A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A Religious Childhood

I was born and brought up in the heart of the Lincolnshire countryside. This photo, taken in 1947, shows my family's corn mill and smallholding. The mill used to be a proper windmill - with sails, and a fantail, and stones to grind the corn. Milling had been in the family, on my father's side, for generations, until I broke with the tradition. I had a problematic relationship with my father and couldn't wait to get away.

Yet, when I look back now, I realise how very fortunate I was to have had such a country childhood. The fields, the woods, the ponds, the overgrown, disused railway bank nearby, were our playground. My chums and I would roam far and wide, sometimes disappearing for days on end. We climbed trees, we looked for birds' nests, we made dens in the woods. We went camping, carrying ridiculously heavy weights on our old Raleigh bikes. We fished for perch and roach in the gravel pit lakes - always on the look-out for the bailiff, who would have demanded to see permits we didn't possess.

But it's important not to idealise and romanticise the past. Parts of my childhood were troubled, and I would not want to endure them again. My father was a strict and stern, teetotal Methodist, who ruled his family with a rod of iron. The slightest misdemeanour - perhaps a swear-word carelessly uttered in his presence - and it was a thrashing with the leather belt he kept on a hook hidden behind the tea towel in the kitchen. After years of obligatory Sunday School and Methodist Church services, I started to think for myself and rebelled. One Sunday morning (I must have been in my early teens) I steeled myself, took a deep breath and informed him I wouldn't be accompanying him to chapel any more. He seethed with anger, striding up and down the living room, his hymn book clutched in a gloved hand. But there was little he could do about it. Later, when I married, I stuck to my guns and refused to have a religious ceremony in his beloved Methodist Church. I don't think my father ever really forgave me for this. He refused to speak to me for years afterwards.

This is a prime example of how enforcement and indoctrination can make you dig your heels in, turn you against something that may actually have some inherent worth and value. As I've got older, my interest in Christianity has increased rather than lessened, probably veering more towards Catholicism than primitive Nonconformism. You see, as an arrogant and high-minded teenager, I just found Methodism so crude, so unsubtle, so unrefined. So unritualistic. Now I realise that's far too naive a view. (Though I still think there's something in it.) The saving grace of Methodists, Baptists etc, however, is that the preachers and congregations can be so very friendly and welcoming. Unlike some Anglican - and many Catholic - churches I know, which can seem quite distant and frosty to an outsider looking in.         


Ruth said...

Robert, thank you for this glimpse into your history. I love it.

I told you after your interview with Bonnie that my Baptist church was across the street from your Methodist one. Except the Methodist one by me had dances in the church basement, so it was not strict like yours.

There were so many times I wanted to strike out on my own path, as far back as age 7 in my father’s congregation. But I never had the courage to hurt my parents. I asked my dad if Don and I could get married in my parents home, a small family-witnessed ceremony. But he couldn’t live with that, not having the congregation invited.

I waited until my father died in 1995 to stop going to church, because I didn’t want to face any question he might ask about it. I had sought spirituality beneath religion my whole life, but did not find anything but pat, ready answers to my questions from those around me. So the departure from church happened much later than yours (in my late 30s).

I also relate to what you say here about being drawn to a higher church liturgy. I really hated our Baptist choruses and casual services growing up. So when I visited Europe as a 19-year-old, I soaked up the formal and beautiful ceremony of those high churches, high literally and figuratively. I too came to appreciate the approachability of the relaxed and welcoming Baptist sense of things later, especially as friends helped me learn to appreciate the riches of my heritage, when all I wanted was to leave it in the past.

I look forward to anything else you might share here about this history of yours.

Bonnie said...

I was raised in a strict fundamentalist sect and while I have long regretted the constraints it placed on my young life, I think such primitive teachings become the tension that provokes us to think for ourselves, to dig deeper, to finally leave home and religion to create our own lives, to discover the rich resources of philosophical out there, and finally to breathe free.

What a shame your father did not have the strength of mind and heart to ask about your discoveries and beliefs ... to realize that there was much he could learn from and share with you.

George said...

This is a wonderful post, Robert, and thanks so much for opening this portal into your early life.

After reading your early history with religion, as well as Ruth's experiences, I will briefly share my own experiences with the organized church. I grew up in the Baptist church, one located in southern Mississippi. The church required that we sing songs about Jesus loving all the little children, "red and yellow, black and white," but the only people allowed in the church were white people. That hypocrisy was the beginning of my rebellion from the organized church — a rebellion that goes on to this very day.

As one who has been on a spiritual quest for my entire life, I have often been frustrated by the inability to find a community of other people who are on similar quests. Churches seem like natural places to find such fellow travelers, but they always prove too hierarchal, too patriarchal, and too creed-oriented for my tastes.

