(Pic - "The Sermon on the Mount" from Ecce Homo. Elizabeth Ohlson Wallin, 1998, Photograph, 79" x 60")
My journey with Christianity has, it needs to be said, been a fairly robust one – on both sides, I suppose. I was born and raised in a fairly ordinary Christian home. By this, I mean, that we went to a little parish Church within walking distance of our house. We cooked a turkey at Christmas and had Christmas pudding aflame with brandy. We had Easter Eggs at Easter and otherwise lived fairly ordinary, middle-of-the-road lives. My parents were standard parents, with fairly standard ideas. It was a happy home and the Church was a reasonable part of it. We got baptised as infants and confirmed on reaching puberty. If we got married, it was in the parish church. If you died, that is where you got buried from. It was just the way you did things.
My siblings were much older than me and had gone their separate ways by the time my hormones started raging. And when they did, they raged within the fairly safe confines of Church youth groups and choir practise – so generally, it was all relatively safe and sound.
I knew from an early age that I wanted to become a Priest. I used to explain to my easily bewildered students, many years down the track, that it was primarily the gorgeous clothes the priest wore that had initially attracted me to the priesthood. Of course, my motives all got dressed up in stuff the bishops wanted to hear, like calling and vocation and things like that – but actually, it was the glamour – the sheer outright drama of the thing, which did it.
I went to study theology at Rhodes University and Cambridge and Manchester. I loved it all! I loved the academic rigour, the debate, the sheer, glorious liberation of being able to think things through and to discard the nonsense and hold on to what made rational sense. I had some pretty amazing teachers – I think of the extraordinary Canon John Suggit. I think of Bishop John Robinson, who was quite happy to throw the baby out with the bathwater and still was able to maintain some kind of link with both the religion and the institution of the Church (and more amazingly, was allowed to do so!)
I worked for a while as a priest in Lesotho. In reality, it was a convenient cover for political activity. But it was also character-moulding in all sorts of ways. If I close my eyes, I can still remember the day I was made Deacon in the Cathedral of St Mary and St James, Maseru. There is a point in the service, where the Deacon is required to prostrate himself before the altar. I remember the freezing cold of the stone floor, the smell of the incense mixed with wood smoke. I remember the overwhelming drama of the thing and the sense of dignity and communion as the massive congregation welcomed me.
I was ordained Priest in Manchester Cathedral, after long negotiations with the ecclesiastical authorities, because of my refusal to swear any oath of allegiance to the Queen. I remember the growl of the organ and the triumphant procession. I remember the taste of the wine at the first Mass where I was the celebrant.
So when I call myself an ex-Christian, it is not an easy thing. I have so much of the religion etched in my brain, in my consciousness and my unconsciousness. The images, the sights the sounds, the smells – these are a significant part of me. And I entered into it, for a massive chunk of my life, fully and passionately. Doubtless, I would still be there, if it were in any way possible.
When a new Archbishop of Canterbury is enthroned – something happens inside me. It is difficult to explain – but I am still connected to it long enough to remember that I have since rejected it all. When a Pope resigns and a new one is chosen, something in my inner being awakens and reacts. When we approach Eastertide and my child asks me about the plagues in Egypt, I react with something much more than passing interest.
And it is not that I believe in any kind of objective God, really, it is not. And it is not that I regret not believing in God. It is something quite aside from that. It is a strange and eerie connection with the rich past which has made me who I am. It is impossible to pretend that it means nothing, or that it achieved nothing or that it is worth nothing. And I would not want to do that.
In the end, we, as a same-sex family with two adopted children, decided to cut ties with the Church once and for all, for reasons which have nothing to do with belief. It was simply impossible to continue in it as second-class citizens and for our children to be brought up in an environment where we were not fully and completely accepted. It became abundantly clear that it would be asking too much of an institution, riven with its own lies and contradictions, on the question of sexuality – (let alone theology!).
And so, I live my life without the Church any more. There are some things I miss intensely and many more things I don’t. I miss the drama and the ritual and the rumble of the organ. I miss the hieratic language and the powerful, living poetry which accompanies it. I don’t miss the bigotry and the anti-intellectual conservatism and the lies and the all-pervading, inescapable hypocrisy, which is allowed to grow and flourish and flower and seed, without any hinder or check.
I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, that for all of it, my children – in their particular circumstance are better - much better - without it. I am not sure I will be able to protect them from its worst excesses forever, but I am going to do my best to shield them, for as long as possible. So they will have to be content with Easter eggs rather than the extraordinary story of hope rising from the darkness of the tomb.