Church was always going to be my thing.
My mother raised her hand at Billy Graham’s London crusade in ’54, and her life was never the same again. Too soon after, she was making another big choice; delaying chemotherapy until after I was born. Her last words six months later were filled with prayers of love and strength for her children – ‘she was with Jesus now and one day we would all be reunited’.
This was the story I was born into, and when my much older sister came home from church singing praise songs on her guitar, it made me feel warm inside and somehow reconnected me to the mother I never knew. It was no wonder then, that on my teenage Christian summer camp trail I was more than ready (like, on several occasions) to put my own hand up to ‘accept’ Jesus. At this point I’d just been through a decade-long blended family car crash, so being around people who prayed comforting things and sang comforting songs was like coming home to a warm log burner of a welcoming community I could finally call my own.
At 18, I moved to Cornwall and started a fresh spiritual journey with the Pentecostals. This was wild and wacky compared to the home counties baptist I was used to – they sang in tongues for half the service, with earnest congregants shuffling to the front to share their ‘divine’ revelations.
After a few years and one word too far (‘God has told me there is someone here who is like a boat, but you are a boat with a hole in your bottom’), I left and joined New Frontiers International, a stream of South Coast churches started by Terry Virgo in the mid 70’s. (Within a couple of decades it would become one of the largest ‘apostolic’ networks in the UK).
By the late 80’s I met Jane; we fell in love, got married, quit our jobs, and moved to a university town for our teacher training. We signed up to the local NFI church, and that’s where we bedded in for the next 20 years, ticking off a zillion meetings and a hundred different rotas (serving = top points). It was a way of life we got used to, and it chimed with (what we thought were) our core beliefs.
One of our life-long friends had mentioned a few times about her experiences at Taize. This French ecumenical monastic fraternity was started in 1940 by Brother Roger, and has grown into a hugely popular site of Christian pilgrimage hosting tens of thousands of (mainly) young people each year for prayer, bible study, and communal work. To be honest it always sounded super-weird – chanting monks and embarrassing silences – there’s absolutely no way you can pray without words. But then one of my long-hair-trendy-trainers guitar students also mentioned how cool this place was when he and his family visited. Within a few months, synchronicity had stepped in and we decided to drop by as part of a family road trip across France that summer. Little did we know the significant effect it would have on our spiritual landscape.
I am sitting in a thinly carpeted, simply decorated cavernous building with over 1000 people waiting in silence. My stomach is tight, my heart rate well over 100, and I can’t seem to get a full breath. I crane my head expecting a middle-aged man to rise to his feet and officially start the meeting. Suddenly there is a movement; a line of brothers dressed in white hooded robes (no pointy hats thankfully) enter from a side door and quietly kneel in the middle of the gathering, facing the front. Everyone is facing the front. We are gazing towards an array of bright flickering candles, vibrant colours of carefully draped cloth all creating a soft mesmerising point of focus. No formal welcome, no notices, no us-and-them. Someone faintly starts chanting a repeating single verse of scripture. No band; just a brother with what looks and sounds like a ten pound kid’s keyboard from a car boot sale.
Everyone joins in.
Over the next five days my conversations with people from various nationalities brought home the shocking reality of their humble faith vs. my dogmatic beliefs. They discussed Christianity with a deeply organic simplicity. It suddenly dawned on me just how spiritually exhausted I was by my evangelical faith.
I drove back home on the smooth and clear A26 through the spacious French countryside towards Calais feeling completely and utterly undone.
We returned to the UK and I left the church.
The first two years were as much painful as it was liberating. I felt stupid for allowing myself to be Pied Pipered down the garden path, angry with leaders I’d put my trust in, but more than that; regretting the years of identifying with such an exclusive narrative, and the complete allegiance to a narrow and stifling ideology. How the heck did I let this happen? I had married this brand of religion so young and full of promise and expectation, but in 20 years all I had to show for it was an ugly ‘we have it all and know it all’ arrogance – I now had nothing! I now knew nothing!
The earthquake had been swift and catastrophic. Although I still felt a measure of peace in the basement, everything I knew on the surface ended up well and truly flattened. Were those moments of pure stillness and wonder in the ‘presence of God’ during worship meetings authentic, or merely emotional magic much like swaying to an exhilarating U2 power ballad at the 02? Was the sense of serene calm and deep rest during my ‘quiet times’ just what happens when you give your body quality downtime?
It has now been over ten years of Sunday morning lie-ins, a dusty bible, a laden swear-box, and a verse-free fridge. I threw out the prescribed reading list a long while back, and discovered so many inspiring teachers like Richard Rohr, Eckhart Tolle, and Tara Brach. I’ve also finally expunged the insider language for a refreshingly new, broader, inclusive lexicon.
My 30-year-old self would be head-in-hands horrified at my ‘desperately sad backsliding’, but I love my much less bloated life with space to think, discuss and debate with others (as equals) what we think life is all about rather than endure the force-fed weekly sermon. I’ve had the spiritual hard drive set by my inherited faith/family/church well and truly reformatted.
When I now sit in a quiet place, calm my thoughts, let everything go, move closer to fully accepting things as they are right now, I feel exactly the same peace inside as I did after spending time as a ‘being still and knowing he is God’ evangelical. Nothing has changed. Is this vibe ‘God’ coming close to me? Or can ‘God’ also transmute into love/nature/meditation, and flow through those things just as powerfully?
The one question I always want to ask whenever I read an escaping evangelical story is ‘so what do you believe now?’
A good deal less than what I used to! I jumped in with both feet to so many views peddled by preachers of old with their own interpretation of the bible. Their weaponising of scripture formed much of what Evangelicalism is today – I built so much on that sand.
So now the kind of rock I’m happy to stand on is love. Love, and the 101 different things that small word means. I believe ‘God’ – the words ‘God’ and ‘love’ are interchangeable right? – is the unwordable source of life, the author of nature, and the supreme creator of the universe and everything in it. It’s only this sense of ‘love’ that has calmed my lifetime anxiety disorder, and it’s ‘love’ that I connect with when I meditate. If God is hiding behind that over-used four-letter word, then I’ll take that – and continue to discover a measure of acceptance in what I don’t know and cannot work out. Becoming comfortable in the ‘not knowing’ may just be what my kind of faith looks like right now.
– Andy Read