|Much to my Surprise, I found I was a Christian|
It's a convoluted story, and you may be entirely uninterested. But then you shouldn't have asked! You didn't? Ah. Well, be thankful you're not actually having to talk to me, and can close the page down if you want.
My family wasn't Christian, although I was baptised as a baby. According to Mum the clergyman who made me a Member of the Body of Christ through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism was very rude about it, never filled out a certificate for me, and made it quite clear he'd rather we weren't there at all. Perhaps he had a point as all my godparents were non-believers and the next time I set foot in a church was for my sister's baptism seven years later. My religious education consisted mainly of drawing a picture at primary school of St Paul being lowered over the walls of Damascus in a basket, why I can't now recall.
I carried on being interested in matters religious and philosophical, though, and in secondary school decided I'd quite like to start my own religion. It combined together elements of Christianity and Buddhism, despite me being almost completely ignorant of either. At that time, of course, I had no idea that the Episcopal Church of the USA had got there before me ... I did keep reading the Bible, though - albeit in the manner of WC Fields, 'looking for loopholes'.
Having an essentially gloomy outlook on life (and there's plenty more about that in the Gothic section), Christianity - which at some level seemed to demand a sort of cosmic optimism) simply seemed terribly unlikely to me. Discovering the heresies of Dr Don Cupitt, radical theologian at Cambridge, only confirmed my idea that religious belief was simply impossible in the modern world - humanity had advanced too far for faith.
There were always currents in the other direction, however. Bits of medieval music which captured my imagination; Kate Bush - possibly she wouldn't have anticipated that 'Sensual World' would have introduced anyone to the notion of incarnational theology; and spending a snowy winter crunching round Oxford reading about Newman, Pusey, Keble and the Tractarian movement attempting to restore Catholicism to the 19th-century Church of England. Oxford is a fatally intoxicating place for anyone of a Gothic sensibility!
While studying in Leicester I found the echoey Victorian church just down the road from my flat was celebrating its centenary, and decided to go to the service. I was confronted by grandiose Anglo-Catholicism, all incense, bells and mystery, and thought, If this is Anglicanism, I'm an Anglican. I didn't start attending worship there, however, but at St Mary de Castro in the city centre which I passed on my way to the University in the morning (more about these and all 'my' other churches is on the relevant page).
Nonetheless I still didn't believe in any of this. Christianity was beautiful, poetic, a tragic myth and a powerful way of figuring human existence and filling it with magic. But Jesus being God? coming back from the dead? Nobody believed in that sort of stuff any more except a few nutty fundamentalists, and they wanted to destroy the kind of worship I found appealing. I kept to this sort of viewpoint relatively undisturbed for several years, going to church more and more frequently but not really engaging with Christians or, consciously, with God.
That changed on coming to St John's, Chatham, where I did get more involved and, disturbingly, found Christians who clearly believed the 'stuff' but were not obviously crackers - just ordinary folk of all sorts of backgrounds, classes and personalities. The time came for confirmations, and suddenly I became aware that I'd done things in the wrong order - that is, begun taking communion without ever realising that I ought to be confirmed first. The Rector agreed that I ought to be, really (though he seemed remarkably reluctant actually to engage in a conversation about it, oddly as he knew perfectly well I was a heretic), and I began to prepare as best I could with very little guidance. My ideas were starting to shift, and when the moment came I knelt in front of Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, feeling very uncertain indeed.
What was going on was a change in my conception of truth. I'd long since ditched the relativism I'd accepted in my teens as being ridiculous, and instead now believed there was truth out there to be found, if only we could be rational enough. Now, re-reading the New Testament Epistles, in particular, I began to re-assess them as historical documents. They didn't look like texts which had been mucked around with by the Church, as atheists usually alleged: they contained too much argument and mutual contradiction for that. The question then arose, if the texts largely accurately describe certain events - that is, the disciples becoming convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead, and proclaiming the fact - what could have led to that conviction? 'Obviously something happened', said an atheist friend, and that admission was fatal. Gradually I discarded all the possible somethings and found myself facing the impossible one. Why dismiss that out of hand? I reasoned. That's not a scientific approach, is it? Because an event is unique doesn't mean it can't have happened. Oh dear.
It was no fun, I can tell you. To go from believing that I and all human beings were completely free to work out their own morality and destiny, and in fact had a moral obligation to do so, to thinking that in fact there might be an Authority who set the boundaries of that effort - and one which you could talk to - meant all my landmarks were removed. It felt as though everything I felt sure about was being taken apart and there was no telling what would happen in a world which had a God. And if I was a sinner, what were my sins? what did I need to repent? Much later on I read CS Lewis's Surprised by Joy in which he described himself as 'the most reluctant convert in England'. I've never felt very well-disposed towards Lewis, and this confirmed it, because I was that. I always grimace when people describe wonderful conversion experiences full of light, warmth, and feelings of being surrounded by God's love. Mine felt like going mad, and the night when I actually knelt and prayed aloud to a God I wasn't sure I believed in was deeply upsetting and horrible.
Thankfully things improved after that (they could hardly fail). I surprised the Rector with the news that my beliefs were now completely orthodox. But believing is only a first step and the work of living with Jesus Christ takes the rest of your life. Since then, of course, I've gone through the process (very reluctantly) of investigating whether I had a vocation to the priesthood and being ordained, but that's rather superficial stuff compared to what's going on inside. I think I can see a number of changes in me in spiritual terms:
Firstly contact with God has made me more relaxed about other people - especially other Christians. Evangelicals are no longer those terrible hand-waving people who want to destroy everything I value about religion; I don't agree with some things about evangelical Christianity, but now know none of that stuff can threaten my link with God. Things have been put into a bit of perspective.
Secondly, I've been freed to give up things that separate me from God and other people (they're called 'sins', briefly). It's taken time - the process is far from instantaneous despite what some Christians would have you believe - and I know many of my deathly tendencies are still very much alive if subdued. Mostly they involve living in fantasy in different ways, which damages my relations with others and, therefore, hardly please God. It's better, I find, to be free.
Thirdly, having a rooted faith has enabled me to do things I would never have believed possible. There are times when natural kindness and courage fail, and for someone like me who's neither kind nor courageous that point comes quite quickly! Then simple will has to kick in, and will can't come out of a vacuum: it has to rest in belief in what you're doing. Christ on the Cross is an unshakeable bedrock for that belief. Just as one instance, there's one person alive today because, at root, of the doctrine training I had at theological college. Thank you Father Michael!
Fourthly, I like to pray now and have some inkling how. In fact, I couldn't function without it. Again, it was going to college that made the difference really as it introduced me to the silent, personal encounter with God which has to be at the heart of all worship and all action. As a result, the externals become less important and that naked encounter with the Dying and Risen Jesus, though it's not always at all comfortable, turns into the engine of life.
I'm not the person God wants me to be, and have far more than a lifetime's work ahead of me. My distance from him makes me weep with the contradiction between what I am and what he is. I will not be ready for heaven when I die and will have to carry on crying 'Jesus, mercy'. Yet he reaches out to me, and to you too.