One of the strangest things about looking back at the past is noticing how certain I was about everything. It’s hard to explain, and people often have a hard time understanding it, but during the period when I really, truly believed, I was absolutely certain that I was never going to change my mind. I felt that I’d finally found the truth, and that could never be undone.
It wasn’t as if I was moving in line with a different worldview, more as if I’d discovered a new fact. People can change their opinions, but why would I ever think that France wasn’t a country, now that I knew it was? I didn’t usually talk of knowing, but that’s what it comes down to – I had special knowledge, and I couldn’t imagine that ever changing.
As an example of this certainty, I remember being told by someone with a “prophetic gift” (yes, I confidently accepted that as fact as well) that I was going to go through some rough times. I forget the precise phrasing, but my instant reaction was that this referred to a crisis of faith. However, the idea that I might ever have the slightest doubt was just inconceivable to me, so I ended up casting around for some other possible meaning.
Looking back, it seems ridiculous, but I genuinely thought there was no way I could ever doubt my faith, even though I just accepted the prophetic claim at face value. It all felt true – it really was as simple as that. In the end, I became convinced that something was going to happen to my wife (then fiancée), mainly because that scared me more than anything in the world, which seemed to fit the dire tone of the warning.
Over the next few days, I spent every free moment crying out to God. I stopped eating, and I didn’t even drink anything for over 24 hours. I thought of it as a fast, with the aim of asking God to stop whatever was going to happen, but it was really a clumsy, rather desperate effort without any clever theology behind it. I just knew that I had to do something.
Eventually, three days in, I got a sense that something had changed (more likely, I snapped out of it), and slowly started to eat again. But for that, which may just have been a basic self-preservation instinct, I think I would have gone on until I became quite seriously ill. And why did I do it? Because I got the idea, based on nothing at all, that something bad was going to happen.
Even after all that, despite that sense of change, I didn’t feel content or comfortable. I’d stopped because I felt that whatever would be would be, and there was nothing more to be done. The sense of fear and dread had lost its urgency and become less acute, but it was still there, gnawing at me. It faded in the end, but only after many months, and it scarred me badly.
When I have one of those moments when I start to miss the sense of certainty and purpose that I used to have, I remember this episode and remind myself that certainty isn’t all that great after all.
I’ve just had a guest post published on the Ramblings of Sheldon blog. Please head on over there and have a look, leave some comments, and spend a while browsing around the other great stuff Sheldon writes on a regular basis. He’s followed a similar faith trajectory to mine, and always has interesting things to say.
I do my best to be honest and straightforward with my boys, and also to respect their ability to answer question for themselves. In religion, as in most things, it’s more important to me that they think, evaluate the evidence and reach their own considered conclusions than that they reach the same answer as me.
So when my elder son wanted to know what a miracle was, I tried to give him a fair and balanced explanation that a six-year-old would be able to understand. A brief run through some basic details, claims and understandings wasn’t too bad, but when he asked how it worked, I briefly hesitated and then said it was a bit like magic.
This was a mistake.
I know that calling such things magic is often considered pejorative and even insulting, so I generally try to avoid the word in this context unless I have a very good reason for using it. But I couldn’t think of a better explanation that was appropriate for his age and attention span. It might upset some, but in the context, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable description.
The problem is that he knows magic isn’t real.
We told him that, but only when he’d more or less discovered it for himself. He got a magic wand for Christmas, and was upset that it didn’t work because he couldn’t turn his little brother into a frog. Simply telling him that it doesn’t work like that and there’s no such thing as real magic isn’t exactly the Socratic method, but Socrates was never woken up at 6am on Christmas morning.
I’ve mentioned before that he’s obsessed with differentiating between what’s real and what isn’t, and now that he has this piece of information stored in his brain, it has the status of holy writ: Magic Is Not Real. I should probably have remembered this and watched my step, but I think I just screwed up.
Although strangely, he didn’t retort with his new favourite fact about the non-reality of magic, he just accepted what I said and wandered off to play with some Lego. It was my wife who later pointed out what I’d done, and mildly objected to her beliefs being associated with something permanently filed as Not Real.
