difficult for an adult to shake off some of the things that happened to us, or things that we have been told in childhood which may no longer be relevant in today’s world. My experiences may resonate with some people, and they may be able to identify with the place I am coming from. Others I suspect may struggle to understand what I am talking about as their childhood will have been entirely different from mine.
I was brought up in a Christian family, although in the early 1950’s small children were not taken to church, so parents had a few year of not attending as they stayed at home to look after their children. At least, I can only report on the way things were at the church to which my family were attached.
This was Christ Church Blackpool, which was situated in the town centre opposite the public library. It was a huge, austere building with balconies around three sides of the interior. Before my time it had been used to very large congregations, and visiting preachers would fill the church to capacity. However by the time I was on the scene the surrounding ‘parish’ had been overtaken by shops, hotels and boarding houses, and subsequently a huge drop in regular worshippers.
It was an Anglican church, but I never heard that word until I was past eleven years old. Christ Church called itself a Bible believing Church of England, and it sat very lightly with the Blackburn diocese as the feeling was that Bishops and many other clergy ‘were not quite sound’. The interior of the church had a lot of wood panelling, the panels on the east wall bearing the ten commandments and the Lord’s prayer in gilt lettering. The Lord’s Table (you were not allowed to call in an Altar) was covered simply with a white cloth. There were not coloured altar frontals, no cross to be seen anywhere in the church, and definitely no candles, as they were regarded as being ‘popish’. This description makes it seem rather dull, and I think it was.
But before I went in the church I was taken to Sunday School on a Sunday afternoon. I was four years old and the walk there of just over a mile seemed such a long way to me, but if possible people avoided using public transport on a Sunday. The Sunday School took place in what was known as Christ Church Memorial Hall, situated a short distance from the church. The hall had once been a day school. Build in the Victorian years it was typical of schools built in that era having very high windows which impossible to see through. The thinking must have been that children would have been distracted if they were able to see through the windows. By the time I was going the building was really very dilapidated, although it was still used as the church hall well beyond my teenage years. Both the church and the hall have since been demolished.
The Kindergarten Sunday School was run by an elderly lady called Miss Griffin. Her favourite hymn seemed to be ‘Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin’. If you have ever read the book or seen the film ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’, (Jeanette Winterson) you may remember that this same hymn seemed to be a favourite in Accrington at the church where she grew up. The hymn goes on to say ‘Fight manfully onward, dark passions subdue, Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.’ As I recall this now, as clear as yesterday, I do wonder what dark passions Miss Griffin thought four year old children had!
A year of so later we were moved up into the big Sunday School, but I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it. And within a short time my parents sometimes attended morning service, which meant that I went to morning Sunday School as well! This was run by an old gentleman, and every single Sunday morning, without fail, we sang just two choruses. Taken from the CSSM chorus book these were 135 ‘Oh the love that drew salvation’s plan’ and 252 ‘God has blotted them out’. There it is again – sin. I wonder now whether it really was the most important thing to teach children in Sunday School, that they were sinners. I now believe that teaching children that they are loved by God, and are unique and special gives a healthier beginning. There was a lot of negativity in those days – don’t do this and don’t do that. Things like knitting or gardening were forbidden on a Sunday, and dancing was considered to be the work of the devil. But times and thinking change with the years. And those old people, (and they were old people, not just seeming that way to a child) who ran that Sunday School were very committed people, and sincerely doing their best as they saw it.
It would be wrong of me to give the impression that it was all bad. Christ Church Sunday School, followed by organisations like Campaigners, Covenanters, Pathfinders, and also when I was a teenager the Youth Fellowship, all gave me a grounding in the Christian faith and the Bible, and I was not unhappy most of the time. It’s just that there has, over the years, inevitably been quite a lot of weeding out along the way. But maybe that happens to lots of people as they grow older. As a child I saw everything in black and white, but later in life I see so many shades of grey.