I am currently reading "The Future of Faith," by the theologian and writer, Harvey Cox. It's quite liberating because it talks about the growing number of people who are seeking a community of those who have "faith", but who are not necessarily "believers." Faith, he says, is about awe and deep-seated confidence in the face of undeniable mystery, whereas belief is more about judgments and opinions relating to matters that purport to be within the realm of human knowledge. Interestingly, he says that there was an Age of Faith that preceded the current post-Enlightenment Age of Belief, and that the future, which he calls the coming Age of the Spirit, will more closely resemble the Age of Faith.

Perhaps I am going too far afield here, but I want you to know that there are many of us whose journeys are similar to your own. I'm not too far into Cox's book, but, based upon what I have read thus far, I think you would find it enlightening.

Friko said...

You might have started out as a catholic from the way you write about your early life and your feelings about the church now.
As you know, once a catholic, always a catholic.

My upbringing was a lot more complicated than most people's, A background of mixed communism and catholicism, with fervent believers in both systems in close, daily contact. Talk about confusion.

As a teenager, I gave up on the church and as a young adult, on communism. But I expect to remain a catholic (non-practising) to the end of my life.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Interesting Robert - I too was brought up a strict Methodist. I now have no religion at all but like you am interested in the ritual aspects (are you watching the programme on silence?) We live in a non conformist area up here - there is what I would call something of a narrow minded attitude in nonconformism which still exists up here today.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks everyone for such long, thoughtful and open responses.

Ruth: In my more compromising, less rebellious 'maturity', I must admit I've sometimes wondered if I should have gone along with my father's wishes - just to preserve family peace and the status quo. But then I think: it was my choice, my marriage, my life! The 'spirituality beneath religion'. Yes, that strikes a chord with me, for sure. 'High' church ceremony and ritual are so, so seductive, aren't they?

Bonnie: In the years before he died, my dad and I did reach some kind of accord, for which I shall always be thankful. The last words he said to me, a couple of days before his death, were 'I love you, Robert.'

George: Well, that book you're reading certainly sounds fascinating, and I must get a copy. For me, the life of faith, and the spirit, often has little to do with organised religion - although it can have. It would be nice to have some like-minded community of souls to share it with. Those early Christian mystical saints and loners bringing the Gospel to remote parts of Northern England and Ireland must have had such strength of character and belief.

Friko: Communism and Catholicism! Now, there's a rich mixture!

Pat: Yes, I saw the first episode of that TV programme - it promises to be really interesting, I think.

fireweed meadow said...

Thanks for this interesting post. I've found the comments just as interesting. Religion was not part of my childhood and I'm grateful for that. I'm also grateful to have grown up in a family that taught me to be considerate and respectful of others and to strive to be kind and giving, teaching by example, without needing religion to back up it up. When I read your story and other comments about religious childhoods, I kind of feel like I dodged a huge bullet and potential source of conflict. I've never been attracted even slightly to organized religion and have often wondered why it would be assumed that one cannot be a good person, or a "spiritual" person without it.

Having said all that, I recently learned (only two weeks ago!) that my great grandfather was a methodist preacher, originally American, who travelled around rural Manitoba preaching in four towns each week. From what I heard, he managed to turn the entire family off religion for good.

Rachel Fox said...

If we had any religion at all growing up it was the modern Quaker kind - patient, peaceful, simple, mostly non-judgemental. It's a bit like religion without the religion somehow ... highly recommended and though I find I have no need for it I'm quite pleased that it's there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Robert for such a personal and honest post and to the rest of you for sharing yourselves.

I was brought up in Catholic Anglicanism and have stayed in it. I grapple with it and it brings me life.

The putting together of Catholicism is not as strange as it might seem. In England, the first socialist group was the Guild of St Matthew, while the first trotskyites in England were closely associated with the Catholic Crusade (both anglican). In recent years, liberation theology, particularly in Latin America has been a very rich fusion of Christianity and Marxism.

If you look at the links on my blog, there are several sites exploring this. It keeps me alive,


am said...

"But there was little he could do about it."

When I was 18 (?) I told my mother that I wasn't going to go to church anymore. (Come to think of it, it wouldn't have occurred to me to tell my father I wasn't going to church). I told her why. She said that it would be a good time to speak with our Episcopal priest about my concerns and questions. I said I was not going to do that. We went back and forth with this for some time. 20 minutes? An hour? Finally she said in exasperation, "Okay then, don't go to church!!" and walked away. I was stunned and relieved. I hadn't expected that. Soon after that she stopped going to church. Then my sisters stopped going to church. My father went to church alone. Your story about you and your father teaches me something about me and my father. Thanks so much, Solitary Walker.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for all these extra responses, and I'm pleased my post stimulated such lengthy and fascinating comments.

Dominic Rivron said...

Still catching up, after a period of minimal blogging!

Read this, fascinated. Have spent 10 minutes framing responses to and thoughts about it, only to delete them! I suspect our paths, where religion is concerned, have been quite similar in some ways, although the twists and turns of mine began with a childhood attraction to (rather than rejection of) Anglicanism.

As I get older I have less and less time for the elaboration of doctrines that divide rather than unite people, (and more time for Zen stories!). Where religion is concerned, the only ground worth standing on is common ground.