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Readings taken from the fifth gospel

13 December 2013

Martin Wroe has been interviewing members of his north-London congregation, and including their stories in church services. He has now published these 'Gospels' in the hope that other churches will gather their own. Black-and-white illustrations by Meg Wroe

Holy writ: St Matthew sets out his account; an illustration  from the Lindisfarne Gospels

Holy writ: St Matthew sets out his account; an illustration  from the Lindisfarne Gospels

WHAT will you best remember from all the years you went to church? It may not be songs or sermons, liturgical choreography or obscure festivals. It may be the sweet old lady who always said she would pray for you; the teenager in a wheelchair brought by his carer; the woman who died before you really got to know her; that man who seemed to have got it together, until it all fell apart.

It may not be a gospel from book or priest that spoke to you. It may have been the gospel sitting next to you.

In the Christian tradition, we revere the four Gospels because they hide clues to what it might be likeif God lived among us. But the Church, as someone once wisely noted, "is the fifth gospel", and in our north-London parish we began wondering how to read from this overlooked publication - the gospel according to you and me.

We started including an additional gospel: "A reading this morning from the gospel according to Sam." Or Carol. Or Gary. Or Joan.

A reading from the life of a 60-something daughter caring for her 80-something mother in the long years of dementia. About how she loses her a little more every day, but finds a place for her grief in church. Or from the life of the homeless man, who, like a sceptical psalmist, interrogates God for failing to provide a roof over his head. Or from the artist who reflects on her journey into - and out of - "madness", and is able to name it as some kind of blessing.

These gospels are based on conversations - recorded, transcribed, edited, and recomposed; an imaginative retelling in someone's own words. Agnes was our first. She was a single mum living in a tower block, stony broke, and with a violent, estranged partner - but never harbouring a doubt that God would look after her and her children.

It was not hard to see the glinting tributaries of faith illuminating Agnes's journey all the way from Ghana to north London. A couple of hours of conversation, edited to retain the interest of a Sunday-morning congregation, became a literary life of faith and hope, love and longing.

I WOULD encourage any church to gather stories from its people. Stories like these can be good news, even on the days when the news is bad. They can help us see how faith shapes us, changes us, surprises us. "I hadn't been brought up in any of this," Carol says. "I didn't know what you did, and when you did it."

Among the rewards of putting down roots in a faith community is the chance to become friends with people unlike ourselves, those to whom we would otherwise have remained strangers. At some point - sharing a hymn book, at the communion rail, over coffee - we catch a glimpse of their stories.

Who would have known that that bearded man in the choir has an estranged wife, and grown-up children, who have shunned him ever since he came out? Or that the woman who welcomes you at the door is living with an illness that must soon take her life.?

The gospel truth in the lives of the people around us is often buried in story and anecdote. But, as the writer Frederick Buechner puts it: "All theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography."

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, but most days we don't witness them, as they reveal their rich and moving stories. We don't recognise them singing the same song in the next pew, calming a child in the so-called silence of the prayers. We don't imagine that we might be witnesses ourselves - that our lives, too, might hold the gospel truth.

Maybe the gospel is not where we think it is. Maybe, some Sundays, we are sitting next to her, an elderly woman holding divine presence, a limited edition of God incarnate.

The Revd Martin Wroe is Associate Vicar of St Luke's, West Holloway. The Gospel According to Everyone, Volumes I, and II, price £5, plus £1.50 p&p, are available from www.martinwroe.com. These edited extracts appear by kind permission.

The gospel according to Carol

FOR many years, I was a social worker for a Christian health charity, looking after people with HIV. I'd never experienced the death of someone close, but, suddenly, it was all around me. People were dying every few weeks, but there was so much stigma about AIDS that these men needed someone to listen to, and understand them. Someone to be on their side.

It was a Christian organisation, and as I wasn't a Christian, I worried about whether I was good enough to take the job. I expected all these Christians to be kind, wonderful, and caring. Some of them were; but many weren't, especially those who talked a lot about their faith.

They'd chosen to work in a Christian organisation where the major client group was gay men, but they believed that homosexuality was a sin. They couldn't hear the lives of these men over the noise of their own theology.

I had a brilliant manager, who helped me to see that there were other people there who were also Christians - they just didn't talk about it all the time. One day, I was telling a colleague about how strange some of these Christians were, when I suddenly thought he might be one of them.

"You're not a Christian too, are you?" I blurted out. He said: "Yes, but don't worry. I know what you mean about the strange ones, and I'm not one of them." At the time, I didn't know that Paul went to church, I just noticed that he was kind and gentle, with no show about him.

For a long time, I was nervous coming to church. I hadn't been brought up in any of this. I didn't know what you did, or when you did it. I think it took me about ten years before I had the courage to stay for a coffee. What if people found out how little I knew about God and the Bible?

I grew up on the Hornsey Lane estate, and baptisms and weddings were the limits of church for us. Dad had a kind of reverence, but if Mum heard that someone was going to church, she'd say "they've gone a bit religious," as if they'd lost their mind.

Although we didn't do church, I always had a sense of God being with me. As a child, I had conversations with God which, now I look back, I realise was prayer. I asked for help or for guidance. I had a firm belief, but not in organised religion. Finding St Luke's has helped me to confirm that belief in God, and the feeling that every small act of kindness is what life is about.

