#TBT: “You want me to do what?” What it’s like being a lay preacher

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Instead of wearing a cross – bit Buffy for me – I have this beautiful bracelet which my godfather gave me for my confirmation

Nostalgia week – commence! After four and a half years at The Times, it’s my last day next Thursday. Of the many opportunities I’ve had here to write about something I feel really strongly about, my 2010 series about being a feminist, LGBT-supporting person getting confirmed was one of my favourites. I know, sexy subject, right? Nothing says “This won’t alienate people at all!” like talking earnestly about faith, religion and small sacred biscuits that are actually really difficult to swallow.

The other day, one of the pieces I wrote resurfaced on Facebook and it brought back a flood of things I’d completely forgotten.  The blog I wrote it on – Articles of Faith – and Ruth Gledhill, its editor, aren’t at The Times anymore, so much of the confirmation diary moves here.

My confirmation meant a lot to me for lots of reasons. As well as introducing me to lots of interesting people, all questioning the role of the church in modern Britain, it felt like it meant something more. In 2009, my friend Ben died of cancer. He wasn’t religious, but there was a huge, wonderful memorial service that celebrated him and gave the 700 people in that church the chance to laugh, cry and remember.

I read one of the eulogies. At a series of lunches with Ben’s family, I got to know the vicar, Joe, who remains one of the most witty, charismatic and interesting people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. When I eventually decided to get confirmed, various serendipitous things took me back to his church.

I moved church when I moved to Camberwell, but I am forever grateful to the clergy in Putney for answering all my questions, for their good humour, and being completely able to go “Well yes, that’s just ridiculous” – and for all the wine. I wrote this piece for my Times series, about being an incredibly unlikely preacher. Hope you like reading it.

“You want me to do what?” May 2011

On Sunday, I was a lay preacher in church. (Please try not to laugh too hard, my parents almost bit their lips off when I told them this was happening.)

The vicar pounced on me before Eucharist a couple of months ago.

“I’m going to ask you something very scary,” he said. Hum, I thought, I’ve faced Anne Robinson on The Weakest Link. Unless this involves standing up in front of an entire church, this really isn’t going to faze me.

“Will you do a sermon for us at Evensong?”

Ahahahahaha.

Ten seconds later I found that I was saying, as I do to pretty much anything my utterly charming vicar asks, that I’d be thrilled.

Of course I thought it was bonkers to ask me. I only got confirmed a few months ago, and spent so much of my classes being deeply annoyed by Leviticus that I’m amazed I was welcomed so warmly. To me, Preacher is a graphic novel, not a description of myself. Moreover, this was my first time at Evensong full stop.

I found writing my sermon incredibly difficult, not least because everytime the word ‘sermon’ popped into my head, I turned pale and had to have a bit of a lie down. A lay preacher is not a member of the clergy, I knew that much, but the very idea of preaching at anyone made me feel worried. I have absolutely no struggles with my faith, but quite a lot with religion. How could I be honest with myself and the congregation, without offending anyone?

As it stands, it went pretty well. I made someone cry, and not with rage. And lots of people said it was “interesting”, which either means it genuinely was interesting, or they are far too polite to call me a hideous infidel in public. To my horror, the vicar made me stand at the door and greet people as they left the church – “The preacher always stands there, Kat.”

Here goes, anyway. I hope you find it “interesting.”

For reference, the Evensong readings were Ezra 3:1-13 and Ephesians 2:11-22. Joe, Penny and Eileen are the clergy at my church.

BEHOLD, THE SERMON:

As someone who spends much of the working week bashing out words on demand, I’ve been flabbergasted at how hard this kind of writing actually is. I’ve no idea how Penny, Joe and Eileen manage it on a weekly, if not more frequent basis, and I can only hope that they have some kind of magical machine hidden in the vestry to help them.

Part of the problem is being given a blank piece of paper and told that you can write anything. Hideous! Many of us are so used to working to a brief, be it from a boss, from a client, or from a parent, that being able to just do anything can be incredibly unnerving. With so many directions you could take, there’s always the risk that you just panic and, ultimately, stand still.

In church, I have been given the same blank piece of paper. I was confirmed here at All Saints in November, and while there’s a lot of freedom and comfort in having chosen your own time to get confirmed, and knowing it’s the right time for you, it’s also slightly terrifying. What on earth do you do now? You’re a grown up, so you can think for yourself. You’ve got the 10 Commandments down pat. But how do you behave? Is there a sea change that should follow? What should you do, when you’ve already built your own, slightly wonky way of including God in your life?

After confirmation, my friends and godparents gave me helpful books on prayer and inspirational church figures. One friend, the son of a minister, said that instead of reading the paper on his 90 minute commute to London each day, he uses the time to reflect and to pray. I felt half impressed, and half massively intimidated. Who am I to spend 90 minutes talking to God? And what to say, when I’ve spent 18 years just saying small prayers whenever I’ve gone into a church to think.

