I will never forget the moment, some 10 years ago now, when our Muslim social worker asked my partner and me the casual question - "And what religion will you bring the child up in". We were in the process of adopting our eldest child. We had not even met him yet. We were going through what seemed like a rather long process of being prepared for parenthood.
Being amongst the first Gay male couples to adopt a child in this country - the territory was rather new - for the social worker as well. They wanted us to "practise" for a while - and so for several miserable weekends, we were asked to go to the adoption home and feed the children. Dear Lord! It was a nightmare. I think they thought if we could survive that, we could survive anything - (I know that thought crossed my mind several times). But having passed the test, we were now looking at the nitty gritty of adoption. Who was likely to be the primary parent? Who was likely to provide the discipline? Etcetera, etcetera.
The innocent question about religion caused a three week break in the process, while we discussed the matter. Backwards and forwards it went. My partner, Leon, loathed the Church. The Church had almost proved his mental undoing, in its lack of care for him; in its homophobia; in its dreadful hypocrisy and alienation of Gay and Lesbian people. He was very uncertain indeed. On the other hand, he was pretty much at sea from a religious perspective. A kind of wannabe "spiritual" type, with not a great deal of focus, or specific practise to offer.
I, on the other hand, had been a priest - had studied and taught Theology for gazillions of years and had left the Church the moment the struggle was over. What was the answer to the Muslim social worker’s question? The truth is, it was an inoffensive question. She wasn’t expecting any particular answer. We could have said “None!” and we would just have moved on in the conversation. But we decided to interrogate the matter with what was, for both of us, surprising intensity.
We discussed the nature of faith. We discussed the practise of belief. We discussed our own journeys – the positives and the negatives. And we came to a decision – strange in the eyes of many and peculiar, sometimes, even in our own judgement. We decided that we should raise the children in the context of the Christian faith –despite our own serious misgivings.
And so that is what brought me back to the Church. A baby. The absolute epitome of human frailty and human need. A baby, with a newly minted laugh and eyes so clear, you could see eternity in them. A baby that came into our lives, to change them forever.
We called him Gabriel – and it is his job to put the angel on the top of the Christmas tree every year. We called him Gabriel, the harbinger of good news. We called him Gabriel, because that was the first name we agreed upon while flipping listlessly through a bible one Sunday in Church, during a boring sermon.
And tomorrow, Gabriel will be serving at the High Mass on Christmas Day, dressed in a cassock and surplice and looking utterly angelic, smothered in incense and feeling the surge of the Haydn “Jugendmesse” and the swirl of hieratic language. Of course he may, one day reject it all. That will be his choice and that will be his unquestionable right. But when and if he does so, it will be from the position of an insider. He will know the stories that form such a massive part of our philosophy and our culture, for good or for ill. He will understand why some people pray to a God and have hope for the future and show love to their neighbour. And, hopefully, if he does reject it all, he will be a better person for having taken what is good in religion and making it his own.
Of course, there are dangers. It is also possible that he will imbibe the bewildering levels of prejudice; the terrible bigotry and the hatred, which is also part of religion. It is possible that he will start to see himself as superior to other people. It is possible that his brain will start to ossify and become closed to science, and change, and possibility. That is also a feature of religion. But it is bad religion – and I hope that he will be enabled to see that and to reject it.
In the meantime, I will thrill at the sight of the child I have been entrusted with, dressed like an angel, doing his service with a diligence and dedication that really inspires me, when together we pause at the crib of another baby. A child who, it is said, can lead the lion and the lamb to find peace with each other. That is an ideal I want for Gabriel. That is a vision I want for myself.