I first gave this account as a testimony, more-or-less off-the-cuff and considerably shorter, at my Confirmation service in November 2007. I hope it wasn’t too rambling. Four years later in the autumn of 2011, I gave it again, when I was privileged and blessed to be asked to speak with that year’s confirmation class. I had made a few notes but didn’t write it out like I have below; I didn’t want to just read it out like a script to the class. After speaking to the class and using the notes I’d made as the basis, I wrote this account of my Christian story.
I was brought up in a tradional, and what has at times been called a ‘nuclear’, family; Dad, Mum, me and my younger brother, Colin. We were never really a poor family but there were times that we were very short of money. When Colin and I got older, I remember Dad telling us that there had been occasions when they had struggled to pay bills (one of those times must have been when I was 11, starting secondary school; I was the only first year boy still wearing shorts and not long trousers at the start of the first term. Sometimes my brother and I didn’t have some of the things other children had that we would have liked to, but we never went without anything we really needed.
Colin and I were both Christened, although we were both too young to know it at the time; we were told about it as soon as we were old enough to understand what it meant. Mum gave me my Christening certificate when I was 24 years old, on the day I told her and Dad that I had got engaged. I have had a long and happy, with the usual ups and downs, married life (30 years at the time of first writing this).
I don’t remember Mum and Dad ever going to church, except when they or the family were invited to special occasions like weddings, christenings and funerals. Although they were not churchgoers, they lived what, I think, would probably be described as Christian lives. When we were old enough, they taught Colin and I the Lord’s Prayer, which we each had to recite every night, before getting into our beds’. It was the version in the King James Bible, which I still say today, even in church if the service sheet gives a different, usually more modern, version.
As soon as we were each old enough, my brother and I both went, or maybe I should say were sent, to sent to Sunday School. We continued to go until Mum and Dad thought we were old enough to make up our own minds about religion. Being the oldest, I was allowed to give it up first, a year ahead of Colin, much to his chagrin. Of course, we both gave it up at the earliest possible opportunity we could persuade Mum and Dad to let us, probably as much an act of rebellion at being sent, I think, than any particular dislike of it.
I was given a King James Bible on my 8th birthday, which I still use, and Colin too was given one when he got to the same age. Over all the years I had it, it became quite tatty and started falling apart because for a good few years it did get well used. Looking back I’m not sure why because I didn’t really understand much ot the old style language in it. I still have that first Bible and am using it again. Wendy and I are lucky enough to have a friend who does book-binding for a hobby; she re-bound it for me a few years ago.
Religion was a part of school life when I was growing up, more than it is now, or at least Christianity was. We sung hymns and said a prayer every morning at school assembly and had a double period of Religious Education (we just called it RE) every week. Only the Jewish children were exempt, and we envied them because they got a free period. Other religions were almost unheard of in the schools I went to. Looking back, I realise that what we called RE was really CE: Christian education. I don’t remember being taught anything about any other religions.
I do remember that at some time in school, or perhaps Sunday school, I was involved in a Christmas Nativity play. The only thing I remember clearly about that, although I don’t remember why, was having to learn by heart the 23rd Psalm, which I had to recite to an audience. I didn’t understand or get any meaning from the Psalm back then, I just learned the words by rote so that I could repeat them without mistakes. I still remember most of it now. Both the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, I learned from the King James version of the Bible. Nowadays I usually use a NIV Bible and sometimes The Message, although I still like the King James version of these and a few other particular passages.
Throughout my time in school and Sunday school, I had read to me, or read myself most of the major Bible stories. They never had any special significance to me, they were just stories. Some good stories like Noah and the animals in the ark, some exciting stories with fighting and battles and killing, and some boring stories with chapters with nothing but names and genealogies and a lot of bits of the Bible which I simply didn’t understand (there is still a lot I think is boring or don’t understand), especially the parables and the Psalms. All of them were just stories. Even the 23rd Psalm which I had learned was just an exercise in memory.
In my last primary school year and first year of secondary school I joined the Boys Brigade (BB), which met each week in the local Baptist Church. I wasn’t interested in the church side of things, just the BB’s other activities; camping, swimming and earning badges. I was in the Cubs and Boy Scouts too, but since they wern’t affiliated to the church and had only one church parade a year, on Remembrance day, they had little to do with my Christian story.
Once I had joined the BB, it helped me to get Mum & Dad (mainly Dad, Mum was more easily persuaded) to let me stop going to the C of E Sunday school, and I went instead to the Baptist Church Sunday School where the BB met, which had more fun activities and less Bible than the boring old Church I went to before. Even the Baptist Sunday School, though, I remember very little about, except for one particular, exciting event.
