Chapter 18-The Alien And The Theological Cul-De-Sac

After reading about the circular lives of the characters in the novels of George Orwell I was about to enter a circular narrative of my own. I had been attending the Christian Youth Fellowship for two years or so. I remained surprised at how easily I was accepted. Most attendees came from Christian households, the nearest I had to a Christian background were the holidays I'd had as a child at  my Gran's where I only got the holiday to get rid of me safely so my parents could redecorate the house. But I did not know that my acceptance was built on people seeing me as stray, my family saw me that way, and  in a less-emotional-baggage way the Christian Youth Fellowship accepted me in the same way. I was glad for the lack of emotional baggage when I was in their fellowship. But there was a step up that had to be made. The Christian Youth Fellowship were ecumenical and commitment-lite. 

As my Quaker friend had gently advised me, I had to choose a church of my own to go to get a little nearer being an adult Christian. But which church should I choose? How should I choose it? I would like to have chosen his denomination but I would have been too close to him and the listening and waiting on God part of it, before knowing I'd been spoken to would have been a difficult discipline for me. The Church in the town was like the local Labour Party, a sometimes active minority culture full of odd rituals that was riven by division. Unlike The Labour Party those divisions were accepted as different stages in belief. The oldest was the small Roman Catholic congregation, were as valid a stage of belief in their own terms as the newest, The Pentecostal Church, with Methodists, Quakers, Anglican churches, and the United Reformed Church in between. They all had different formulations for subscribing to the same belief. That said the newest, The Pentecostal Church was the least accepting of this social diversity. Perhaps the newest of anything always thinks it is the best. But as well as being the newest they were the church most likely to be overtly authoritarian, and least supportive of weaker members. As a church the Pentecostalists relied unwittingly for their popular acceptance upon it being accepted by other churches that they in turn mistrusted for being spiritually lax. Their minister refused to attend monthly local Council of Churches meetings on the grounds that the other ministers were not Christians. But he could not stop members of his church mixing with members of other churches, which they did. He would have lost them as part of his congregation if he laid the law down that firmly. One of the better stories about the Pentecostal minister was how he told his church that it was a miracle when at his door was left a Christmas hamper and on other occasion he had been left generous sums of money, all anonymously. He also told his congregation that the other churches 'did not believe in miracles'. I was told in private that the hamper was a gift to him from the members of the council of churches who found that giving to him anonymously was the most acceptable way they had found of giving to the pastor since he so distrusted their good will.

My circular journey began with my regular attendance at All Saints, the local high Anglican church. It was an ornate barn of a building where every week there was a choir, an organ was played, and the place was elegantly stuffed with the trappings of wealth, as bestowed upon it by the ages. I attempted to process my sense of being overwhelmed by the trappings by trying rate the more spontaneous parts of the service every week. The most variable part was the sermon, which echoed around the place. What was fixed about the sermon was that it was never more seven minutes long. The longer I attended the harder I found it to fathom what anyone could say that could be original or strike the mind afresh in that brief slot amid the weekly repetitions of the rest of the service. Every other part of the service moved like a piece of machinery and did the same motions every week, except that the service occupied an hour a week, not the forty of a full time job, I could have been my dad in his work place of Marshall's Work Yard with a much more industrial noise going on around me for the difference that it made. Eventually it seemed absurd to look for originality in that seven minute slot given what surrounded it. The spoke that slowed the worship machine down a little and made us think a little more was the new prayer book with it's anodyne 1980's language. Since I did not know the historic prayer book, first written in the reign of Henry VIII and revised in the reign of Charles II, and twice later on, each revision trying to reaffirm the majesty of God through the majesty of the English language, I could content myself with my own struggles towards majesty through a more ordinary everyday life and language.

