Well, that backfired gloriously.
I used to be a Christian. A real, actual practising Christian. I went to Sunday school and church every Sunday of my own free will from the age of three or four - I don't recall how old exactly; my memory doesn't stretch back that far.
I loved Sunday school so much, even though I now know that when Mrs. Joss and her grown-up daughter Katrina (who might have only been fifteen, but that was grown up to me) told me 'that's excellent, Debbie' in relation to my paintings, they were lying through their teeth. Still, I guess it's not a sin to lie if it preserves a child's self-esteem, but the fact is, I can't paint now, never mind when I was three, or four, or at any age since.
The Josses held Sunday school Christmas parties at their house, which was exciting, as I didn't get out much, partly because I was asocial and unpopular, partly because of my upbringing.
Imagine that in 2016: Sunday school leaders hosting kids' parties in their houses.
Whilst I loved Sunday school, for the learning, the activities, and the encouragement, my love of the church was of a very different kind. I remember our vicar - who had always been known as 'Father'...something, he had glasses and dark hair - being replaced by the 'Reverend' RJ Brunswick. Regardless of his formidable presence - we lived between the vicarage and the church, and he used to waft past in his black robes like some kind of malevolent dark mist - the people of the parish called him Father anyway. He was, in actuality, very nice, if not a little stern - certainly not the kind of laid-back vicar we were used to.
The church was Anglo-Catholic - or 'high' Church of England - with a sung Mass, although it was sung in English. I loved that, too - the minor keys, the power of the organ reverberating into the rafters, the unity of a hundred voices singing the Gloria, the Credo, the incredible dynamics that we had all learned and perfected -
pp ...he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, mf and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, ff and ascended into heaven, pp and sitteth on the right hand of the Father...
- standing for the procession and recession, kneeling to pray, singing hymns at the top of my voice, examining my surroundings in extraordinary detail during the sermon - the stations of the cross, the painting of Jesus on the cross behind the high altar, the stained glass windows, the carvings in the pulpit, pews and font. Every single last thing about being in the church, joining in Mass, was awe-inspiring to me.
This, in spite of my dad, who was 'lapsed' Orange Order, telling me I attended a redneck church. It was said tongue-in-cheek, even though it was a time of immense political upheaval in the North of Ireland, and we felt the ricochets in the North of England even before the action geographically shifted our way.
A lot of children lose interest in the church when they reach their teens. Now, this may be a distinctly English phenomenon, or a distinctly Deb phenomenon, but my parents didn't go to church with me, and there was no parental pressure to continue. And I believed. I believed in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: the Holy Trinity. I'd felt its presence, its power.
I did try other churches - all Christian - during my early teens. I attended an independent methodist church and affiliated youth club for a while. I even attended a Roman Catholic church a few times because it had the only Brownie pack with vacancies, and I attended a different methodist church for Girl Guides, but I returned to my church every time, and on the last occasion, it was to join the Church Lads and Church Girls Brigade.
I was confirmed by the Bishop of Liverpool, which allowed me to move up the ranks in the Brigade. After I moved from the North-West to London, I was promoted to warrant officer, and...
This is where I skip the bit about breaking commandments, because all of the above is really no more than a factual preamble, and my moral downfall had no effect on my faith nor the opportunity to continue practising it.
So many times I felt...uplifted - what Christians will tell me is the power of the Holy Spirit entering my soul. Simply being inside the church, with the incense and the echoes and the organ and the everything had a profound effect on me, emotionally, physiologically, spiritually.
Later, I went to university and studied social science, and still I held on to my conviction that I was a Christian, even though I heard the restrained contempt for my ignorance in my lecturer's 'OK. Fair enough.' By then, I'd also been thrown out of the parish church worship group for writing a stage show that condoned homosexuality. The vicar's ultimatum was that we (Nige and me) rewrite it so it was in keeping with the Scriptures or we were out. I argued with him for two hours, because all he had was that Old Testament Sodom and Gomorrah stuff. He didn't mention Paul's letters, and neither did I, because I was winning, apart from the being kicked out part.
The new vicar came to see us a few years later and made a vague attempt to lure us back into the fold, but I'd got the message. Our kind were not welcome in the Church, and so be it. I could keep my Christian faith and still despise/pity/forgive the people who bent God's word and Jesus' teaching to their will. I could still be a Christian...
Until I wasn't.
I don't know when it happened. It wasn't a sudden switch - Christian one minute, atheist the next. Sometime between graduating and the vicar's visit, my faith dissolved. Here and now, I can go as far as believing Jesus existed but as a revolutionary, not the son of God, and I can even accept there being the potential, in a universe of infinite possibilities, for this whole shebang to be intelligent design.
I am an atheist, and I do find it difficult to respect other people's beliefs, although usually when they use them to persecute 'sinners' and incite hatred, because nowhere in any translation of the New Testament was that the kind of man Jesus was. Or perhaps I'm recalling through a rose-tinted looking glass. It's a while since I read the bible.
Mostly, I don't miss my faith. I don't feel bitter or miserable or smugly terrified that when we die that's it. Nor do I necessarily believe in life after death, or not life as we know it (Jim). I rather like Carl Sagan's contention that we are all starstuff. We came from the stars, and we return to them. There's my heaven, out there in the universe.
What I do miss is that overwhelming tingle-shiver-wow. I sense echoes of it from time to time when I read a brilliant line in a story, or hear a musician blessed with natural musicality. I get a sense of it from other people and their everyday miracles, although my need to keep my emotions in check (I don't do crying...in public) mutes the impact.
There's no denying that Christian songs are the ones that most often evoke this response in me. I mock it, but Graham Kendrick's 'Shine Jesus Shine' has the tingle factor, as does O Holy Night in pretty much any form (except Mariah Carey). My favourite is the version by BarlowGirl.
On the other hand, I get a different sort of buzz from MelodySheep's Symphony of Science remixes. It is these that have inspired me to want to learn, and maybe one day get my head around physics. It's still a strong reaction, but it's more...cognitive, less 'spiritual'.
Symphony of Science - We Are All Connected
And then there was Pentatonix singing the 'Hallelujah'. Tingle-shiver-wow, and out.
Pentatonix - Hallelujah
Thanks for reading,
St. Luke's Church - photograph © Copyright Alex McGregor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.