Friday, April 6, 2018

High Anglican ceremonial saved my life!

I was raised in a mixture of dissenting and non-conformist churches, the last one before my 'great tea-trolley disaster' of the 80s was a church plant I had participated in in youth work and roles in services (presiding at communion, speaking, Bible reading and prayer, small group ministry, even bus driving). Notwithstanding what I might be saying below; I had great and warm, and encouraging friends here: thoroughly Christian and lovely people; but I often felt misplaced culturally and in my intellectual and literary out of water!

Things went bad after three or four mis-read adventures with girls. I had consciously avoided dalliances with girls outside the faith, and any relationships at all while studying through high school and early years of uni, and so was perhaps less experienced and more serious in my intentions than many of my peers. Consequentially, I didn't seem to be quite able to read anything right, and always anticipated far more than was being contemplated by the other side and in a couple of friendships misreading what was being delivered for a level of commitment that was in fact and in retrospect, evidently absent. I was getting in too deep; they were merely 'having a look'. The asymmetry would probably have been obvious to one more experienced. I wished I had been as blasé as the Fonz about girls! But instead I was perplexed, became confused, and eventually despaired of the possibility of having a decent and mutual relationship with a girl. Through this, and while grappling with it a well-meaning friend (not in my church) unwittingly patronised me in public. I reeled from the humiliation!

Enough had become enough and a number of disparate waves of unhappy history summed at this point to form an overwhelming peak. I crashed!

If my romantic rectitude to date had brought me so low, I thought, so much for romantic rectitude, and I resigned the hope and promise of wisdom and godliness that had been the theme of my life until then and was instantly repulsed by my habits of service in the wider church family: they seemed to be milestones on the road to emotional washout.

Left the church, left home, broke off with my Christian friends, shut out my family: closed down entirely but for my work, which also suffered from time to time.

I went ferral in every way, including ways not fit to be discussed. Happily I came to the notice of no one who would de-rail me further. Well, there was one, whose blandishments I rejected. Her heroin habit repulsed me; and there it was: me more attractive to a junkie than the Christian girls I admired!

I was on a dark, barren rock swept by rough storms of the freezing wind and biting chill of lonliness and spiritual desolation, compounded, I suspect, by the side-effects of medication that added to the disaster (the medication was withdrawn from the market after it had been implicated in suicides in young adults).

After saving money I moved out of my parent's home and set up a place of my own in the inner city. Living there was very foreign and sharply isolated compared to the warmth and community of my just past family and church life. I looked up an ex-girlfriend who had thought she had 'tossed me over' prematurely ('hadn't given me a fair go' in her demolishing terms). She was not happy about my new repudiation of church affiliation, however.

I had to correct that! Nevertheless she later 'tossed me over' a second time in equally demolishing terms in reward for my frank expression of affection. Undetected asymmetry at work again!

She was my only thread of connection to the happiness I had felt before the GTTD and in the foreign territory of my despair hadn't been able to work up any basis for the alternative of seeking friendship with girls outside the church (doubtless to say, I sought other things instead).

What to do? My nearest church was Christ Church St Lawrence at Railway Square in Sydney. In Sydney there could have been no greater ecclesiastical contrast to the vapid ad-hoc non-conformist services I had been used to, and largely grown up with (I must say, those at my mother's church were executed with some skill, but that was rare in the denomination), albeit attended by many caring and godly people. The great anchor in those services, from an emotional view, was the hymns which always took me back to my mother's old church (the one that planted this one) that our family had often attended with my mother's parents. They still envoke these memories when I sing them.

I had always loved serious music and excellence in its performance, encouraged by my parents who were both musicians. Both had earned income from their music, and my father taught his instrument until his death over a decade ago.

CCSL astonished me. It was a high day when I attended, so evening prayer was a veritable riot of ceremony and sensation. Choir wafting through Palestrina, a masterful organist improvising on a theme of Bach, the scent of incense dominating the air and the bright colours of ministers and clergy as they conducted the liturgy. There were more ministers in litugical dress in the sanctuary than the entire congregation of my old church. More art, more joy, more exuberant musical excellence, more effort put into making this a special reflection of the congregational love of God and enjoying his glory than I had ever encountered; although some years previously, I had heard the choir of Kings College at Cambridge contribute to a service here. I was a mere spectator then. Now I was involved, spiritually caught up in it all.

I was carried away by the overwhelming solidity of it, the unperturbable graciousnes and indeed gracefulnes of the liturgy: the work of great scholars, executed with delight, care and prayerful gravity. I knew I was experiencing the avalanche of love of centuries of tradition as Christians had together sought the fellowship of our creator in liturgy, word and music as they came together, week after week (about 77,000 weeks all up to that day I was there) to be in the presence of our Lord (Matt 18:20).

After the service the Rector mentioned to me that supper was being served in the hall. Would I care to join? I did, and chatted with a warm fellow visiting Sydney from Brisbane. I left for home much encouraged and walking on air.

I quickly fell in with the 'youth group': young professionals and academics of inner city interests aged mid 20s to mid 30s with a couple of Latin scholars (both completing PhDs) to boot. We met each Wednesday for eucharist, dinner and prayer under the wing of one of the assistants: Fr Reg, also from Brisbane, and the godfather of one of our crowd. Ironically, one of my new friends in this group worked with the girl who had prompted my attendance!

No one pryed into my past, or even my present. They took me as I was, embraced me in their lives. Generously invited me to join the regular Sunday lunch-for-all that one couple hosted (up to 50 attendees!!) and included me in other church related outings (including a meeting of the Snark Society that we held in the Royal Automobile Club, all decorated in black tie in tongue-in-cheek pomposity). Never questioned, never 'challenged' (which some non-conformists love to do), never doubted. Always honestly treating me as an equal. Were always open, positive, and gently prodded me to be serious about the eucharist, about Lent, about (they positively assumed) my baptismal vows, as we all joined together in their Easter renewal.

The closest to heaven I had been on earth!

From there I decided that the 'traditional' Anglican ways were my ways. I was at last a fish in water! The ceremony, the ritual, the variation in pace as the church year, with its various high days, festivals and times of special reflection and rememberance embeded the faith in daily life and yearly patterning. Wayposts for every step of an ordinary life.

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