|My family is firmly rooted
in Nonconformist Christianity. My paternal grandfather and
maternal great grandfather were lay preachers and I was brought up in
the Baptist church although Methodism, the Brethren and independent
Evangelical churches feature in my ecclesiastical family history.
I went through an evangelical conversion experience when I was about 12
years old at a Crusader camp in Dorset and this experience of feeling
my heart strangely warmed has continued to be central to my life. |
Around the age of 16 I began to take my religion more seriously. Richard Foster’s Celebration Of Discipline was an important book for me as it began to give me a framework for serious spiritual work. The open minded, middle of the road Baptist church where I had been brought up and where I was baptised on Easter day 1979 was also a very nurturing environment. A more shadowy and eccentric influence was Dostoevsky’s book Notes From Underground which resonated very deeply with me, shining a light as it did into the complexities of the human heart. As did the Bible. I was converted to the Bible by reading the first few chapters of Ezekiel – a wonderfully weird and apocalyptic vision celebrated in the spiritual Ezekiel Saw The Wheel. I’m glad I’m not the only person who’s been inspired by this wonderful passage and my favourite parts of the Bible have continued to be some of its strangest byways. I love Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs and Job have been important to me. In more recent years I have come to love the Psalms and Luke’s gospel has had a very significant impact on my life. Parts, such as the Pastoral Epistles, I still struggle with, but generally I find it in a wild and passionate book full of wonderful stories that has been the touchstone for my theology and daily life. I particularly like its tendency to tell stories more than once but in slightly different ways, if we made this fact more central to our theology we would be wiser people and better Christians.
I read Religion with Literature at university. As my working life developed I sometimes wished I had studied social sciences, but this came later and I think, in retrospect, this combination of art and theology was the most nourishing for my soul. University was also a time of Christian community which was deeply important to me and I retain close, if geographically distant, relationships with two friends from that time.
After university I didn’t know what to do. Eventually I ended up in Cyprus working as a volunteer for the Middle East Council of Churches. This was a great experience. Meeting Coptic Bishops here, began my interest in the desert fathers and mothers and a lifelong respect for the Eastern Orthodox churches. I was seriously thinking about going back to work in the Middle East – a number of my friends did this, but as it turned out I started working in London and got caught up in a city where you can travel the world without getting on a plane.
In London I was exposed to black spirituality and the religion of the Caribbean and African diaspora. I have particularly come to love the spirituality of Caribbean women, a spirituality rooted in the Bible, struggle and an irrepressible Spirit. It has deeply influenced me in ways which are difficult to put into words, but which, I think, resonates with my own family roots in evangelical Nonconformity. It also made me reflect on my Englishness and my own Anglo-Saxon roots. In all this I became interested in urban spirituality. What is it that sustains us in the urban? What resources can we draw on to reflect the reality that, although, the Bible may begin in a garden, it ends in a city? For many years this search obscured my own deep love of nature and wild places, but in its own way London is a wild place uncontrolled by human reason. For a time I lived in a tower block in South London and it was here that I discovered Thomas Merton. I had bought and read his book New Seeds Of Contemplation at university but it had not greatly impressed me. Returning to it whilst living in an example of early seventies brutalism was a revelation. It returned to me to that spiritual quest that I had begun as a sixteen year old, but in a more mystical way. I began to see, as it were, angels ascending and descending on the stairs of the tower blocks – a mood which was greatly helped by listening to Van Morrison! During a break with my parents who had moved to a village in the South Downs I had a powerful mystical experience of interconnection with the world and my spiritual life shifted permanently.
Religion was always present in this spiritual exploration. The Baptist church was my home but I had plenty of contact with other traditions through my work and increasing community involvement. I became a deacon of Battersea Chapel and began preaching. I found this a contradictory experience because I have always had an ideological prejudice against preaching, preferring practices which involve dialogue and interaction. The problem was that preaching was part of me. I had always been involved in drama, I enjoy words and I have a powerful and resonant voice. I’ll never forget the organist at Battersea Chapel, a retired printer, coming up to me and saying ‘that is the best sermon I have ever heard’. Whether I like it or not I am inextricably part of the tradition of Nonconformist preachers, like my grandfather and great grandfather before me.
