Many of my old friends know nothing of my Christian faith, because when I got to know them I was a mickey-taking unbeliever. I even once wrote a column for the Guernsey Press with some disparaging comments and skeptical smartarsery about the Ten Commandments.
That changed around 2005 when, while working as a journalist, I was asked to look into the Alpha Course, which is a one-evening-a-week get-together in small groups, in which anyone interested in finding out what Christianity is all about can go along and ask any question they like and be given an answer. It’s mainly for adults who have let the church pass them by and wonder if they’re missing something.
I phoned the head of the Church of England in Guernsey, the Dean, and he told me I should go and talk to Rev. Gerard Storey at Holy Trinity. So I phoned Gerard and arranged to meet him at the church the next day.
Standard procedure: I turned up with a photographer (who, as it happened, was a musician, as I am). We were both surprised and impressed to find a band’s gear set up in a corner at the front: drums, amplifiers, guitar, bass, a keyboard, microphones. Ady took some pictures and left, as press photographers do.
I interviewed Gerard for half an hour and it was funny; I just felt good listening to him and being in that environment. I decided there and then that I would go to the first meeting, which wasn’t part of the assignment. I was supposed to just find out what it was all about and write a few hundred words on it. But actually going to a meeting would give me an extra insight, and I told myself it would be like going undercover, infiltrating an organization.
The meeting was out in a particularly beautiful part of the island, up a narrow, winding road that led to a cliff with a car park where people often went just to admire the view of the sea and some smaller islands.
This was Sue’s house, and I didn’t realize I had met her before.
It’s not that easy to find, but there in the darkness was a baseball-capped figure out in the road, looking for slow-moving vehicles with drivers peering at the houses. Under the cap was Gerard, the vicar of Holy Trinity.
Sue greeted us at the door and I recognized her immediately. I had met her briefly at my son’s school sports day and she had given me a warm, beaming smile and talked in a friendly way, while most of the other mums seemed reluctant to acknowledge my presence. Maybe they were in mum mode and afraid that talking to any man except their husband could be misconstrued. But that smile had made my day and here it was again.
There were about a dozen of us plus Gerard and a church pastoral worker called Wendy, who , on hearing my surname, announced that she had known my Dad; and she had obviously liked him. She spent the evening introducing me as Eric. A pastoral worker, for anyone who doesn’t know, is an established member of a church who helps the minister out, doing things like visiting people who are sick or housebound, or who just need someone to talk to.
After a few weeks, Gerard dropped out and Wendy took over the meetings. She knew her stuff about the Bible and religion in general, and we all took a huge liking to her. She is far too modest and humble to accept this, but we hung on her every word as if she were the Archbishop of Canterbury.
It was a mixed group of people: a painter and decorator, a dentist, a teacher, a couple of stay-at-home wives with high-earning husbands, a nurse and a hotel worker, among others. And this journalist, taking it all in and writing an extra article about it because I liked it and wanted to pass it on.
We grew into a tight-knit little group and I looked forward to Wednesday nights – but I still wasn’t going to church. I had grown up in a church-going family but had opted out at 17 and my parents soon stopped going too. It just didn’t mean anything to me.
I had drifted away, still nominally believing in God but only involving him when I needed something. When I was about 30 and living in London my younger brother had been a bit of a worry: great guy, good person, decent job, but he was lonely and life was passing him by. I prayed for him, but rather than having his life transformed by God, he had been stabbed to death. Not run over by a bus, but murdered violently and terrifyingly.
That was the last straw for me: how could there be a God if he allowed such a thing to happen? And in flagrant contravention of my prayers. I joined the mouthy majority with no respect for religion. And that is how I was when I had that first meeting with Gerard Storey. Then suddenly the cloud lifted.
But I still wasn’t going to church. I wasn’t going to muscle in; I needed to be invited. And one Wednesday night it happened. As we walked to our cars in the car park after a meeting at Wendy’s house, the painter and decorator, Mark, said, “Why don’t you come to church on Sunday?”
That was all it needed. The next year I was baptized (in the sea, beautiful day, warm as bathwater).
So that’s how it started for me. Everybody’s got a story – and that is mine.