Sunday Reflections #5

Last week I described how I first felt able to stop doing something I felt was expected of me as a Christian. Obviously one of the biggest expectations of all is going to church, and that became a big part of my life from 1990 onwards.

Back then, I became a member of New Malden Baptist Church (NMBC), and I look back fondly on my time there. I went there regularly until I went to university in 1996, and considered it my “home church” until 1999, when I graduated and moved back to London, although by then I was married (wedding at NMBC in 1997), and we started going to Emmanuel in Wimbledon. I’d spent a while in the crazy world of hardcore charismatic Christians, which I’ve already written about. I stayed at Emmanuel until we moved to Scotland in 2009, but something began going badly wrong in about 2004, I think.

Until then, I’d always felt pretty happy in church. NMBC was a wonderful friendly and welcoming place, and although I’d now no longer agree with what they teach, I still fondly remember the community there, and I have a lot of friends who either were or still are actively involved with the church. I initially joined, and then helped out with, a thriving youth group which produced enthusiastic and thoughtful Christians who wanted to make a big difference. We were passionate, idealistic and kind people who wanted to see people find what we’d found. They were happy days. I was also pretty happy in a very similar church (Headington Baptist Church) when I was a student.

It’s hard to remember specifically when things started to go wrong, but I think it’s when I realised there was a lot about Emmanuel’s preaching (specifically the preaching of the now extremely disgraced Jonathan Fletcher) that sat very uncomfortably with me indeed. Instead of feeling like I was part of a bigger community of believers, I felt like I was part of a personality cult that looked down on all other churches as weak, compromised and liberal. We were constantly told to adopt really extreme positions on things, and the church seemed to constantly pick battles that seemed really pointless. I also felt we were looked down upon for not living in a huge house in a wealthy area – we had a modest flat on a council estate, which was actually a great place to live, but people were really snobbish and sneery about it.

My joy at being part of a welcoming community began to wane seriously. Instead of looking forward to going to church, I began to dread it, and began to have serious doubts about what I was being told to believe. A new curate, Ben Shaw, who was from Australia and had a rather different attitude to things than most of Emmanuel’s leadership, made time to talk to me about the problems and doubts I was having, but it was pretty clear that he expected me to resolve them all and make my peace with God and the church eventually. It never happened.

Very sadly, Ben recently died of cancer.

I struggled on, through a lot of stress and anguish, until 2009, when we moved to Scotland. I was very grateful of the opportunity to start again with church, and hoped it might cure the problems I’d had at Emmanuel. We settled on going to St. Michael’s in Linlithgow, a beautiful building hundreds of years old that forms a very distinctive landmark in the town. Initially, things seemed a lot better. The church was considerably less extreme in its views on things, and I soon got involved in helping out with youth work. The teenagers I worked with were a lovely bunch and I soon grew very fond of them. It reminded me of my own happy days in the youth group at NMBC. It felt like this was what things were really about, and it was the happiest I’d been in church for a long time.

Things still weren’t easy, though. My early days in Scotland were marred with lots of difficulties. I struggled to find and keep work, my mum was very ill and eventually passed away in 2013, and my nephew came to live with us, which was very difficult for him, and all of it placed a lot of strain on me. It was at this point that I began to think that being a Christian actually made my life more difficult than it should have been, instead of easier.

Evangelical Christians love telling you that you’re weak, pathetic, corrupt and sinful, and that you can’t do anything good by yourself. Only God can truly help you to be anything better than a disgusting stain on the surface of the planet. One thing that is really looked down upon is “doing things in your own strength”, as opposed to God’s strength, because you’re not actually meant to have any. Emmanuel were really big on this original sin stuff, we had it constantly hammered into us, and it doesn’t do much for your self-image. In fact, it pretty well rips it to pieces. By about 2015, when work had stabilised and I’d got through the worst of the personal traumas I’d had to deal with, I realised something. When things were really bleak in my life, God was nowhere to be seen and I’d dealt with ALL of it “in my own strength”. It was the first sign, to me, that I was actually capable and resilient, and didn’t need to pretend I wasn’t.

I began to feel uncomfortable teaching teenagers things I seriously began to doubt myself, so I stopped helping with the youth group, but I carried on going to church for a while. I wasn’t enjoying it, though, and began to feel increasingly frustrated, angry and uncomfortable with it all, although it took me a while to work out why.

In June and July of 2015, there was a major six-week closure of the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway line for engineering work in Winchburgh Tunnel. It required an intensive service of rail replacement buses, and a big team of staff were deployed to Linlithgow to assist passengers. I ended up being a Duty Manager for this work. It was tiring, and I worked very long hours, so I’d come home after twelve-hour shifts feeling pretty exhausted. As a result, I valued getting some rest on Sundays, so for the duration of the work, I didn’t go to church. It was the only time of the week I really managed to switch off and get some time to relax. I fully intended to start going again when the work ended, but my absence from church became permanent.

I realised several things at that time. First was that going to church was doing me no good at all. I wasn’t hearing anything helpful, encouraging or useful, and in fact quite the opposite was happening – I heard lots of things that made me angry and depressed. Second, I began to realise that I was getting a classic trauma reaction every time I stepped through the door of a church – I was immediately putting my defences up. Third, I felt I couldn’t be private or introverted in church, and I felt bombarded by well-meaning people constantly asking me questions I didn’t fancy engaging in. Fourth – and possibly most importantly – the sky didn’t fall in.

This needs pointing out. The only reason loads of people go to church every week is because they’re scared of what will happen if they don’t. They’re pressured into it by the expectations of their families, they’re worried they’ll lose their salvation and go to hell if they don’t, they think God will be angry with them…for whatever reason, there are a lot of people sitting in pews feeling horribly miserable, and very alone, but they can’t stop going because they fear the consequences.

I can’t quite remember how long it took me to realise, but I eventually twigged I was much better off without it, and I’ve never gone back to church since. It took a while to make my peace with it, but I never regretted it. More recently, I’ve explored the religious trauma that’s been inflicted on me by the more extreme Christians I’ve got entangled with at various times, and I’m now very glad I’m out of that world. Church imposes a whole pile of obligations, expectations and authority structures on your life that simply don’t need to be there, and life without them became a much more free and satisfying experience. It made me wonder why I hadn’t walked away much sooner.

I appreciate this is long, and I’m very grateful if you’ve read to the end. 🙂 I hope it’s also an encouragement if you feel trapped in the pews yourself. It is possible to walk away, it is possible to trust your own instincts and hunches, and it is possible to live free from the weight of expectations others place on you. It’s not easy, but once out the other side, you’ll never look back.

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