The Reverend Goodland, of Stanmore Baptist Church, arranged for a children’s Christmas choir one year (1966, 1967 or 1968, I forget the exactly), which I joined. When the choir performed their Christmas concert, Rev’d Goodland had the whole show recorded. Not only that but he got two of the songs made into a 45 single record (remember them?). In the 1960s before all the technology we have now, to hear yourself recorded on a tape recorder was still a novel experience for many people. To get on a real record that you had to play on a gramophone was almost unbelievable. I still have that record, but nothing to play it on any more.
I remember going to the Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM) run by the Scripture Union for a fortnight during the school summer holidays. It was held in a marquee in a local park, that was simply called The Recreation Ground, across the road from Stanburn Primary School, which Colin and I had both attended.
We used to walk to CSSM (we pronounced it sizzum), it only took us 15 minutes, taking a packed lunch with us. In the mornings we were split into groups by age to learn about the Bible, so as Colin is 3 years younger than me, we were in different groups and in the afternoon there were organised games for everyone. Needless to say, Colin and I, and looking back probably most of the children at sizzum, liked the afternoons best.
Each day in the morning at sizzum we were given a code to discover, to which we would have to give the answer in the afternoon. The younger group always did something in the morning, from which the answer to the code was easier to work out ,than it was for us older ones. So at lunchtime, I would get Colin’s clue to the code and was often able to work it out easier, because of what my brother had been doing that morning.
Just before the start my second year of secondary school, Dad’s job was moved out of London, to Reading. I never went to Church after that and there wasn’t a local branch of Boys Brigade to join. After briefly trying the local Scouts and finding I didn’t like the nearest troop, I opted instead to join the Air Training Corps (ATC); I wanted to fly and I was thinking, at that time, of joining the RAF, when I left school. That was the end of any involvement I had with the church and religion for years to come, except for special occasions; weddings, funerals and being in the ATC, the Remembrance Sunday parade.
Although I was no longer a churchgoer, I suppose I was still living by fairly Christian principals. As a teenager and a young man I was from time to time, I suppose, like all teenagers are sometimes, a bit self-interested about some things. I wanted this and that and I knew everything about everything but I cannot remember that there was ever a time when I deliberately set out to hurt anyone. That is not to say that I haven’t; there were many times when I have been thoughtless, selfish and negligent, but never deliberately spiteful.
My next involvement with the church was at my wedding in 1981, the same year as Charles and Di were married. Wendy, my wife of more than 30 years now, and I met the Vicar and attended church to hear our bans read and of course for our wedding day itself. Wendy reminds me from time-to-time of a few words I muttered under my breath while in church one Sunday for the reading of our bans, “sod this for a game of soldiers”. After the wedding, and really for the wedding itself it was back to the usual routine of church only being for births, deaths and marriages.
Fast forward to 2005, which was the year Wendy joined our local Church, Saint Mary’s. For the first year she that went there, I didn’t attend with her but, because she has poor mobility, I would take her to the church and collect her again after the service. I wasn’t a member of the church but I was nevertheless pleasantly surprised at the welcome I received when I dropped off or picked up Wendy, and how friendly everyone was to me.
In spring 2006, I can’t remember the exact date, probably around Easter time, I took Wendy to church as usual but before I left, she started to feel unwell. She said that she didn’t want to go home but neither did she want to stay there on her own, so for the first time as an adult since our wedding I stayed and joined the service with her.
One of the church’s lay ministers, Wully Perks whom I am now happy to count amongst my friends, was preaching that morning on a Bible passage from the book of Romans. The reading was quite long, but a short passage struck a particular chord with me:
I don’t remember where I had first that passage but, like most of the other Bible passages I’d heard, it hadn’t make much sense to me and I’d almost forgotten it.
Wully’s preaching on that reading unexpectedly made sense to me. I had vague memories of it, or something similar, but like so much of the Bible up until then, I did not get what it was saying.
By coincidence, or so I assumed at the time, I had been attending a management and team building course at work. One of the ‘facilitators’ (I loathe that word) was comparing a business team to the parts of the body, where each part had a role to play and no single part could accomplish very much on its own. With the combination of the Bible reading, Wully’s preaching and what I had learned on that management course, suddenly the passage made sense to me.
What I also realised, is how relevant the Bible still is to us today, after all I had just learned ‘modern’ management theory from a two thousand year old book.
After that little eye-opener, I continued to go to church each Sunday with Wendy. Some weeks I’d learn a little bit more, or understand some other passage and some weeks I didn’t but I started to see how other parts of the Bible too are relevant to modern day life.
In July of 2006 it was Wendy and my silver wedding anniversary, and we had booked ourselves a special holiday to celebrate. On the Sunday before our holiday, when communion was being distributed, I went up to receive a blessing. Until this Sunday, although I had been taking Wendy up to the alter to be blessed, I had not accepted one myself. I would stand back until after Wendy received hers then take her back to our seats. This time I didn’t stand back but knelt beside Wendy and kept my hands lowered, so that the Vicar would know only to give me a blessing, not Holy Communion.