In the Bible of course, everyone’s talking to God, all the time. A lot of phrases from today’s readings ring very true for me. In Ephesians, those who were separate from Christ are brought near by his blood – at communion, at confirmation. I’m not a particularly humble person by nature. But I found my first communion, being brought near to Christ through blood, so humbling that I promptly burst into tears. The most vivid recollection I have of that day, other than hastily trying to mop up tear drops from the altar with my sleeve as Joe grinned at me, was of feeling quite overwhelmed by a feeling I still haven’t quite figured out yet. Being far away, and brought in, as it’s put – I found that incredibly moving. The first notch on my blank piece of paper.

In Ezra, the Israelites sacrifice burnt offerings to God. When I was thinking about rejoining the church, about wondering whether I would be welcome after so many years hovering on the fringes, it felt very much as though all I had to offer God were ‘burnt offerings’. My faith was there, but it came with a large helping of cynicism, suspicion and wariness from seeing how religion has often been interpreted in the modern world.

But despite fearing those around them, the Israelites build their altar. Most Christians now have less to fear, facing instead the scorn of the scientific and the impact from those who would use the Bible as a weapon. I wouldn’t say I feared the reaction of people when I told them I was getting confirmed, despite the faith-atheist impasse, but certainly enquiries from friends, from Twitter and commenters on the confirmation blog I wrote for The Times, bordered on the incredulous.

“Have you found God?” was a common one, often said in the careful manner of one approaching a lunatic.

“No,” I replied, “I never lost him. I just know myself better now.”

The reason I knew that I was finally ready to get confirmed was when I could say, quite happily, that I knew God, and that simply wasn’t going to change whether people thought I was too religious, or not religious enough.

I say not enough, because last year I really wasn’t expecting to come to church at all. My faith was something between me and God, wherever I happened to be, and so I’d planned that after my communion this would continue along much the same lines. Yet slowly, very slowly, my blank piece of paper is filling up like a faint sketch. I still have my old routine of going into churches outside of service hours and saying a prayer or lighting a candle. But there are new lines being pencilled in. Actually going to church services, that aren’t just Christmas or Easter, and meeting amazing people. Suddenly realising you know how all the sung parts go. Realising what a variety of information there is out there – The Barefoot Disciple was an eye-opener on humility. Reading every faith story that comes into the news desk at work with a new degree of interest. I spent four years in a university city with one of Britain’s most beautiful cathedrals, yet this is my first Evensong.

At confirmation something really fell into place for me. I feel that every time I come to a service here. And there are coincidences that almost seem like fate. The fact that, when I looked on the All Saints website out of interest, there was a confirmation class starting that very week. That Penny served at the church my family attended before we left London nearly 20 years ago and had been at university with my dad before that. That I was brought here by a great man, who would also have raised an eye brow at seeing me here.

I wonder if this way of doing things, of tracing things out on my blank piece of paper, before rubbing them out and trying again, will lead to a fine picture, or a terrific mess. But if you had told me five years ago that I would be standing here, in this glorious church, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me I would be at a church service, I wouldn’t have believed you either. At church, our sins are forgiven and we can start the week afresh. It’s up to us what we do with that blank slate and where we go with it. But then, each week, we confirm our belief in God with other people, and that blank piece of paper starts to look a little more defined.

My confirmation diary – week 4 got lost in the transfer, apols

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4 thoughts on “#TBT: “You want me to do what?” What it’s like being a lay preacher

  1. I’m also a feminist, LGBT-supporting person of some kind of Christian faith, and I found this incredibly touching. I like how honest you are about figuring out what your faith and a relationship with God look like in your life. It’s so tricky, especially when Religion bogs you down and it all feels too difficult, but things like this remind me of the core simplicity of faith.

    I also loved Please God, Find Me a Husband and Blankets (so so brilliant) and I got a M&S cape last year and love it to pieces; reading your blog is like a comforting hug, because you write so beautifully about things I love!

  2. Thank you for such a lovely, thoughtful note Amy. I’m thrilled you have all the above – it’s really good to hear that other people feel the same and it isn’t just you. (Enjoy your beautiful cape)

  3. “… there are coincidences that almost seem like fate.”

    Rarely was a truer phrase spoken! Having enjoyed your posts over on Domestic Sluttery, I followed a blog trail that led me to your site. This was the first of your (brilliantly written posts) that I read in full, only to realise that I was one of the other 700 people at Ben’s memorial service (we worked together in Southwark) and was thinking about him just yesterday. Isn’t that so like him, to be playing jokes and making funny connections even now? Thank you for a fabulous read and a lovely memory.

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