I've always worked with people whom no one else wants to work with, people not being listened to. I believe that we should do our best for them, and understand them. For a long time that left me feeling a bit of an outsider, but being part of a church has shown me I'm not alone.

I like the way that church encourages people to listen to those who are not being heard, and to help them in their lives. . . It has helped me feel I am not an outsider in what I think and believe.

Church helps keep me awake to the needs of others. Faith, for me, is about listening, and about service, and I find that this community gives me strength and resources for both.

Mum is 94 now, and lives a few streets away. The family have got used to me being a church person. I don't think my mum's fears about me "going religious" have been realised. I think they see that being part of church has helped me find myself - that it's helped me understand better who I am, and why I do the things I do.


The gospel according to Gary

I WORK in a Tesco warehouse, where I pack food for internet shoppers. If you get through an order quickly, you might have a minute to chat before the managers notice. I work with a very argumentative atheist, and a very argumentative Jehovah's Witness. The atheist is always saying "science disproves God," and the Jehovah's Witness always disagrees. 

As I can't really get away from them, I usually end up getting dragged in, but I think God made science. What's the problem? Why can't God and science co-exist? The Jehovah's Witness says it's wrong to be gay. The atheist says church is conformist. I tell them both they should come to St Luke's, where you can be gay, and you don't have to conform. I'm quite happy that they know I'm a Christian, I'm not embarrassed about it. 

I first came to church here when I was six weeks old. Ivy, my great-aunt, sits on the front row with her friends Sissy and Doreen. They always sit there. They should have a sign which says "Reserved" on it. She first started coming with her sister Ethel, my nan. 

They came to see me in the nativity play. I loved the nativity plays, and I was upset when I got too old to be in them. I played the Holy Spirit one year. Another year, I was Joseph; another year, aBig Issuesalesman - I think that was a modern version of the nativity. 

People think of churches as being against things, but what I like about St Luke's is that there are lots of different kinds of people, and we don't judge them if they're different in some way. You can come here whatever you believe, we will still accept you. My fiancée, Katya, brought her mother once, and even she liked it.

Being present at St Luke's is important for me in feeling closer to God. It might be the bread and wine, or a hymn, or it might just be talking to people afterwards. You don't want to put everything on God, because he's got so much to do, but it's good to know he's looking out for you, that there's someone to show us a better way. I believe in a creator who designed us, and when things are going bad, I look to God for guidance. 

I've been coming to St Luke's all my life, and now I'm getting married here. It seems right. Maybe if Katya and I have children, they'll be baptised and confirmed here, like me. Maybe they'll be in the nativity play, like I was.


The gospel according to Joan

MUM's stroke happened in 2003, when she was 83. It dramatically affected her memory. She could remember something from 50 years ago, but not from five minutes ago.

Although she couldn't remember that Dad had died, she'd often start folding up material as though she was about to sew it, because she'd been a seamstress as a young woman. Mum and Dad had come over to Britain after he'd retired from work in Kenya, where they'd met and married, where we'd all been born and brought up.

When she first got ill, I remember Mum saying: "There'll always be rice on the table." She had faith that God would look after her. Even when she won at the bingo, it was a sign that God was looking after her. She had a very deep faith. She was an old soul, someone spiritually attuned.

Most people at St Luke's will picture Henrietta as the old black lady in a wheelchair, who smiled at you but didn't speak. I wondered what people would think if they knew who she'd been as a younger woman. When my brother, sisters, and I were teenagers, Dad got her to chaperone us to discos in Nairobi. She always had more fun on the dance floor than any of us.

She used to help at Sunday school in Nairobi. She got involved in everything at this church - Bible studies, PCC, services - and we were all christened and confirmed there.

My formative years were in Africa, and I think of myself as Kenyan. It never leaves you, growing up in that wonderful weather: playing out as children, following the river up into the country, huge family meals, weddings, christenings.

I arrived at 21, with £200 and a relative's address. London was terrible. But I stayed, and found work. I got married, raised my daughter Pearl, and now look after my grandchildren in Enfield.

When Mum became unwell, I took voluntary redundancy to look after her. She loved to get out and about, and pushing her in her chair is how we found St Luke's.

She liked the people here, especially the children. When she reached out to befriend them, I could see that Sunday-school teacher in her again. She loved rediscovering her church traditions - receiving communion, sharing the peace, getting a blessing.

It's a long grief when you lose someone to dementia; you keep thinking maybe your old mum might come back. But, in becoming a parent to my own parents, I discovered an inner emotional strength I hadn't known I had.

St Luke's has been important in all of this, something Mum and I did together, our club where we made new friends. In those final years of her life, I found I couldn't cry, a lot of the time, but, sometimes, I would be in a service and find the tears streaming down my face.

Something would start it, like the children saying the Lord's Prayer, or the words of absolution. . . Church became a place where I was allowed to cry. A place where you are accepted and not judged, where you feel held, and part of something bigger.

Some Sundays, I hear the choir and think how much Mum loved it, and I turn towards her before I realise she isn't sitting with me any more. But I also know that she is here, that she is enjoying it.

My faith is based on her faith, and the traditions in which she raised us, but it's less about religion now, and more about spirituality - a Christianity that embraces ideas from Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. And travelling that journey with Mum made me look at life and death in a new way; helped me to see it as more of a process that we're all going to go through.

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