Long walk home

St Peter'sI 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.

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2 responses to “Long walk home

  1. A great reflection on how church can be and the possibilities that it might present to those who arrive as you did, a new comer, nervous, anxious, wondering what you’ve let yourself in for?

    Perhaps akin to how I felt returning to an Anglican parish in 2008, having deserted the Catholic Church over twenty years before. The reasons that I left are immaterial, just that I lost faith in both God and church at the same time. In the interim I’d been a staunch agnostic, and had only been in church once or twice for family life events, and even than, I’d had to be dragged kicking and screaming into them.
    Even at funerals, I’d felt estranged, alien and unable to pray.or join in.

    In 2008 I underwent a ‘road to Damascus’ experience which brought me back to faith, But where should this go? I spoke to the padre and he supported me and eventually invited me to his parish, which is why I walked through that door, that day, filled with fear and apprehension. The good thing was that my spouse and a good friend came along in support to what was my ‘formal reception into the parish’ at a Benefice wide Eucharist and we were introduced. Were welcomed whole heartedly. Following a renewal of Baptism vows was allowed to receive holy communion with my spouse for the first time ever.

    In the following years I became a full and active member of the parish was privileged to be given opportunities to work in lay ministry, to train in pastoral care as well as explore a vocation to Ordained Ministry, which became clear after I was confirmed at the Cathedral – it was a journey of ups and downs and life changing experiences as the whole benefice took me into their heart and loved and supported me. We didn’t have any of the issues you faced, women were welcome in ministry and soon after my arrival a visiting woman priest demonstrated to me that the priest is there to be the signpost for us towards God and a conduit in a sense for God’s grace. A role that people are called to be and gender has no bearing on who is called, God calls and the people and the church test that call and, if valid, trains, empowers and deploys that ministry.

    Even the disappointment at BAP failed to cease my love and loyalty to the Benefice, but a diocese which chose to ignore me post BAP was the turn off. I no longer felt supported by the wider church outside the benefice for any sort of ministry – and their support was vital, as the vocations team is the pathway to any training for any sort of recognised and accredited lay ministry. But successive doors being closed by them, just meant that there was little point in staying, particularly as each attendance involved a 104 mile return journey. It took several months of soul searching, stomach wrenching decision making with discussions with my spiritual director, my spouse, wider family and friends to decide to move. Just at a particular low point, God once again intervened. A casual conversation with a parish priest local to me, where I’d been going for mid-week communion over several years drew an invitation to serve with them. It just clicked into place. All the doubts and anxieties about leaving friends vanished in an instant – I know that God was calling me to be there, and the decision was made in that instant.

    Now I’m in a busy parish, with a single church, one priest but with a vibrant and living congregation. Average attendance at a 8am BCP is over 30 and the 10 Oclock is a full house. They have a lovely choir with many young choristers coming through and a lively and active ministry team. What’s not to like. There is much still to do to be embedded, but a sign of acceptance is being asked to lead intercessions today on only my second full Sunday in the parish.

    There are also several people in the parish currently exploring a vocation to lay ministry, so I won’t be alone – we’ll be supporting each other as we journey through a diocesan system that is well organised, has a distinct pathway. A foundation course in Christian Ministry, which additional modules to add on as you gain experience and the call to a particular ministry is discerned. Here is hope and a place where I feel that what gifts I have to offer will be accepted, taken and used. Thanks be to God.

    My old parish will retain a special place in my heart as will their people. Like you I have made many friends and will continue to see them, but in the context of friendship and shared experience, not in the context of church.

  2. I can so relate to the “in effect a single mum” situation – and it doesn’t ease once the kids are grown and left home. In some ways it’s even worse – serious pressure from some church folk (largely retired themselves, and either single or with both partners attending church) who simply don’t “get” what life is like with a partner who isn’t only a non-believer but can also be vehemently anti-church at times. I need the space and freedom to pick my battles, to decide before and with God what the priorities should be for church attendance/involvement. Most recently, I was asked to join the group who steward on a Saturday morning. “It’s only for a couple of hours a week – how can he possibly object?”… well, given that Monday-Friday “he” is out of the house for work for 13-14 hours daily and I really like/need to attend Sunday worship (another couple of hours out away from him) the regular Saturday morning commitment in addition really would be asking a lot and would put a huge stress on our relationship! Sadly, individuals in the church community are so often unwilling/unable to give me both the space and the support I need and I am perceived as not being sufficently committed. They don’t see, and most wouldn’t understand, the hours of prayer I give to the community and to individuals, and the time spent quietly listening one-to-one to individuals on a Sunday morning.

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