I was glad to find friends there. It was predictable that they were older and wiser than me and owned the property they lived in. They were often surprised at the naivety of my arguments, and the openness of my neediness, but they still accepted me. It was good for all of us that part of my naivety I was poor at reading their reservations about how under-developed my faith was. I never felt hurt by those reservations. Eventually I became part of a crowd who took an ala carte, as opposed table d'hote, approach to church life. They dealt with the rigidity of the church service by having a looser small group who would support each other in faith in one members own home once a week. They could accept the formality of the traditional service in the morning as long as they attended a more lively church service in another denomination in the evening. If the morning service was the main course then the evening service was desert and they had their coffee with a midweek evening house group. This was the death knell of the old prayer book tradition of evening prayers, which particularly with the new prayer book lost their cogency. The local Pentecostal Church were the main beneficiaries of this evening change of choice, with the equivalent church in the nearby city run by Pastor John Shelbourne also benefiting from our ala carte tendencies. John Shelbourne was a genial charismatic who was known for being solid on doctrine without being doctrinaire. He had an inclusive sense of humour too. He was a bear of a man who wore well fitting three piece suits in bright colours and his voice had a smile in it. I was one of many who found him easy to like. It was a shock when he unexpectedly died young, in his fifties, of a heart attack. That was maybe the first time I became aware of how easy it was to see reasons for belief in the personality of the preacher rather than find reason and belief in myself or through the whole of the service or the culture of the denomination.

I seemed to have many weaknesses of character that it took me a lot of church attendance to begin to recognise. One weakness was my ignorance, both theologically and generally. This was partially correctable if I read enough, and read the right books. Not that I knew before reading them what were the right books and which were the wrong ones-that was always trail and error. 'I Claudius', adapted from the books by Robert Graves, had been shown at least twice on BBC television since 1976 when it was first shown. Each time I watched it I understood it with greater clarity. After reading 'I Claudius' and 'Claudius the God' then the next book I got out of the library by Graves was 'King Jesus'. It was an anti-gospel novel where the secret about Jesus was that however much he was admired as a teacher, Jesus was actually the bastard offspring of an anonymous roman soldier. The result of a casual rape in a widespread culture of casual rape/loss of consent. Challenging as this idea was, to the doctrinal notion of Jesus' holiness starting with his life before conception, going through with his birth, being proved through his ministry and going through to the life he had after his resurrection, Jesus remained the teacher he was expected to be to me.  I was happy with reading the novel, it became unorthodox background material which broadened how I understood the gospels. Then there was 'Christ Recrucified' and other novels by Nikos Kazantzakis. 'Christ Recrucified' was set early in the twentieth century and typified a very different, rather more cultural and agnostic, Christianity. Reading these books, and many others, did not destroy my faith. Authors and their views on the gospels had a right to exist, so did I. I even admitted to the Pastor Paul of the Pentecostal church that I had read these books that he thought were unnecessary and unchristian. It was obvious from his reaction to my telling him of my reading that if he had run the library service then these books would have been reserved for the few as 'banned books' in a locked shelf, and kept well away from the many. I told him what I read because in his authoritarianism he said he believed in clarity. I was being clear with him about myself. Such reading did not stop me from listening to his sermons or constrict me spiritually in any way-he had to be told that he had no cause to worry.

I read more orthodox books on the history of Christianity too, I particularly like the Bamber Gasgoine history which became a Granada television documentary series, but I had previously been impressed by how calm he was as quiz master on the BBC on 'University Challenge' with his supplementary facts. Somehow, there the more these books explained human history in Christian terms the less 'Christian' history seemed to be. Particularly when how the local churches behaved was the measure that defined the whole of Christendom as far as they were concerned. George Orwell said in '1984' 'Whoever controls the past controls the future; whoever controls the present controls the past'. Reading about other times, whatever their religious labels, was my personal way out of being artificially controlled by the local peoples' rather parochial idea of what Christianity past, present, and future, should be. Later I appreciated books from the fourth century, St Augustine, 'Confessions', to the nineteenth, the many works by Soren Kierkagaard with theological works from the centuries in between. If they were hard to read then that was where the good in them came from. They rewarded struggle with insight, and they were stepping stones to other insights. These books were, literally, worlds away from all that I had previously known and all that was in front of me. One of the standard arguments among the local people was that Christianity was about peace and peace was the absence of open violence. This was a very passive-aggressive approach to The Gospels. But then again by the 1980's the town had only had an MP for a hundred years. For the last sixty of them it had voted for two very long serving Conservative MP's consecutively and it was about to elect a third. The local culture was highly conservative. The logic which that culture used was that the peace was about appearance and appearances were best maintained by a passive aggression which was that passive that it could not be seen to be aggression of any sort. So whilst Jesus turning over the tables of the money lenders was accepted as an example of Jesus being physically violent, people used that to say 'There are no money lenders here therefore there is no justification for violence, whilst avoiding looking at how men might behave in pubs or towards their wives at home when intoxicated. Otherwise who knows how many histories of long running petty enmities would have to be remembered properly and fully sought forgiveness for? Aggression had to quiet, and hidden, for it to be continuous. That passive aggression thwarted all genuine forgiveness in the name of defensive behaviour made our Christianity weak to the point of pointlessness indeed. It made the faith serve the passivity rather than the faith convict those who were unable to forgive and clear the slate between each other properly.