She was right, of course – if I’d been thinking clearly, or if I’d had more time to consider my response, I wouldn’t have used those words. But I’m still not sure what I should have said instead.
I think Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” offers some justification for my words, but let’s say the “M” word is totally out of the question – leaving aside “some people think” formulations which more or less dodge the question, is there any way of explaining the supernatural in simple, meaningful terms that respect both those beliefs and my doubts?
I’m not sure if there is, which is interesting in itself, but I’d be interested in any suggestions.
Christmas is over, I’m back home and I’m also back to bunking off while the rest of the family go off on Sunday mornings. It was a very strange experience to be back in church after quite a few months – I want to say “bittersweet”, but I’m not sure which bit would be bitter and which sweet.
It was nice to be with my family on an important occasion, and it was nice to be able to join in with the celebration, but it was improved for me by the knowledge that it was a temporary choice to be there, not a wearing, frustrating obligation. Maybe it’s just a psychological trick, but that sense of control made a huge difference.
I particularly appreciated the sense of community within the church, which is possibly the thing I miss most of all. A startling number of people said how lovely it was to see me, and how much I’d been missed. That was quite nice to hear, but also rather sad. I’m not really part of that community anymore, and I don’t think I can be. However friendly the people are, I just don’t believe what they do. Unfortunately, it seems I’m going to carry on longing for that community, and they’re going to carry on missing me.
So despite the superficial attraction, I’m not going back. Not now, anyway – I don’t make predictions about the future, and I never will! However much I might miss some aspects of church, the biggest change for me has been the comfort from not trying to force myself into a certain shape of belief or thought. I’ve stopped trying to squeeze into the church’s 28″ waist skinny jeans, after which even an old pair of trackie bottoms are an improvement, because all I care about right now is the freedom to breathe.
Possibly the saddest thing about the whole experience is the realisation of just how many friendships I have that are built on a shared belief system. Religion brought us together, and it defines our relationship because it’s invariably the single biggest thing we have (or had) in common. Without that connection, and associated regular meetings, it’s hard to imagine the friendship being quite the same.
Maybe this should serve as a warning not to get too deeply invested in a particular group or identity, but it’s a bit late for that now. From where I’m standing, and with various caveats, I can really see the appeal of an “atheist church” as a replacement community. In fact, maybe that’s the single most important thing about a church.
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It’s a few months now since I walked away from the church, and it’s generally been quite an easy time. I’ve found that I’m more relaxed at weekends, because I’m not dreading Sunday mornings, and we’ve settled into a routine that works pretty well. But my boys aren’t prepared to make it all that easy.
Initially, they didn’t seem to be bothered that I was staying at home when they went to church, and for quite a while, they were surprisingly unquestioning of it. That suited me, as I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to explain it to them. That changed recently. First it was “Daddy, are you coming to church this week?” Then it was “You never come with us any more!” Finally, it was “Please come with us, please!” I couldn’t put it off any longer.
Explaining things like this to small children is hard enough, even if I didn’t want to avoid criticising their entire family’s beliefs. I don’t want to be the bad guy, and I certainly don’t want to mane my sons into any sort of battleground, so there’s no question of telling them (or even implying) that I think they’re being taught a load of rubbish.
I settled for saying that it was complicated, but that I was unhappy because the people who run the church aren’t being very kind to some people, while making it clear that these are people we don’t know, and the actual local church are lovely. I was very careful to emphasise that, because I had visions of son#1 marching up to the vicar and telling him in a very loud voice not to be so nasty to people.
I’m sure I’ll have to explain it all again in different forms as they grow up and want more detail, and each time I’ll have to find a suitable way of honestly addressing the situation without causing trouble or telling them what to think. Still, that’s all part of the territory – I have the same problem with Santa.
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No one likes to be called a bigot. Lord Carey certainly doesn’t, and nor would I. It’s an uncomfortable judgement on someone’s impartiality and openness to persuasion. Above all, it suggests that they’re not just interested in holding or opposing a position, but actual hatred of a group. Unfortunately, it’s often an accurate description.