As Viv, the Vicar, stretched out her handover me and said the blessing, for a fleeting instant I had a feeling of warmth, peace, welcome and belonging. It was so brief that afterwards I wasn’t sure I had actually felt it, so I soon dismissed it from my mind, assuming I’d imagined it.
It was nearly 6 months later when next I went up to receive a blessing. During that time, Wendy had taken the Confirmation Course and was confirmed that November. Like I had initially done for her attendance at church, I would take her to Viv’s home, where the course was being held, drop her off for the course and collect her again later in the evening.
I’d continued to attend church throughout this period, sometimes picking up new snippets of knowledge and understanding new bits here and there, but still when it was time for communion I would take Wendy up to receive the sacraments but I would stand back. Then, at Midnight Mass on Christmas eve 2006 I took Wendy up to receive Communion and this time, as I had done in the summer before our anniversary, I knelt beside her to receive the blessing.
In the summer, when I accepted a blessing before our anniversary, I had thought about it in advance. This time I hadn’t; it was a spur of the moment decision that just felt like the right thing at the time. By coincidence (or perhaps by design?) it was again Viv. that gave me the blessing and, like last time, I got that feeling of peace and welcome and belonging, again only for the merest instant of time, but this time I was sure of it. Rightly or wrongly (looking back I think rightly), I believe I was being offered a welcome by God into His family.
There were other signs too although I hadn’t spotted them at the time, only looking back later. The biggest one being the welcome and friendship I received from the members of the Church, even early on when I would just drop Wendy off and collect her again after each service.
Around that time that I acquired a new skill, due to my involvement with the church. Wendy had asked me to look online to see if St. Mary’s had a website; I couldn’t find one. The next Sunday, as we were leaving the church, I asked the Vicar if it had a website. His reply was “what do you know about setting one up?”. At that time, although I was a competent computer user, familiar with the major business applications, I had no idea how to go about creating a website or putting it online.
Over the next couple of months, I workrd out the basics and with some excellent, and not too expensive software (Coffee Cup Visual Site Designer), I was able to put St. Mary’s online. I still manage the site and am still making little improvements as my web skills gradually improve. I rely entirely on good software applications to help me, my ability to code HTML is very limited.
In 2007, I joined that year’s confirmation course and in November, I was Confirmed into both the Anglican and Methodist churches in an ecumenical service at St. Mary’s Church, presided over by Bishop Lee Rayfield, of Swindon, and by Methodist Superintendant Paul Edwards from the local Methodist Church.
Confirmation wasn’t the end of the journey, just the beginning of a new road.
After confirmation, as well as attending St. Mary’s regularly I continued to attend Viv’s home group, formerly the confirmation class, which we had called the Growth Group. My attendance at both the church and the group became, after a while, something of a routine. That is not to say I wasn’t learning, I was, especially from the group, where we could talk frankly about the Bible and discuss almost anything freely with one another.
At the time of writing this update in 2013, I am still a member of that same group. I am happy to say that everyone in the group are not just fellow travellers on their Christian journeys but are my friends too. Although I am not (quite) the youngest member of the group, I am youngest in terms of following the Christian faith, rather than just being nominally C of E, as it says on official forms.
For all my new found faith and learning, there seemed to be little practical Christianity involved, just theory at that stage. Looking back, it was probably just part of my development as a Christian, not that development and growth should or ever does reach an end point. My first practical involvement was probably through the inspiration of a wonderful American Lady, and I do mean Lady, not just female, Louisa
Louisa is married to an Englishman and still a member of the Growth Group, albeit that she now attends a different church.
Louisa might, to some English people, be considered to be a stereotypical yank; loud, brash and opinionated and yes, she is all these things. She is also inspiring, radical, clever, caring and far more sensitive than I realised for a very long time, being somewhat stoic and unemotional myself.
Another yearor so later, I became a Sidesman in St. Mary’s, which really consisted of little more than handing out hymn books and assisting with the weekly collection, and I occasionally lent a hand to some of the church’s other events. At these I seemed to spend a lot of time going up and down the 119 steps and 92 feet height of St, Mary’s tower. I would shepherd visitors to the tower when it was open. It is the highest place in our town, with the best views of the surrounding area.
t was Louisa who first suggested that I might make a good member of the District Church Committee (DCC, the name for, effectively, St. Mary’s management committee) and she nominated me in 2009, to which I was elected in the same year and served for 3 years. My involvement in practical matters was slowly growing.
In that same year of 2009, Viv. and Tim the vicars for St. Mary’s left for a new calling, to lead a Church in Bolton, after Tim had been ill for a while. Viv. has, I think, a gift for spotting in someone talent and potential that they sometimes don’t themselves realise they have. To my great surprise before her leaving, Viv. asked me to take over her leadership of the Growth Group. I tend to think of myself more the coordinator of the group’s activities, rather than being an actual leader.
