My father was a Church of England Vicar who led a church plant on a tough estate outside Leicester when I was very small. I recall that the small chapel we met in was little more than a shack. In the Winter it was freezing cold and when it rained you couldn’t hear anything because the corrugated tin roof acted like a drum. I spent most of the time just wishing I was back at home with my toys.
Everything about church seemed so odd to me. What I understood about the character of God was learned primarily from my parents. But their warm, enthusiastic and tactile love seemed totally at odds with the Christian faith that I often saw in church settings. It was deeply confusing. I just couldn’t work out what was going on. At home there was a loving, fun God who clearly inspired the very best in my Mum and Dad. And on the other there was a stone cold, boring, austere expression of something called “church”. Many young people in Christian homes grow up having to endure this kind of disconnect when it comes to what happens at church on Sunday.
One of my most poignant childhood memories is aged 4, becoming very upset in church one Sunday morning, just as my Dad was beginning to deliver a sermon. I slipped my Mum’s grip and bolted towards my Dad, sitting on his foot, wrapping my arms around his leg and clinging on for dear life. I was expecting my Mum to come and grab me. But my dear Dad didn’t stop talking, and didn’t try to shake me off.
He let me sit there, and continued to preach. I sat there until he’d finished. To this day when I recall it I can smell the leather of his shoes, so powerful is that memory for me. That single moment probably saved church for me for the rest of my life. I knew that despite such dreary and alien trappings, at its heart, church was somewhere I could encounter the father heart of God together with his people. So much of what “church” has come to mean simply gets in the way of that, and that’s what we need to get rid of.
Often my Mum would sympathise with our pain at trying to keep still during interminable church services and she’d feed my sister and I fruit pastilles to keep us quiet. I recall one brutallyboring, bone-chilling church linked to my Primary School. The church regularly welcomed the school and in their own way, tried to convey their Christianity. Their cause wasn’t helped by all the children sitting on the stone floor. All I can recall is my freezing bum and the deep desire in my heart for it all to be over. The priest there was a towering figure called Father Brian Taylor, who I found very intimidating.
Little did I know the depth of his faith and compassion for children. Much later in life my Father met him and told him I was considering a call to ordination. Without batting an eyelid,Brian replied, “Oh good. I’ve been praying for him and other children from those times for the last 25 years.” Unknown to me, behind that dismal veneer, existed a church of great love and a leader of great faith. From unpromising beginnings that seemed destined to turn me off church forever, I now love the church. Jesus loves the church too. The closing picture the Bible leaves us with is of Jesus as a bridegroom and the church as his bride. Every day I am discovering more of God’s jealous intent for his church, to recover its beauty for the sake of the world he loves.