The problem, as I see it, is that there’s a tendency for both the people who use the word and their targets to view it as a boo-word, rather than a factual description or something to be considered and corrected. So it’s time for a confession – I used to be a bigot.
I didn’t mean to be, and I didn’t think I was, but there’s no denying it. I was a bigot.
Say it yourself – that’s what the word’s for. Shout it at me. Bigot!
Once upon a time – it feels like a lifetime ago, but it was more like 15 years – I became a young, enthusiastic and frankly naive evangelical at university. I’d never given gay rights much thought, but if I’m honest, I found the idea of gay sex a little unsettling, a result of my same-sex education and straight orientation.
So when I got involved with a Christian Union that told me gay sex was a sin, I had no difficulty in accepting that. And to my shame, I shared that view loud and long. I didn’t go out of my way to tell anyone of my views, but nor did I do anything to conceal them. The best I can say is that I tried to sugar-coat it.
I wish that made it better. Unfortunately, I think it makes me more guilty. The fact that I was trying to sweeten the pill clearly shows that I knew there was something very wrong about what I was saying. At the very least, I knew it wasn’t a view that was generally acceptable. I knew it sounded unpleasant and judgemental – and looking back, I realise that’s because it was – but I continued to say it because my beliefs mattered more to me than the people I was hurting.
One of the most ironic aspects of those years is that I knew more gay people then than at any time before or since, and they accepted me as a friend, even though they knew I politely considered them to be perverted sinners. Above all, I remember my inability to understand why they might feel offended by what I was saying.
I tried to “hate the sin, love the sinner“. It’s not just a cliche, I really did, and I said so. And if I told them I thought they were sinning, so what? We’re all sinners, so what’s the big deal? I even once compared homosexuality to murder to demonstrate that God could forgive anything. Really! I just didn’t get it.
Looking back, the one moment that sticks in my mind more than anything else is when one of these long-suffering friends described me, with a smile, as the friendly face of bigotry. I laughed. I was used to religion being an object of derision, and I’d learnt to shrug off critical comments and treat them as part of the game. But this sticks with me. It may have come with a smile, but that comment was uncomfortably close to the truth.
Just take a look at what I was doing. I was lecturing to people, given the least opportunity, about what they did in the privacy of their bedrooms. I didn’t do that for everyone – it was a special service for the same-sex attracted. I really thought I was helping, and it made perfect sense to me at the time, but there’s no doubt that I was a bigot.
Maybe I still am a bigot. I’m sure I have plenty of beliefs that I haven’t examined recently or thoroughly enough to be confident that I’m not simply knee-jerking my way into hating an out-group. If that’s the case, I want to know, so that I can change it. What I don’t want is for people to feel unable to point out my bigotry or to politely ignore it.
Maybe that’s what separates me from Lord Carey.
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Thanks to various events, today was the first time that my self-imposed exile from church required me to stay at home while my family went off without me. It’s a very strange feeling.
The first (and hardest) question was what to tell the boys about why Daddy isn’t coming with them. I wanted to say that I wasn’t enjoying church at the moment (which is simple and accurate), but that would invite the response that they don’t enjoy it, so they don’t want to go either. I’m not sure how I feel about them going to church to be taught things I don’t believe, but nor do I want to be responsible for them not going. At least, not like that. So we just told them I was busy doing things at home. We’ll need to come up with something better soon.
Explaining to other people was easier. Short version: I need a break from church. Long version: and here’s why, and what I think about it. I don’t want to make a big deal about anything, but that should do the trick for anyone who asks after me.
I don’t know what to do with myself on a Sunday morning. On the rare occasions that I’ve not been in church, it was because I had something else to do, and there were other people around. I feel like I’ve suddenly got some free time, but I also feel like I should be doing something useful with that time so that I can’t be accused of being lazy. Maybe I’m a slave to other people’s perceptions, but I want it to be clear that I have clear and principled reasons for what I’ve done.
So what did I do? Some work around the house, a bit of reading, and a bit of messing about online. I’d call that partial success.
