I have had a strange and convoluted relationship with religion. It was not a particularly prominent part of my upbringing; we went to church at Christmas for the carols and that was about it. It was only when I was in my final year of secondary school that I began to give religion and the idea of God any real consideration. I made a friend to whom faith, religion, and a relationship with the divine was very important. She invited me into that world. A place I had never explored or even considered before. I quickly felt it to be my home.
I went from being someone who had always felt a little on the outside, never quite fitting anywhere, to someone who felt warmly accepted, even loved, and who was surrounded by friends. It was a dizzying experience. Being with those people felt so different from what I had grown used to. Don’t get me wrong, I had had friends but I never quite felt like I had found my people, never quite felt like I fit comfortably within my friendships groups. And here, suddenly, I felt a sense of belonging that I don’t think I had even realised I was missing. Not only did I meet a whole host of people who were friendly, welcoming, and interested in me, but they gave me space to ask big questions: questions I didn’t even realise I wanted to ask! A whole new realm of possibility, not just for my own immediate life but for what I knew of the world, opened up before me.
It was exhilarating and I immersed myself in it entirely.
I joined worship groups, I went to church every Sunday – sometimes twice – I spent all my free time with this new group of people, I started reading the bible hungrily, I went to Christian camps and festivals and I volunteered with my local church. I attended regular bible study with the youth group and within a few short months I was preparing for confirmation. When I look back at it now it all seems to have happened so quickly but at the time I was so swept up in the feeling of acceptance, that everything I was doing felt right.
Shortly after this whirlwind introduction to the world of the Christian church I entered a difficult period of my life. I was grateful for the faith I had found because it gave me hope and something to turn to. After an finishing college, a year later than planned, I began my first full time job working for the CofE administrative offices in Manchester. My relationship and involvement with the church had changed, mostly because all my friends had moved away to university and I found that I felt vulnerable attending church without them, but it was still an important part of my life.
I spent the next six years working for the church in different capacities: receptionist, property and finance administrator, and finally Lead Youth Worker for an ecumenical project. Over that time, my perception of and relationship with the church changed a lot, as did my faith. I sadly found that the more involved I became the less welcome and accepted I felt. I found myself increasingly uncomfortable in church services, whatever the denomination, and I had more and more questions and doubts but they were met with far less acceptance than they had been when I was newly discovering the religion.
I would like to clarify, at this point, that some of the best people I have ever known are committed Christians and/or people I met through the church and I am forever grateful for their presence in my life. I met my husband through a church youth group and if it had not been for my foray into faith through this particular path, my life would look very different indeed, and I think I would have been considerably worse off than I am now, in all sorts of ways.
But it reached a point where I felt increasingly uncomfortable in churches and in many Christian circles. I encountered so much hypocrisy, which still saddens and frustrates me greatly because, again, I know the church as a body (or rather as several bodies) to be full of wonderful, good-hearted individuals. And yet that hypocrisy was there and it did not sit well with me at all. I was made, on too many occasions, to feel that my faith was inadequate. That my time for asking questions had passed and I should now accept and believe what the church told me, however ill it sat with my soul.
And I couldn’t continue to do it any more.
So I left.
I left my church related jobs and voluntary positions, I stopped attending services, I had already stopped reading the bible except when necessity dictated and I rarely prayed anymore. I felt a mixture of grief and anger. I felt betrayed, tricked by what seemed like a false sense of security and acceptance laid out before me when I had been vulnerable with a need I didn’t recognise.
I still felt that I had faith. I had had experiences over those years in the church that had convinced me of the existence of something far greater than myself. That unknown and unknowable force that I had felt touch my life did not fit with the God I had been told about but it felt like what I somehow inherently felt God to be, so that is what I call it. I felt like what I had thought was my faith had been stripped bare, taken back to this tiny nugget of something, fragile but full of life and possibility. And I decided to sit with it. To prod it and poke it with questions, to allow myself all the doubts I had been told to deny, and to wait. To give this little thing the time and space to grow.
And grow it did. Into something beautiful and powerful and flexible. Something that grows and changes as I do but that holds me as an anchor. And the church in which this faith has grown? It is the world. My faith has grown in the brilliant summer sun over golden grasses swaying in the wind; in watching the Milky Way wheel over head in countryside far from city lights; in an unexpected downpour that soaks to the skin; in the crescendo of music in a darkened theatre that raises the hair on my arms; in the soft skin and milk smell of the newborn children of friends and family; in the incredible, resilient young people I have had the privilege to work with; in the sunsets and sunrises, in the laughter and the tears, in the hopes and dreams and fears of a life lived fully and to the best of my ability. It has grown in allowing myself the space to know my own mind and recognise when my heart tells me what is right and what is wrong.
It isn’t perfect. But it’s true. This is my church. And truly anyone is welcome here.