I went back to my sending church yesterday, almost 18 years to the day since I first walked through its ‘hallowed portal’. I’d actually gone back to visit friends, and had a wonderful time…then M said “Do you want to see the church?” I swallowed and said yes.
I knew it was going to be different, the changes had been planned before I left in May 2010, and were finished last year. And the little church looks fabulous – warm, welcoming, comfy chairs, flexible lighting, a new altar, all reordered beautifully. The sad thing is that it looks like a church I’d love to be part of.
I’ve always been ambivalent about my sending church, and parts of it have been pretty ambivalent about me too. Do not misunderstand. I have wonderful friends there, and felt very supported while I was training – support which continues today. But I’ve never quite fitted. When I first wandered in with a new baby tucked under my arm, I worked shifts. So not only was I full time, I was irregular too (or regular over a six week cycle which no-one except those who worked it ever understood). I didn’t want to sit with Mums (and in those days it was Mums….) talking baby talk. I wanted a church where I could bring up my child to understand a bit about Christianity, and to learn about God. Sitting minding the creche was not my thing. But here’s the other important thing about my sending church. It was my parish church, and I figured that it and I belonged to each other.
It might have been easier if I had known what I needed from church myself. Not to mention that it was a hard place to break into. Creche rota, that was easy. But it was about five years before I was invited to be on the reading rota – and I didn’t even know who to ask before I was approached. Cleaning rota was easy – and saying no was hard, because I was a fit and healthy woman. That I worked full time with by then two young children was no excuse – because all the church heard was me saying ‘no’. ‘No’ to pram services held on Friday afternoons, ‘no’ to prayer groups which meet in mornings, and ‘not regularly’ to groups which met in evenings. I didn’t work shifts any more, but time with family was precious.
So, of course, I became an obvious target for the family events. I was the mother of a family, right? Well, yes, true, but there was one important fact – that to all intents and purposes, for church, I was and am a single mother. That’s not to underestimate all the support my Other Half (occasionally referred to here and elsewhere as OH) gave and gives me. But he doesn’t do God, and he doesn’t do church. He’ll show up for stuff if specifically invited. And because he made friends with some of my friends from church, he’d come along to the barbecue quite happily, and help cook. But family events designed for Mum, Dad and children didn’t really fit either. And here’s another important point. They don’t fit a lot of families. I could count on the fingers of one hand the ‘typical’ families at church – Mum, Dad and children. Because they were atypical. Far more of us were women, with or without children, whose husbands didn’t do church. (If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound terribly inclusive or Inclusive, you have a fair point.) But we all bought into the tyranny of the stereotype – that women are married and have children and don’t work. For the people who did most of the organising, that’s how life was. Many of them had careers before they married (I know one of the first female radiographers, who helped develop pregnancy ‘scans’) but knew their place was in the home after that.
There I was, trogging along most Sunday mornings, and sometimes to groups, with or without children in tow, and then I really did the unexpected. I started exploring ordination. This in a church which still won’t have a woman presiding at the Eucharist. I didn’t experience a woman’s Priestly ministry until I arrived at theological college.
So yesterday, I stood in a building which felt totally familiar, yet completely different. It’s a place where I have sobbed, laughed, prayed, sung, loved, been loved, been criticised and ignored. It’s a place in which I felt and feel simultaneously completely at home and totally alien.
I didn’t walk my Janathon mile yesterday. But if I had a yard for every emotional tug and reflex from a visit to my old church, I ran a hard marathon.
Why write it down? To remember! So that when I am all grown up and trying to be a good priest and rector, I remember that it isn’t very far from the centre of church to the edge; that how people look may not be how they feel; that the ones who seem rock solid may be shaking in their shoes; that I cannot and must not assume; that people have lives beyond church, and pulls on their time and energy that I can’t even imagine. So that I remember that just because God is at the centre of someone’s life, church doesn’t necessarily occupy the same heart space.