Staying at home felt liberating, but also strangely lonely. Like it or loathe it, I’ve turned my back on a community, and at the moment, I have nothing to replace it. That’s rather unsettling, as if I’ve cast myself adrift and only then started to look around for some oars.
It’s not that I have any regrets, just that it’s going to take a while to get used to the new situation.
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I’m not generally the sort of person who goes quietly into the night, but more than that, I care about what the church is doing to gay people. So I wasn’t about to leave without making my point to the church hierarchy. Having already been in discussion with both my vicar and my bishop, I finally went right to the top to express my feelings. I don’t have any real hope that it will change anything, but I feel that it needs to be said, so I’ve said it. Here’s my letter.
To: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
I write this letter in some sorrow. I was brought up, baptised, confirmed and married in the Church of England, continue to be a member of the church, and have always considered the CofE as a whole to be a reasonable, thoughtful body, even if the broadness of the church meant that some of its individual members could be very wrong. Unfortunately, in the light of the church’s statement on same-sex marriage, I can no longer sustain such a belief, and feel I have no choice but to leave the church.
Let me be absolutely clear that this decision is not down to my disagreement with the church’s position on same-sex marriage, or even the fact that the church statement effectively claimed to speak for me, although both of these have made me very unhappy. What has finally convinced me that I have no place in the church is what seems to me to be a spiteful and disingenuous justification of an attempt by the church’s leadership to use controversial theological views to deny people rights in a civil context.
The claim that permitting same-sex marriage in some way affects existing marriages and the scaremongering with unjustified fears that the church could be compelled to conduct marriages against its will are both very disappointing. Most of all, I was astonished at the misleading claim that the church supported civil partnerships, when in truth, the Lords Spiritual mostly spoke and voted against the bill at the first reading, before a majority eventually supported it at the second time of asking, and the church continues to forbid its clergy from blessing civil partnerships.
I fully accept that my perception is subjective, and may be inaccurate or even unfair – I can’t claim to be infallible. If my perception is correct, I would feel unable in good conscience to remain within the church responsible for the statement. If I’m wrong, however, my alienation from and distrust of the church’s leadership still seems to me to make my continued involvement with the church unhelpful and divisive. For the sake of my conscience and/or the wellbeing of the church, I feel I must leave.
Since the statement came out on 12th June, I have taken some time to consider my position and the issues, to see if there was any revision or challenge to the statement, and to allow my initial emotional reaction to subside, to ensure that my decision was made soberly and carefully. In that vein, I also feel it would be unwise, as well as offering a hostage to fortune, to say that I will never return to the church. What I can say is that my view of the church has been very badly damaged, and I suspect it will be a long time before that changes.
I can understand and agree with certain criticisms of the consultation. I suspect if the statement and response to the consultation had expressed these criticisms moderately, with consideration for the people who wish to marry their partners, and requested assurances about areas of concern rather than asserting that the church’s worst fears would inevitably be realised if civil same-sex marriage were to be permitted, I would have been content to remain within the church. As it is, I cannot understand how these extreme reactions can be necessary or justified when people’s rights are in question.
My parents are divorced and remarried. This puts them outside the definition of marriage given in your statement as “a lifelong union of one man and one woman”, and the sterility of both subsequent marriages also means there was no possibility of procreation. Nevertheless, their current marriages were both blessed and recognised by the church, and continue to be regarded as true marriages, despite the church’s claim that such details disqualify couples from being married.
The church exercised its freedom of conscience in refusing on religious grounds to conduct their perfectly legal remarriages, so they had civil ceremonies. Already, this clearly indicates a meaningful distinction between religious and civil marriage. No one in the church has ever been compelled to marry divorcees against their will, nor has the church ever claimed that their legal remarriage has any effect on existing marriages. Indeed, the church was happy to bless those marriages, something it continues to refuse for the civil partnerships it claims to support.
I say this not to carry on an argument on either divorce or same-sex marriage, but to illustrate why I find the church’s position so disingenuous. I have no desire to see my parents ostracised by the church, but nor do I see why their remarriages are treated more favourably than same-sex relationships, when both fall some way short of your own stated criteria for marriage. The fact that this distinction is made makes it clear that the arguments given do not fully explain the church’s opposition, which consequently looks unpleasant and prejudiced.
