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