I enjoyed being in the mix 'n' match crowd, where dozens of us from the Anglican church balanced our historic high church attendance against the newer, more informal, lower church attendance and found that the mix of both services enriched our lives. Balancing high church attendance off against low was always going to be easier for those who were far better grounded in their Anglicanism than I was. After about six months of being in the mix 'n' match group I lost clear sight of the value of the ritual in the high church services, and with that I ended up attending just the low church services. For being needy and wanting spontaneity, friendship and openness I was pushed by circumstance further round to the next part of my narrative that was far more circular than I could see.

Including the initial mix 'n' match era I attended the Pentecostal Church for around two years and went through the full circle, infatuation, acceptance, finding out how I could contribute, discovering distance, struggling with disagreements, finding the disagreements too fixed, and then being persuaded to stay to  stay to cover up how the relationship was not working. When I left the church I left it feeling horribly guilty, badly hurt, and unable to forgive myself. I felt as if the church required more commitment of me than I could give it, and it was my fault that they could not have what they wanted out of me. In the end neither I nor they were prepared to work out who should forgive each other most or for what. Part of me still wishes I had written the following to Pastor Paul

'Dear Pastor Paul

  I am leaving your church by resigning from it. I am not coming back.

 Since you so sincerely believe in Hell then please pray for me to go to there, promptly.

                       Yours Sincerely  ..... '.

I did not write that to him. Among other reasons it was far too logical and personal a thing to write. He did not do 'logical and personal', he did 'preaching and teaching The Bible' to avoid being personal. But I want to thank him here because I did learn a lot from Pastor Paul. Unfortunately what I learnt was everything he did not want me to know. Pastor Paul's behaviour showed me that he had a way of summoning up thoughts in other people which simultaneously stopped them giving voice to those thoughts, and in particular stopped them from directing those thoughts directly back at him, as the thoughts rose in them. This left his audiences feeling as if they had trapped themselves and left themselves no obvious way out of the trap that was there for them listening to him. With Paul the trap operated through what he said, whereas with my dad it operated an emotional ventriloquism where Mother and my sister always spoke up and defended him to save him having to speak for himself. This made the trap that my dad always used harder to recognise. I was the one in the family to resist being used by dad as his dummy or as the prop who could not find the mechanism by which they might escape. Pastor Paul triggered the same responses from me as my dad had for years. In the end Pastor Paul had rapidly built up in me the same sort of emotional baggage as dad had before. The good in this was that for it all being new emotional baggage it was much clearer that it was emotional baggage.

Had either Pastor Paul or I shared the smallest amount of self awareness when I was in his congregation and he pressed them all to greater personal commitment then he might have recognised the emotional ventriloquist effect that his pressing me to greater personal commitment had on me. He might have been kinder and said 'I am asking less of you. -----. Stand down you give enough.'. But that presumes that he might have recognised that he had triggered the 'missing father figure' script that was a key part of my family's life with me. In this script my parents had expectations of me which they went totally the wrong way about supporting in me in order to see those expectations fulfilled. When nothing worked out how they expected it to my parents then they openly blamed me for 'failing myself', for not my not fulfilling their fantasies. Then they rather pathetically said later 'Oh I just want the boy to be happy' whilst I was left wading through the trail of unhappiness and expectation that I could not help but believe that they wanted for me, given how they had behaved.