I can only hope that this letter will make you aware of the damage your words and actions are doing to the lives of other people, and indeed to the reputation of the church. One day, possibly quite soon, I believe the church will look back at its behaviour on this subject with shame and regret. The longer it is before that happens, the more people will be hurt and the more unpleasant and backward the church will look in the eyes of many people.
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So I’ve walked away from the church after they said some nasty things about gay people. Which is odd, because it’s not exactly as if it’s the first time something like this has happened. I think the statement on same-sex marriage was different in some way, but that doesn’t exactly explain the severity of my reaction.
I remember the exact day of the statement. My mind was on it the whole day, thinking about what it meant, and what I should do. The intensity of feeling has faded with time, but not the certainty that things had changed, or that I had to do something. In many ways, it felt just like a spiritual epiphany.
I may have previously mentioned Kevin Nelson’s excellent book on neuroscience, The God Impulse, in which he looks at many different spiritual experiences. One intriguing story he relates revolves around a group of people playing pinball. The basic thrust of the story is that as the game went on, they all got the impression that every movement seemed to be synchronised with the music playing in the background, right down to the ball shooting down between the flippers as the track ended.
There’s no suggestion that this rather unusual epiphany had any spiritual significance (although I must admit, I’d be quite tempted by a Church of Pinball), but it made a profound impression on all of them, even though they were embarrassed to talk about it in those terms. They couldn’t deny that they all felt as if something remarkable had happened, even though they could make no sense of it.
I wouldn’t exactly speak in those terms, but I feel that I could describe my experience in a similar way. When I heard the news of the statement that morning, it seemed that my whole perspective changed in an instant, like a switch being flicked. I’d previously had experiences that I’d have described as epiphanies, but this felt like an anti-epiphany. Rather than being drawn into a belief, I was suddenly repulsed by it.
I can rationalise my reaction, and it seems perfectly reasonable, but wonder if that’s missing the point. This wasn’t a conscious decision, as far as I can see, but an instinctive one. Just like a transcendent vision or the more prosaic examples of infatuation or love at first sight, it feels like my conscious mind is trying to catch up with a purely unconscious impulse.
This doesn’t bother me, just as it doesn’t bother me that I fell in love with my wife without consciously assessing her suitability as a mate, but I do think it’s interesting.
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Today was the last time I’m expecting to be in church for a while. I’m taking some time away to see if it helps to get my thoughts in order, or whether I can find better ways to spend my Sunday mornings than sitting passively through a lot of stuff that doesn’t really mean anything to me.
It seems like a big step – a relief in some ways, but also a painful separation that almost feels like a bereavement. For what seems like an age, I was happy enough to mark time in the pews, letting it all wash over me, but since the CofE’s statement on the same-sex marriage consultation, I’ve felt sufficiently alienated from the church hierarchy that I just can’t comfortably remain where I am. More on that later, I’m sure.
Despite feeling distant from the church for some time, it’s hard to overcome the inertia, especially when my wife, children and extended family (or at least the problem of how to tell them) provided reasons to stay put. On the other hand, it’s easy to take the simple option and avoid any upheaval. I can’t imagine how long I might have sat tight without the CofE’s statement forcing my hand.
Speaking to my vicar, a decent chap who I like a lot, was hard, and talking to my wife about it was harder. I can’t blame her for wanting things to stay the way they were when we first knew each other and when we were married. In a way, I’d like the same, but I can’t fake belief even if I wanted to. Clearly, I’m the one who’s changed, but I’m touched and reassured that she’s been so understanding and accepting of my position.
It’s possible that over time I’ll get over it and drift back towards the church. On the other hand, this might turn out to be a permanent break. That uncertainty makes it easier to make and explain the decision, but it also makes it harder to process. I’m stepping away for now, with all that entails, but on the understanding that one day (be it in a week, a year or a lifetime) I might be ready to return.
Whatever happens from here, I think this marks a new chapter in my life.
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