Earlier this year, after two years of dithering and 17 years after I decided I wouldn’t bother at all, I decided to get confirmed.
There was no Damascene conversion, no flash of light, no gravelly disembodied voice from above. I was bought up in a C of E family that goes to Church on Sundays. But at 10, I looked around at the congregation and decided with the black-and-white morality of the very young, that everyone there was a Sunday-only hypocrite and I didn’t want to get confirmed just because it was the done thing.
Exactly what made me think I could see into the hearts of an entire congregation is beyond me. What interests me now, is why I didn’t get confirmed just for the sake of it, as a lot of people do. Even then I knew that getting confirmed was important, something that really mattered to some people and I didn’t want to jump on their toes by doing it simply to get a nice bit of gold and a weekly source of underage wine.
Over the years, I railed against the Church. I hated the way organised religion seemed to pull people apart, rather than together, and the bullying superiority some societies had in the name of God. This wasn’t Godly at all, I thought, watching in horror as religion was used to cry witch at children in Nigeria, decry homosexuals, single mothers, people wanting or needing abortions, at people in wars.
I absolutely loathed it.
But I still couldn’t stay away. Every time I found a church, I would go inside and lit a candle and prayed for my family and friends. The solitude and peace was blissful. Over the years, it stopped being about the candles and started being about a connection that transcended the horror of human beings.
I still don’t know whether it counts as being religious, this simply having faith. Every time I went to church, I would doggedly go up to the altar to receive my blessing (no wine, obviously) while my similarly unconfirmed brother started to remain in the pew. I meant the prayers when I said them. I liked the lessons. I felt peaceful and supported by the calls to do good, be kind in society and be the best that you can be as a person.
I’ve never expected God to change anything, physically, but I feel the change in me. I started to channel strength from prayer. This came most notably in a double-whammy of cancer. First my aunt got sick in 2007, then a university friend in 2008. My aunt died in 2008, my friend in the early months of 2009. It was appalling, this awful illness taking away two such young people.
I didn’t blame God for their deaths, any more than I credit God for giving mothers the ability to pull cars off children. But I felt something with me, a hand on the shoulder almost, during the moments when I was writing speeches, or practising poems to read at their funerals.
In the months afterwards, I wanted to find something practical to do. I signed up to volunteer on the cancer wards at Guy’s Hospital at London Bridge. I was stunned by the strength and care of the nurses, and the patients themselves. It’s a complete myth that a ward is a peaceful place; it’s busy, overworked and there are a lot of very ill people there, so I was surprised to find myself offering to read prayers with a woman in huge distress and discovered there’s a patron saint of cancer – St Peregrine.
I stopped volunteering on the ward when I came to The Times to work on the general election. My place was given to someone else, I found other things to do. I decided to tentatively find a church in my area and see about confirmation. I didn’t get on with most of them, very ALPHA course-ish or smells and bells.
Earlier this week, I was idly looking at the church where my friend’s memorial service was held. Serendipitously, they have a confirmation course starting this week. Despite being miles away from where I live, I am allowed to join. No going back now, is there?
The exciting thing is, I don’t want to. After years of ticking the agnostic box, I’m going to tick the Christian one and join the millions of other people in the world trying to wrestle back the ‘religion’ word from the horrible nutters dominating headlines.
A version of this post was originally published on The Times’ Articles of Faith blog