My feeble attempts at church going have been pretty disastrous. And not just Christian places of worship either! I was challenged by some of my sixth form pupils to find out more about religion because I had told them I was an atheist. They correctly surmised that I didn’t know much about the people that I was criticizing.
1/ I was first invited to an evening of Seder (Passover) activities at my local Jewish primary school. I’m afraid it got off to a bad start as at the door the teacher in charge offered the men in the group a skull cap to wear. I naturally asked what it signified. I was told it showed man was close to God. In that case I asked why weren’t the women teachers in the group offered one too? Oh dear. It seems women are not as close to God as men are. I mean as an atheist I don’t believe in God anyway, but this statement lowered my opinion of modern Jewry immediately. Their public relations exercise had turned into a disaster before we had even entered the door. I refused to wear my “kippa” as a gesture of solidarity with the women. I put it in my pocket and accidentally forgot to give it back at the end of the evening. I’ve still got it and it came in handy when I went to a Jewish funeral recently.
2/ On holiday in Greece one Easter we noticed the whole village was in the streets celebrating in a grand way. Fireworks, bonfire in the square, BBQ and a long church service (in greek) which we decided to go to. I had lived in the House of St Gregory and St Macrina in Oxford for a year, so I was familiar with the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom which I thought this church might be following, though I was more accustomed to the Russian version than the Greek. I copied the posture of the other people in the jammed building – standing up. I kept my hands behind my back. Perhaps this was the problem – I can’t think what else it can have been. Maybe my hands should have been in front. No singing or praying had been demanded of the congregation – just listening to the priests chanting. So it can’t have been my ignorance of the language that was the problem, but all of a sudden I got this violent jab in the back from the villager standing behind me . I turned round in astonishment and got an angry tirade from him and his neighbour. I don’t speak Greek but I know anger when I see it. What on earth had I done to upset them . I knew I wasn’t wanted so we left the church and went outside to have another complimentary skewer of barbequed lamb.
3/ Some Moslems here in North London advertised a course on their religion to be held in my local library on Tuesday evenings. I assumed it was aimed at non-moslems, i.e. members of the white “host” community such as myself; so I was a bit surprised to find I was the only white face in a room full of brown (male) faces, whom I presumed, correctly as it turned out , were Moslems. Fine so far . We listened to an informative lecture, at least it was informative for me since I was unfamiliar with the subject matter. Then came the questions. Yes, I did ask a question. If I was to learn more about this great monotheisitic religion I needed to ask lots of questions! I was polite, and asked an innocent question about the role of women in Islam. Apparently this was a contentious issue. It certainly got up their noses. The speaker called me a “liberal fundamentalist” and asked me to leave and not come back again.
4/ I had an hour to kill one Sunday evening in Muswell hill last year and I didn’t feel like the pub (too expensive!) so I went to church. I hadn’t been in years and so many things have changed that it was quite an alien experience for me, but possibly quite familiar to you, dear reader. There apparently was no vicar, a procession of lay people of seemingly equal status took the service. The magnificent old organ wasn’t used; instead we heard electric guitars and a keyboard. The words of the hymns appeared on a screen. I thought that was a great improvement on hymn books, the only trouble was the words on the screen were too slow for the music so there were intervals of several seconds at a time when there was nothing up there to sing at all. Actually the band was so loud it was difficult to tell if people were singing or not. Bizarrely we sang 6 hymns in a row without a break – twice! I had never heard any these hymns before, and I used to know plenty. While we were on our feet singing one young woman started waving her hand in the air. As a former teacher I know what that means – she wanted to go to the lavatory! I actually knew where that was as I had visited the building previously to attend a public meeting about Richard Dawkins. I thought to myself “One of the parishioners standing near her will tell her where it is “. Nothing happened except that 2 or 3 other young women started waving their arms in the air to and then swinging their hips in time to the music. My jaw dropped open in astonishment – it was quite sexy! Not what I was expecting to find at all. What happened later was even more memorable – a film about kids being tempted by marshmallows. I kid you not . Marshmallows. It was really funny. Definitely the highlight of the service for me. Criticisms? None except that no-one greeted me at the door or spoke to me after the service.
5/ After doing a City Lit day school on Buddhism and reading a couple of books on it, I decided to visit a temple while on holiday in Southeast Asia to practice beginners’ breathing exercises. Apart from a cleaning lady with a feather duster there were already a couple of other people sitting on the floor apparently meditating. I copied their posture and sat on the marble. I then closed my eyes and proceded to count my breaths in and out, waiting for a feeling of peace or something equally blissful. Instead what I got was the cleaning lady poking me in the ribs (I kid you not). The other worshippers had not been disturbed. As my command of Vietnamese is minimal, I don’t know what she said, but she was not smiling. Just like the Greek church. What is it with these people? Or perhaps I should be asking myself “What is it with me?”
6/ Then, St Pauls Cathedral in London.”Occupy” was in progress, so I went to see it for myself and to hear the left-wing folksinger Billy Bragg performing on the cathedral steps.(i) The occupiers’ tents were all pitched on the cobblestone plaza, most uncomfortable for the occupants. But behind some high railings, all along one side of the church lay a lush green lawn! Perfect for sleeping on . How inconsiderate, nay cruel, of St Pauls to not let their visitors use it. How un-christian! found it amusing that one placard said “What would Jesus do?” and another said “Wasn’t ST PAUL a tent-maker?”I would have liked to enter the cathedral to see the architecture while I was there but this cost 16 quid, so I waited for Evensong for which there was no admission charge. At this time the Cathedral staff were taking legal advice on how to get rid of the anti-capitlaist protestors who were literally on their door step. The service was sublime, the singing heavenly; and the echo just has to be heard to be believed. I will probably go back. I awaited the Magnificat with some interest, as it seemed like a point of contact with those who wanted to “put down the mighty from their seats”! (The Magnificat is Mary spouting the most subversive sentiments in the whole gospel story: See Zingcreed blog “Two Red Jewesses”). At the very least I intended to enjoy the irony of one side in a conflict-situation singing what could be called the other side’s National Anthem! I can’t tell you how disappointed when the Cathedral choir sang it IN LATIN! (And yes, I do recognize Latin when I hear it, having had it drummed into me for 6 years at Grammar School.) A chance for a slight reconciliation of views strangled at birth!
(i) According to Tangerine Bolen of RevolutionTruth website, OccupyLondon is/was a designated terrorist organisation! (RT 21/08/2013)