I loved living on the Winstanley estate but it also felt like a wilderness. Reading Merton and the desert fathers, living in this concrete desert and my increasing ill health, all sowed the seeds of my wilderness spirituality, but it was not to fully mature for a few years. Whilst living in a flat in the top of the vicarage I met my wife to be and fell in love. Within a year we were married and I had taken up a post as lay pastor of a tiny URC church on an estate in south Lewisham.
Being married change to me. Not dramatically, but slowly over the years the warmth, beauty and love of my wife has nourished my heart and rounded my personality. I learnt how to engage with my feelings more deeply. An important change was holidays together, often in the hills of mid Wales. This reconnected me with the love of nature in which I had been nurtured. I came to love those weeks away with my wife in the solitude of the hills and began to explore the practice of taking retreats. This bore fruit some years later in a three week solitary retreat in a Welsh cottage which was one of the defining experiences of my life. Because of this I became deeply committed in a new way to the desert fathers and mothers and adopted the practice of reading one of their sayings everyday. They are also one of the roots of so-called Celtic Christianity, a tradition I also find helpful.
Throughout this time I was nurtured by my friendship with Brother Bernard SFF. He particularly encouraged my writing and interest in the contemplative life and when he left London I missed him greatly. My health also deteriorated, I found being a lay pastor physically challenging and looking back on it now I can see that I became burnt out. When we left Lewisham to move to Hackney I hoped that my health would improve but it didn’t and I became increasingly disabled, eventually I became dependent on cabs to get around independently and this affected my spiritual life greatly. I reached a particular low point when I lost the use of my voice, this was a great loss but I did manage to find a strange acceptance when I was at my lowest point. I remember lying on the sofa one spring morning with the sun’s streaming in through the window and thinking to myself “all you have left now is to think beautiful thoughts”. From this point my health improved, even though it remains problematic and difficult, but as I have lived with it and reflected on it, it has become more and more central to my spiritual life.
Now my wife has become a priest. It is easier for me to work in a freelance capacity as I find that my time is under my own control. Increasingly I have been trying to find a rhythm which enables me to work within my physical constraints. I have a simple life circulating around our flat, the garden, the church where my wife is a curate and the great luxury of a neighbouring park. Often people come to visit me and occasionally I make visits using cabs. This is a very different life from the one I came to live in London, deeply engaged with the life of the Winstanley and Bellingham estates and the busy world of urban mission.
I continue to be involved with religion. I have become particularly involved with developing what people call Alternative Worship, at present this means being involved with developing an "Evensong for Stoke Newington". This has meant my experience of worship has become more intellectual, which bothers me, but I have also enjoyed the opportunity to use poetry in worship and write liturgy. This has also, perhaps, contributed to an increasing desire to re-engage with the theology I studied at university. I find myself pondering the nature of God, what it means to be a follower of Jesus and therefore the nature of the church after Christendom. Also as my voice slowly improves I find myself re-engaging with the art of preaching. This has taken concrete form in my decision to apply for Licensed Lay Ministry in the Anglican Church (a development of the role of Reader). I have found myself comfortable in the Liberal Catholic Church where my wife is a curate and the experience of being involved with Evening Prayer for Stoke Newington has encouraged me to think the Anglican Church will be a good place for me despite my Nonconformist heritage. Certainly I find myself more comfortable with a liturgical form of worship than the hymn/prayer sandwich of traditional Nonconformist worship or the praise songs of the charismatic movement. I also find myself reflecting that with the decline of Christendom the distinction between Church and Chapel is of decreasing significance and not only that my father was a churchwarden when he retired to a village in Sussex and was also a Reader himself -- although a university one rather than an Anglican!