I think that I have probably learned more about the Bible and Christianity since taking over the group from Viv. than at any time up until then. There have been some successes for the group and a few less successful ventures too but, on the whole I think, and I hope, I have managed it quite well so far. I have had lots of support from the members and I am sure our success is due to more to Louisa, Emma, Jenny, Steve and Jacquie than to me. The group still meets as I write this update in 2013.
In 2010, I was asked to become a prayer intercessor for St. Mary’s, so about once every two months since then I write and then read out in the main Sunday service, the intercession prayer for the week. I suspect that some of my early attempts at writing a prayer for a congregation were a bit disjointed. I hope that now, I get the balance and flow about right most of the time.
As for my personal prayers, perhaps I could learn a thing or two from what I write for the intercessions. My own prayers are not as regular, or thoughtful as they ought to be. I tend to pray more in times of stress, need or sadness, than I do to give praise and thanks for the good things. It should not be like that.
Having discovered that I can write prayers, I was inspired to see if I could turn my hand to some other writing too. My first attempt was a fictional script, for a radio news interview with Mary Magdalene, just after the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I like to try to tell well known Bible Stories in different ways; I wrote the Christmas story as a series of imagined letters between Mary and her Cousin Elizabeth, like if they were pen-pals. I also like to fill in some of the blanks in the bible with imaginary, or you if you prefer fictional, detail, like the conversation between the disciples Jesus sent to get the donkey before his triumphal ride into Jerusalem, on what we call Palm Sunday.
In the summer 2012, I was given early retirement from my job under a major staff reduction programme, that is still not finished now as I write this in 2013. I had been with the same employer for almost 40 years, having joined them from school.
I never have, and do not now, read The Bible every day but while I was working I read a daily reflection or prayer each morning. I had found the ideal time and place to do this was at 7:00 am, at my office desk. At that early hour I was often the first and only person in the office and, since it always took a few minutes from switching on my computer until it was ready to use, I had time to read the day’s reflection.
2012 turned out to be an eventful year. In the summer as well as my retirement, Wendy and I were asked by our Niece, Kelly, and her husband to be Godparents to our Great Nephew, Arthur George; The Christening was in early September and took place in St. John’s Church, Healaugh. There were to be four Godparents and as Kelly introduced Wendy and I to the vicar, I had to laugh as she said to him, “these are the two that believe in this”.
Later in September, the Growth Group started a new venture for St. Marys, the Coffee, Christ and Chat Bible Café, now called the 3C Bible Café. On the 4th Sunday morning of each month, in St. Mary’s Coffee Bar, we hold a half hour discussion of the day’s lectionary Bible reading, with music and a reflection. This might be the first time I really lead anything. To get 3C going for the first few months I would find the discussion starters, music and reflections and the other Growth Groupies (as I address them in my e-mails) run the coffee bar.
In April of 2013, I had to redistribute some of the things I did for the church. I resigned as a Sidesman and enlisted extra help from the Growth Groupies to run the 3C Bible Café. It was not that I was giving up, or reducing my involvement with St. Mary’s. On the contrary, I became even more involved by taking up the position of a Church Warden.
Our oldest and now former warden, Terry, had, after serving for 3 years decided to step down and had been hinting to me, since autumn of 2012, that I might be a suitable replacement. In January 2013 our other Warden, Kath, who was remaining in position, also started a bit of gentle arm twisting for me to join her. Suffice to say that at St. Mary’s annual general meeting in March I was elected to the post of warden, with which went automatic membership of the DCC too.
I was formally, legally installed to the post of warden in May, by the Archdeacon of Malmsbury, Christine Froude. at her visitation to Christ Church in Downend. After my formal acceptance of the wardenship, I then found out that I was not just a member of the DCC, but also now the Parish Church Council (PCC), although as I write this I have yet to attend one of their (infrequent) meetings.
So far I have avoided making too many mistakes as a warden, and those that I have made, have, fortunately, been quite minor; mostly things like forgetting to light candles at the start of services.
I once heard it said that, the quickest way to lose your faith was to become a Church Warden. It has been frustrating, irritating and trying sometimes and it has also been exciting, rewarding and a great way to get to know more friends in both the church and the wider community. My faith is still intact so far. I pray that it will remain so.
Sometimes I think that Christianity is like going up a mountain. You start off on a gentle slope in a few undulating foothills. As you go higher, the path gets steeper and you might have to scramble a bit. And sometimes, the only way you can keep climbing is for someone higher up to throw you a rope but, as every climber and mountaineer knows well, once in a while you can stop, rest and look back at the view ….. Wheewhew, isn’t it wonderful.