What does church mean to me?

This originally appeared in The Inquirer, Issue 8024

I was brought up going to church. I was taken every Sunday,
week by week, sometimes once, sometimes twice a day.
I never liked it. For some reason it was just the Sunday
services. I don’t know why I was never sent to Sunday School,
maybe the bus times didn’t work out.

I couldn’t sing. I felt like an alien at my mother’s side as
she chatted and gossiped happily to her friends. After the
service they shook hands humbly with the vicar; then, out
of his earshot, said he was nowhere near as good as the last
incumbent. Before long I knew every word of the service
by heart as it cycled through year by year. And I never
doubted what I heard. I was a true blue Anglican who was
not interested in heaven but often looked over my shoulder
towards a beckoning hell.

I endured church services throughout boarding school days
and compulsory army church parades. When I was no longer
required to go, I stopped going. To any who invited me, I said
you couldn’t be a Christian and a soldier. The teachings were
incompatible. There must have been something clinging to
me though. I was asked to represent the college in Ealing at
the annual carol service in the Parish church. I tried a couple
of churches but they seemed just like my childhood one.
It was the experience of my first Unitarian chapel that
changed things. I wasn’t swamped or fussed. The services
were more interesting. The language was free of ‘thee’ and
‘thou’, the Bible was not the only book, and there was a sense
that faith should be a challenge and not a script to follow.
I joined in the social life and came to know more than just
the backs of people from my pew in the corner. They were a
real mixture. There were the earthy and the well read. There
seemed to be quite a few eccentrics. I used to wonder what it
was that made them this community. It could have been that
to be a Unitarian you had to accept you were one who stood
apart from the mainstream churches. There was a different
tradition and history and it was based on discovery more than
obedience. You were welcomed to the spiritual wilderness
knowing there was something within it you had been
searching for, and was more than you had known before.
There were markers everywhere and no one would prevent
you examining them and testing them. The glue that holds
them all together is that word, ‘Unitarian’, and it seems quite
apt that it is a word that people find difficult to define.

When I go to church now I enjoy the company, but I am also a free
spirit. I am free to look above and beyond myself to seek the
wisdom that is spiritual. But unless I try to live by its code it
will never shine from me and the world cannot change.

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