This month your humble pastor has been truly experiencing God. You might think that, as a man of the cloth, I encounter God every day, and so I do. But my interpretation of the Almighty is often far removed from the experiences of others. Perhaps that is both the joy and pain of dedication to a particular faith, but because of this narrow focus I found myself expecting a small English seaside town like mine to offer a limited array of religious interpretations. To my surprise, I was very much mistaken. But how was I to engage with these fellow faiths? I quickly devised an innovative take on God’s good work; aiming to attend as many of His houses as I could inside a month. A sort of ecumenical pub crawl if you will. And, as with every true trawl through the houses of the holy, one must dip ones’ toes into the river of life, rather than drinking it dry.
My first port of call was a traditionally ‘English’ house of God. A place where people go for funerals, weddings, and the occasional Christening. That C of E monument to lost Victorian values - the local parish church. Along with a vicar who looked older than God himself, the pervasive smell of mothballs (both around the venue and the vicar), and several Women’s Institute flower displays, I endured a sermon on the balance between good, evil and local planning applications, accompanied by a
sparse gathering of Saga holiday rejects. The experience was dull to say the least, and I found myself
eagerly eyeing up the interior as I sat at my pew, like some ambitious developer ready to convert the
place into a nightclub or Australian themed sports bar. It was as if God himself was bellowing into my
ear: “No wonder your church fails to attract the punters, what you need are crap bands and cheap beer,
not loaves and fishes”. I could see why attendances relating to this particular faith were going through a
lean patch. They needed a Songs of Praise camera crew. At least the BBC knows how to put bums on seats.
The following week, and my next house of God was one of those exotic little places where the congregation prays in the same direction on handy little mats. I didn’t understand most of what was said, but I was welcomed with humility (and more than a smidgen of suspicion). The request to remove my shoes reminded me of passing through Los Angeles International airport, where airport security ordered the same, and I wondered at the significance of both requests, half-expecting to hear Cat Stevens come in and do ‘Morning Has Broken’. But all that called the faithful was a wailing animal, blasted from a tape playing out of the makeshift tower. To say it sounded like the tannoy from ‘Hi-de -hi’ was over-generous, this was more akin to the announcement of Manuel Noriega’s hit-list. I left
A week later and I was on to my third venue, this time visiting on a sunny Saturday. Inside the congregation were dressed similarly, a weird interpretation of Kenny Everett chic, with women straight out of the fifties, like Patricia Neals from ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Fashion apart, there was much chanting and suchlike, which reminded me of a long-lost time only Spielberg could recreate. After a while I found myself praying for the Soul Train to arrive and transport me to a better place, planning my
escape disguised as a concert pianist. There was, however, one advantage to this brand of worship - they
disdained electricity. And on a Saturday this could be exceptionally positive. No Ant & Dec. No ‘Match of
the Day’. No dire Saturday night TV in general. This factor almost made me sign up on the spot, but my
application was refused on the grounds that I wasn’t a party member, and lacked the correct ‘nip n’ tuck’
regarding my male credentials. The irony wasn’t lost on me but what the hell, a breakfast without bacon
isn’t a real breakfast anyway. The next day I experienced another gathering, this time in a semi-detached Barrett home on the outskirts of town, centring around women in brightly coloured scarves and men who looked like grocers, all grooming young boys and sounding me out on the benefits of various Devon seaports. This was more a gathering than a mission, and memories of Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man sprung to mind. I decided to leave before the congregation cooped me on the bonfire with those chickens I’d spied in their neat garden nearby.
At this point I was running out of viable haunts, so I decided to use the Yellow Pages for inspiration. Happy to find a vivid jumble of faiths and offerings strategically placed between the more commercial wares, I vowed to continue my quest. I was now into week three, and had yet to find something to blow up my cassock.
Yet this approach heralded an answer to my prayers. I located the venue from an advert, and was surprised to find God in an abandoned B&Q warehouse just off the dual carriageway. At a time when churches are being sold off and fast becoming houses of the unholy, a converted DIY superstore seemed to me as if God himself was fighting back. I expected faith to be shovelled at me by the spadeful, but instead politeness and tender words were the weapons of conversion here. This flock were a mixed bunch of misfits and outcasts. If Jesus himself had dropped by to pick up some wood glue or a pack of 6x10 screws, he would have immediately recognised these outsiders as his. For some he was there anyway, albeit with little regard for their choice of 4x2s (planed not
sawn). It was all a mild revelation to me, after two thousand years there remained ordinary folk doing what
ordinary folk had done for centuries; pray, worship, get persecuted for their beliefs. Daring to utter the words
‘born again’ these days runs the risk of drawing a whole host of negative connotations, but I liked these
Christians, even if their odd brand of soft pseudo-folk-rock left me cold. In response to the musical
accompaniment I nearly broke into ‘Kumbaya my Lord’, but the prospect of a stoning from the other attendees
curtailed my enthusiasm. They might well have espoused Christian values of forgiveness, but one can only
go so far in taking the piss.
To conclude then, faith is a personal issue. My God travels with me everyday, although try explaining that to the overzealous ticket inspector on South West Trains and you’ll get an extremely unfunny reply for your troubles. I speak to God on a daily basis, but for some reason he deserted me during this quest to sample the available pick n’ mix of religion. It’s true that, with so much variety on offer, my faith may have become nothing more than a post-modern mirror on capitalist society. One can truly sample everything and have it all, but sometimes there is little content to enjoy. In the end my vote goes to the born again lot, which might surprise you. It wasn’t for their devotion or dire singing, I simply respect a stubborn adherence to the brand of faith that reflects the traditional Christian ethos of persecution and intolerance. They cared little for the ignorant mockery they generated from those too busy to bother.
I’d learned a lot in a month. As Freddie Nietschze said: “God is dead”, but he also claimed to be “too
sexy for his shirt”, so I’ll take his words with a pinch of salt. Like all crawls, my circuit around the
churches of this parish ended with a whimper rather than a bang, confusion as opposed to clarity.
Ecumenically I was none the wiser, but I had entered a number of unfamiliar worlds, and often it’s the
journey rather than the destination that truly counts. As those ticket inspectors would no doubt verify.