When I graduated from university and left the family home in Belfast to start my new job in the south of England it felt as if I had the whole of my life in front of me. I welcomed the chance to have a fresh start amongst people who had never known me and would have no expectations that I would feel the need to live up to. It was frightening and exciting and sometimes lonely. There were so many aspects of my old life that I wished to leave behind but some old habits die hard. I decided to join a local church.
I do not know of any Presbyterian churches in England but the small town where I bought my first flat offered a Catholic Church, a Church of England and a Methodist Church. I chose the Methodist Church largely because I seemed to remember that my father’s family had once been Methodists and the other churches, with their unfathomable rituals, still seemed too scary. With my new found freedom to socialise exactly as I pleased it did not suit me to attend every week. I got to know few people from the congregation (the English seemed so distant and unfriendly compared to the Irish) but when I got married it was to this church that I turned to perform the ceremony. I still believed in my God and wanted to say my vows under his roof.
After my marriage we moved to the village where we now live and once again I looked to join a church; looking back I cannot really explain why this seemed important to me. Our village has a Church of England church and a Strict Baptist Chapel. There is also a Methodist Church in a neighbouring village that I could easily walk to. Having come from a Methodist Church I tried this first but was put off by the advanced age and small size of the congregation. They seemed amazed when I appeared one Sunday morning and asked me to choose the closing hymn, a friendly gesture that terrified me by the attention it drew down. I was advised by neighbours that I may not be welcomed at the Strict Baptist Chapel, although I didn’t fully understand why, so chose to join the Church of England.
I was a semi regular member of this congregation for several years until my children started to attend with me. The vicar and a church warden did not take kindly to them building towers with the prayer mats that had been made by ladies of the church over many years. I was informed that the church welcomed well behaved children and that my children’s behaviour was not acceptable. I resigned my position as secretary of the Parochial Church Council and have not been back since.
My membership of the PCC had soured my views of this church. I did not agree with many decisions made by the vicar who seemed to harbour a grudge that so many in the village attended only occasionally and were not willing to donate the tithe that he felt was his due. When suggestions were made about ways to encourage more to attend he would refuse to contemplate changes that may not be acceptable to the core, older members. It seemed to me that he wished to welcome attendees on his terms whereas I wanted to see the church open it’s arms to all as Jesus had done. Having got to know the rituals I now found them soothing but recognised that they could be off putting to the unfamiliar. With kids of my own I could also see how boring church services could appear.
Due to the events that caused me to cut my ties with the church I felt a sense of relief when I left. We started going swimming as a family every Sunday morning followed by a big Sunday lunch and a relaxing afternoon. When the children got older swimming was replaced by hockey practice. I have not felt the need to join another church; this was the end of my direct experience of organised religion.
None of these events did anything to dent my personal faith in God. I recognised that the policies I objected to were being put in place by people and did not follow the gist of biblical teaching. Of course, we can and do read the bible in different ways. This amazing and beautiful book is often quoted in support of the most grotesque of ideas. Personally I choose to take a much simpler view.
I have always believed that God wanted us to love ourselves and each other above everything else and try to follow his definition of love (1 Corinthians 13 v 4-7). He gave us the basic rules to live by which seem to me to be sensible advice for a good life for all (do not murder, steal, lie, covet, commit adultery, worship material objects or work non stop with no rest). So much of the bible is open to misinterpretation but I could not see these theological arguments as important. I believe that God wants me to live in a spirit of love for all. That is what I try to do.
Having walked away from the the organised religion offered by the established church I was left to examine my faith on my own. For the first time I was putting my questions directly to God without asking theologians for help. The answers I was given have shaped my beliefs ever since. I am more relaxed and comfortable with my faith now and feel no need to try to persuade anyone else of God’s existence. He is there for me and that has enriched my life beyond measure.