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Faith >

Is going to church my cup of tea?

The third in a series of articles by Adam Fowler on a journey

CHURCH is like a cup of my auntie's tea. Nothing to do with its strength (extreme), colour (white), or sweetness (negligible). Just that it is exactly how auntie thinks it should be, and therefore, to auntie, how it should be for everyone else. My wife, Anna (weak, white, not at all) once tried to leave the strait-and-narrow and asked for the tea bag to be taken out early.

"Oh, that would be very weak" (dunk, dunk).

"Yes, I like it that way."

"But you won't be able to taste it" (dunk, dunk).

"No, really."

"There, that's beginning to look a bit better" (dunk, dunk, squeeze).

That's how I feel in church, among people whose tastes and pref­erences I neither enjoy nor prefer, and who seem unable to accept my own ways of being.

We all drift towards groups we like. They reassure us, and affirm our life-views. They make our proclivities and peccadilloes seem normal, and they provide our frame of reference. I have spent a lifetime finding my own cliques, but being in church feels like gate-crashing someone else's.

I voiced an opinion to a Christian friend that church is an institution for people who need the church, who are looking for something to fix their broken lives, and who don't know how to enjoy themselves.

The response was simple: "Try Greenbelt."

Anna had been as far as the gates of Greenbelt festival, as a youth, and fled at the sight of the crowds. To­gether, we thought we might survive the experience and find some com­mon ground and spiritual vibrancy, at least for a weekend.

Among the tents and stages, I was astonished - and not just by Chris­tians talking sense. It felt as if I had suddenly heard a whisper in my ear.

One particular speaker, an American Franciscan Father, Richard Rohr, talked about "the second half of life". He spoke of giving up the race to achieve meaningless things in a material world; of meeting God in the stillness of "now", of not being in control of one's own life, but being part of something far greater; and of contemplation as a way to action. I found myself sitting at the feet of this man and craving more.

At home, I began reading Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, and Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion. I even gave a presentation at a fellowship group on Merton's thoughts on contemplation.

Back to church with a bump. I continue to find communion hocus-pocus. It might just as well be the drawing of a pentangle on the floor, the rolling up of trouser legs, and the secret shaking of hands. I find the smell of communion wine on the breath of others distasteful. I am uncomfortable with blessings being given to young children - to me it is the beliefs of adults foisted on those too young to have their opinions respected. And anyway, what does it all mean?

Again, that feeling that I am among those who believe that their way is best, and who cannot coun­tenance any alternative, any more than auntie can make a weak cup of tea.

I hear a sermon with a theme which seems to be, "I was wicked once - then I found God" (dunk, dunk). But goodness is not the exclusive preserve of religion. The secular world has fine, moral, good people in their millions. Conversely, some who have found God, in my experience, can be anything but good.

I glimpsed something special at Greenbelt towards which I have taken a step or two, but I am not prepared to dismiss my life to this point as "wicked". I am made to feel very uneasy at a baptism when the proud father announces that, "without God, there is no meaning, no life, and no entry into heaven" (dunk, dunk, squeeze).

But I see no sense in a belief system that excludes perfectly good people. I am quite happy to be nothing more than a collection of atoms, I do not fear anni­hilation after death, and I choose not to believe that my life is meaningless. And yet that whisper I sensed at Greenbelt remains.

There, I heard the Gospels brought to life, and sensed a way ahead. And there, I met people who accepted the challenge of my ideas, and who challenged me in return. What's more, they were all church­goers, pre­pared to hear - even share - my criticisms. And they were all different from one another.

That irks me, because it makes me wonder if I am the one clinging to a narrow view of life - my way of drinking tea. Could the intolerance be mine? For some time, Anna has been asking whether I would like to study the New Testament with a friend of her family, a retired and respected churchman.

It is time to give in.

Adam Fowler is a freelance radio producer, working from home in Oxford.

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