I’ve got a horrendous attack of the new-schools as I get off the train and head to my first class. I haven’t returned to the area since Ben’s memorial service 18 months ago, and as I walk into the church hall I feel shy and incredibly awkward. Am I religious enough? Is it allowed that I think a lot of the Bible is bunk? Is my outfit even vaguely appropriate? Are my reasons for doing this as valid as everyone else’s? Will they let me join in, or will I get that teenage feeling of being “unsuitable” again. Argh.
I’m planning to write to Ben’s mother afterwards about getting confirmed through her church. For the moment, it feels a bit odd, like I’m sneaking into her garden and pitching a tent. Ben wasn’t remotely religious himself, although he did a lot of volunteering for Festival Samaritans. He was, however, one of those people who is just so good that it makes you roll your eyes when pursed-lipped inflexibles go on about how only people who’ve accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and saviour get to have a pop at the Pearly Gates.
The cheery deacon – one of three clergy, we’re either spoiled or need wrangling – offers me some wine which makes me brighten up considerably and I start small-talking to the others. Most are women, probably aged between 30 and 50. (There’s only one man here which is interesting – do men get confirmed earlier, I wonder? Is spiritual obstinacy restricted to women? Please don’t say Eat Pray Love had a point.) All, naturally enough, are from the church’s congregation. Not having been near a church service in months, let alone in this parish, I’m hotly aware of my failure on that point and this makes me play up to the crowd. I’m soon explaining my interloper-from-Lambeth status with the mannerisms of a sub-par birthday clown.
Mercifully avoiding the impending threat of jazz hands, we’re split into groups and the wonderful vicar who took Ben’s memorial service, and who did so much to remove the dust jacket from religion for me over subsequent lunches with Ben’s family, introduces the course.
(You may have noticed that, other than Ben, because calling him “My friend who died” for six weeks is an absurdity too far, I’m not mentioning names. This isn’t a restaurant review of the church, although its wine choices are amazing. This is my – oh God, am I going to say it? Yes. Yes I am. My journey. Bit like X Factor, but with a cross instead of an X.)
We tentatively talk about why we’re getting confirmed. Other reasons were similar to mine. Illness. Had enough of sitting at the back of the church, thought they should move up to the front. Some were about to baptise their children, another was getting married. Many had the air of someone who’s fought a long battle and finally come to peace with the other side.
My heart is sinking as I roll out the one huge thing that has got in the way of my signing on the ecclesiastical dotted line for so long. Before I can form a fluid and sensible sentence, I briskly sing-song: “I can’t be doing with how the Church treats the gays.” (The gays? Inside, I’m actually biting my fist right now.)
Rather than bridling, or looking awkward, as I’d judgily, 20-something metropolitan-Londonly imagined, nobody turns a hair. My neighbour turns to me and discreetly whispers, “Well of course you know so-and-so’s gay. And lives with their partner?”
Hurrah! Save me from my smug, assuming self that my age-old bugbear – a lot of Christians are anti-homosexual – is at least wrong in this class. Of all the tenets held onto by certain areas of the Church, anti-homosexuality is one of the saddest. It’s unthinkable as to why, when so much of the Bible’s more outlandish edicts have been quietly ignored, many factions insist on clinging blindly to that one fire and brimstone Leviticus phrase. The New Testament is very keen on loving everyone, not just straight men of a certain age and their passive wives (more on that another time). Leviticus, however, is frankly barking.
Soon we’re airing all sorts of opinion laundry. There’s a loose program to the evening which soon gets waylaid by furious analysis of what parts of the Bible we take as gospel (literally) in our everyday lives, and what gets taken with liberal pinches of salt. It turns out I’m not the only one guiltily wondering whether I am allowed to reconcile my faith with striking a line through the great swathes of the Bible that clash with modern thought and reasoning. I’m rather thrilled at the prospect of getting to spend the next few weeks dismantling it in a modern context.
The class’s male candidate, a self-made businessman, is particularly unimpressed by the idea of it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than a rich man to enter heaven. Why shouldn’t you be allowed money if you’ve worked really hard and give something back? I vaguely remember hearing something on Radio 4 about the camel analogy being a mistranslation and promise to look it up.
You’ll laugh when you hear my homework for next week: to find our favourite story about Jesus for the class. How meek and mild is that? But the whole point of Jesus was that he was a teacher. More than that, he was lots of things to many people. I immediately think of Christmas. I love the nine lessons and find the emotions in them hugely inspiring: joy, hope, innocence, promise, courage in the face of an oppressive regime (how hollow that can sound now!). I love going to church at Christmas because it’s like a spiritual reset button. Every single person in the country is on an even footing, whether you’re waiting for Father Christmas, Christ, or an unfeasibly boozy lunch followed by hours of wobbly Charades.
Everyone, regardless of faith, is brought together is at Christmas. Everyone is welcome. And sorry to sound like a seasonal plea, but this first session showed me that more than ever. Finally, I can talk out my problems with the Bible with people who don’t just stare back blankly and parrot, “Because it says so”, as well as looking at religion with new eyes. As ready as I am, there’s a lot I need to get sorted out in my head first. Roll on week two.
A version of this post was originally published on The Times’ Articles of Faith blog