My birth family were like the Pentecostal Church-both openly mistrusted all mental health labels and language. This may partially explain why I was drawn towards that particular church experience. But that still does not quite explain to me how at the time I turned what I thought was a personal faith in Jesus into cycles of guilt at being a masochist which in turn spun themselves into a further guilt and a further masochism, all for no apparent cause all of which started from some unknown starting point. I learned through Pastor Paul because the situation I was in when I was in the Pentecostal Church was such a horrible and thoroughly well mislabelled situation. Occasionally I spoke to Paul one to one in public though he was not keen on it. But he recognised that to openly refuse to see me was wrong.

All the time after I left The Pentecostal Church that I stayed in the small town I could not lose touch with Pastor Paul. The size of the place made him hard to avoid. The more often I saw of him after I ceased to be a member of his church the more free I felt to ask him what he really thought, and listen properly to his answers. The more he spoke one to one the more I saw how much he was in office more than he was in power, which explained to me why his church never grew in numbers whilst he was in charge of it. He could quote The Bible forwards, backwards, and sideways, and cross-reference it to the nth degree. But that was all external, he was actually a church leader without the vocation for it, he was actually and accountant who had become church leader by accident when his church fell into debt and he had to sort out the finances. I am sure he was a good book keeper. In discussions I steered clear of his rather mechanical accountants version of The Good News. I wanted the man not The Book. He obliged, God bless him. I concentrated on what he thought in himself and found him to be a charismatic depressive. His personal charisma behind a lectern suggested to many that he was a leader. The role of 'leader' hid his depression which only revealed itself when he was seen in private and not leading but sharing, one-to one. I accept that I was privileged when we met and he talked and I listened.

What I learned from talking to Pastor Paul directly was that both his church, and by implication my parents, believed that emotions were not real. The Pentecostal Church publicly said that the works of Sigmund Freud were 'of the occult'; a substandard understanding of being human, without ever getting as far as declaring anything on the works of C. G. Jung and many others. Because emotions were unreal then it followed that politeness was meant to be unemotional and tenderness was false and particularly not to be trusted in situations of sexual/personal intimacy. It followed then that both Pastor Paul and my family saw sex strictly in the numbest, most utilitarian, physical and mechanical terms. In many ways this seemed logical given how the huge machines in the factories that had been the economic life in the town which never stopped and must have dwarfed how people felt about themselves, personally. Both Pastor Paul and my parents appeared to believe that consent did not matter in sexual relations. All that mattered was that for it it to be without shame sex had to be within marriage. Marriage was for producing children. Sex within marriage was an act designed only for producing children, nothing else. It was as wrong and shameful to produce children outside of marriage as it was to actively and mutually enjoy sex within marriage or not produce children at all-that was their most obvious reason Pastor Paul had for being homophobic, though he undoubtedly had more personal reasons that he knew it was wiser for him to keep to himself because taboo requires other taboos the hide behind to be secure. If a husband in the pursuit of children ignored the idea of consent with his wife, and he knew a lack of consent might reduce his potential for making his wife pregnant then he should take consent into consideration. But the consideration is only for the potential child's sake, not the wife's. A wife's feelings should mean nothing to the husband and should not impede his duty to sire children as if he were the human equivalent of a prize bull in the service of God.
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When Paul put into clear dry, legal, and theological terms the depth of the frozen attitude behind the town's drunken machismo and male selfishness it was ultimately more healing for me than ever he thought it could be. He had let the cat out of the bag and said in one clear conversation more than my dad would ever say in his life. What Paul said became the aversion therapy from the towns' toxic model of heterosexuality that I needed. Though it took me a long while, writing letters for years and facing persistent refusals to work through the implications of what he said to understand all that he meant.

Whilst I was working out what he meant being hurt seemed far safer than being forgiven. Who would want forgiveness when it was merely so much show and I did not know who to mistrust for best? Recovery was going to take longer and be more partial than I realised at the time.

Find the introduction and chapter guide here.

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