I think a lot of my life has been about searching for a sense of belonging. In most communities I think to myself, “I kind of fit here, but not quite”. I feel this about the Nomad community too. I feel I have a lot in common with the people I’ve encountered, virtually and in real life, but also that I’m different in at least two ways – firstly that I’m not, and never have been, an Evangelical, and secondly that I kind of “deconstructed” pretty early on in life, and since about seventeen, I have been “reconstructing”.
I grew up in a deprived neighbourhood in the Blackcountry and was raised in the “catholic” side of the Church of England – lots of bells and smells. My dad was a vicar and we went to church and Sunday school every week. But probably about age ten I began to have serious doubts. What does “Christ died for our sins” actually mean? Does Jesus saying “no one comes to the Father except by me” mean that my Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and atheist friends from school are going to hell? If Jesus was God, who was he praying to when he prayed? Though I struggled with these questions I still experienced God, especially in the quiet moments after communion when I could rest my head on the wooden pew and listen to the soft music.
Once a year my parents would ask me if I wanted to join the confirmation class, and once a year I squirmed and made up some excuse as to why I didn’t. The last thing I was feeling was “confirmed” in my faith, I was questioning everything. I was also discovering as a teenager, in the secret shame of my heart, that I was attracted to boys.
When I was seventeen I went on a school trip to the Taizé community in France, and one night in that massive church, immersed in the deep chanting, I had a deep experience of the love of God. That experience was both a calling and a healing. God outed me. God allowed me to say in my own mind “I am bisexual” (it would be another year before I would say it out loud). And since that moment I can honestly say I have known deep down that God loves me and God loves my queerness. And that God, in their own beautiful playful way, is queer too.
I still felt religiously homeless though. I fell in and out of Anglicanism, but eventually could not live with the institutional homophobia. I explored Quakerism, and indeed even dated a guy I met at the Quaker Meeting. But I eventually settled on the Unitarian church, a liberal church that was welcoming to the LGBT+ community and where Jesus was a human, not a God. I remember the first time I attended being enthralled by hearing the service leader read scriptures from the Baha’i faith, “The earth is one country, and humanity its citizens.” One God. One Earth. One Love. Simples!
At this point I went to Boston in the States to get a master’s degree in theology. In many ways I think this experience “radicalised” me as I was exposed to feminist and queer perspectives, liberation theology, eco-theology and the thought of the African American church. I began, slowly, to see that my liberal intellectual journey was really rooted in my white western privilege. And I began, slowly, to see faith not as an intellectual exercise, but as a tool for liberation of the self and of society.
When I returned to the UK I began to train as a minister in the Unitarian church, and then I spent nine happy years as minister of a church in Bolton. They were a small friendly church, and outward looking enough to open up the church in the middle of the night as a base for Street Angels to help out the drunk people falling out of the nightclubs on our street. My proudest moment was performing our first same sex marriage, after I had spent years campaigning for this. But I eventually felt the call to move on.
I moved to Cardiff in 2017 to pastor a tiny Unitarian congregation and work as a pioneer minister in the city. I soon connected with a local community arts project run by a Buddhist and have been working with them ever since. We share many values and approaches.
In recent years I have also become more and more aware of the climate crisis. A lot of my thinking now is framed by the context of this crisis. I’m not interested in getting “bums on seats” in churches – I’m interested in spiritual revolution. I’m interested in what spiritual practices will transform us and enable us to dismantle the capitalism and colonialism that are the root causes of this crisis. I have been involved in Extinction Rebellion but I’ve become more disillusioned with how white and privileged that crowd is. The mantra of “doing it for our grandchildren” betrays a blindness towards the fact that people in the global south are already dealing with this crisis, and the fact that the climate crisis is just another aspect of capitalistic colonialism that has been exploiting them for centuries.
Prayer is more important to me than ever. I believe in the power of (contemplative) prayer to displace the ego, and recentre us towards radical values, and a radical God. I often pray simultaneously with my Buddhist colleague and neighbour, and we mentally hold each other, and others in deep spiritual solidarity. As I work in more and more interfaith ways every day I also feel more deeply committed to a radical Christian faith.
Right now in some ways I feel life is more uncertain than ever and yet I feel deeply committed to some things. I feel committed to my inner city multicultural Cardiff neighbourhood, and I assume I’m going to live here for the rest of my life. I am a born-again Welsh nationalist as I see the radical potential for small countries to create a different sort of society. I am committed to acting like we are in a climate crisis, because we are, though I have no idea what that is going to mean. I am committed to daily contemplative prayer.
Today I identify most strongly as a Universalist Christian, not just because I disbelieve in hell (I never believed in it, and I’m pretty agnostic about the afterlife in any case) but because I do believe in a universal and all-encompassing Love that holds it all together, and I believe it is possible to connect with this Love through the practice of prayer. I am also very inspired by the historic American Universalist movement (as well as all kinds of other influences – radical Welsh Unitarianism, Polish Anabaptists, Ignatian spirituality, Franciscans, Quakers, Sufis, and Buddhists).
I do not have a certain dogmatic faith. But I also see revelling in my uncertainty as a privilege. We live in critical times and I know I need the kind of spirituality that will feed me in a time of crisis and power me for radical action. It’s that kind of spirituality that I’m, imperfectly, trying to practice.
– Stephen Lingwood