In fact the doubts started to creep in when I went to secondary school. I went to a Church of England secondary school in Blackpool, and it was connected to St. Paul’s Church Marton. How different this was from Christ Church Blackpool! It was known as a ‘high church’, whereas Christ Church was very, very ‘low church, evangelical’. The then vicar of Christ Church was strongly against this high Anglican church, which he considered to be, as he put it ‘half way to Rome’! This was the early 1960’s, and in Blackpool there were still very strong feelings of suspicion between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. I am so glad that nowadays these feelings have all but disappeared, and mostly, we are now just ‘Christians’. It’s so much better, and we can work together on many events, such as Good Friday processions, and Christian Aid week.
I remember very clearly my first day at Elmslie school. At the morning service, (yes, every day started with morning service) we sang a hymn which I had never heard before. It was ‘Thy hand O God has guided’ to the tune ‘Thornbury’. I loved it then, and have done so ever since. It’s a great hymn of unity, and I am thankful that there does seem to be more unity today than there was then.
In Blackpool in those days there was a group of four Church of England churches which were all ‘low church evangelical’ and they worked together alongside some of the nonconformist churches. They considered churches like St.Paul’s Marton to be ‘not quite sound’, and they doubted that people who went there were true Christians. It was partly this attitude that got me thinking seriously about what it really meant to be a Christian. Who could I believe? Who was telling me the truth? Suppose I’d been brought up at St.Paul’s, Marton instead of Christ Church Blackpool, would I not be a Christian now?
After a couple of years a couple of girls who were from India joined the school. This was very unusual indeed in the Blackpool of the 1960’s, but my ‘suppose’ questionings became extended to ‘suppose I’d been born into a Muslim family… … …? Would I now be a Muslim, and therefore, if I accepted all I’d been taught at Christ Church, would I now be on my way to hell?’
I kept all these troublesome doubts to myself. At 14 years old I was much too unsure of myself to question openly. To be honest, I was scared. I wanted to be a Christian. I certainly hope I was one. But if I was, surely I should have the certainty that others seemed to have. Or was it just possible that some of them, like me, were also keeping up a pretence?
To add to my fears, in those days I dreaded Advent. Yes, really dreaded it! The teaching was solely about the second coming of Christ, and about being ready, all the time, any time of day or night, and it frightened the life out of me. For a start, I loved life, and I loved living. I didn’t want my life on earth to be cut short. Yet we often sang that song on Sunday after church Yourh Fellowship: ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through.’ So I felt I must be a terrible sinner to love life here on earth. You can see how confused I was.
In those evangelical churches in those days the preaching was all about sin, how sinful we were, and Bible texts such as ‘I am a worm and no man’ and ‘All your righteousness is as filthy rags.’ were frequently quoted. Perhaps I was too sensitive and took it all to heart too much, but I feel now it would have been much better to teach children how much God loves the world, and how each and every one of us is unique and very special to Him. I read recently that if we could see ourselves as God sees us we would smile a lot more. I like that, and I wish I had been told that when I was growing up.
Looking back, the evangelical preaching in those days was very much what I now would call heaven and hell preaching. Which side of the fence were you on, because you were either in or out, ie either going to heaven or going to hell. Because everyone is a sinner, and it didn’t matter whether you had done terrible things like Hitler, or you were just an ordinary person who had gone a little astray like everyone else had, unless you ‘turned to Christ’, you were out! You would go to hell. You were so near and yet so far.
Was this good news? Well, (to misquote the Labour party’s recent slogan), I suppose it was good news, but ‘for the few, not for the many’. Looking at it like that, it didn’t seem to be very good news to me at all, but I was meant to say it was, and publicly I did say that. But inwardly I was very afraid.
I now think this teaching was wrong. I think Bible texts were taken out of context, instead of understood in the way people of the times in which they were written would have understood them. Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.’ Recently I have wondered whether it is possible to be on the Way, and not know it. I believe it is, and in my next blog I will explain more about how I have arrived at this understanding. So all you conservative evangelicals out there who are reading this – don’t write me off yet! Read the next episode to understand how I have arrived at this conclusion.