Those of us who have moved around a country or the wider world a fair bit are accustomed to building our own little world wherever we happen to be. That means finding a house or apartment, settling into a new job or looking for one, making friends, perhaps finding schools for our children, and if we are that way inclined, a church. In my case, an Anglican church.
I grew up in a church-going family in Guernsey, the local church being a 12th century stone building on a hill overlooking the sea, and although I stopped going to church as soon as I became old enough to decide for myself and spent 30 years thoroughly unimpressed with the whole business of religion, I found my faith again (or perhaps for the first time, really). Same island, different area, big stone building but less ancient and in town.
You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian, in fact, because God is with us wherever we are. It’s just that in a church it feels more focused; it is easier to feel the presence we’re looking for, the indescribable peace and reassurance that the non-believer will never know.
The stereotypical idea about this, particularly among the sceptics, would be that we quickly find a nice, quiet, old building with a friendly minister/priest/pastor and members of the congregation eager to sweep us into the fold and treat us like one of the family.
In reality it is often not like that at all. A church is not a building, it’s a group of people, with all the strengths and weaknesses of any other group of people. It is possible to sit in a half-full church and feel lonely, awkward, like a gatecrasher, so we are immediately on the lookout for like-minded people to help us assimilate.
On a brief and ill-fated stay in the west Midlands of England, in a town not far from Birmingham, the closest place of worship I found was a Methodist chapel, so I gave it a go. They believed in the same God, sang hymns I recognized but seemed to do it with less pomp and circumstance. None of it really mattered. In that building I was alone with my thoughts and my private conversations.
After the service, not being great at foisting myself on a community, I latched onto a friendly woman about my age, attractive and smartly dressed within the bounds of her beliefs. She was a modest symphony in brown, with little flesh exposed – in many ways a typical British Christian.
We got chatting and of course she was married, she hastened to point out. So was I, but my wife was in another country at the time. We talked happily enough for a few minutes and then, when it was time to leave, she said I should come round for a drink some time, “Not that we drink much,” she added quickly, hoping no one had heard. She wasn’t there the next week, and the week after I gave it miss. Soon I left the area, which had only been a temporary stop on the off-chance that something might come up, and I headed home to my big stone church in town, where friends awaited me and welcomed me back. But that too was only temporary and soon I would be off to pastures – and pastors – new.
Next Sunday: cast ashore in the Caribbean