So it’s Sunday, and these days every Sunday morning I wonder about church. When, for the purposes of my novel, I set out on the quest to imagine myself into a religious person’s mind I couldn’t even bear to read a single bit of religious language. I remember seeing, in the empty church, a leaflet which ended ‘may God bless you and keep you, always’. I cringed away, wondering what I was doing even paddling at the edge of the sea of religion. I wanted, however, to write about my religious characters as fairly and accurately as I could, plus as a writer my imagination was already engaged in the whole peculiar world of Christianity that I was discovering.
When I wrote to ask the vicar of my local church for help with my research I had no idea who he was. I had never met him or even seen him, despite living in a small village. I only knew that, from his writings in the parish newsletter, he sounded jolly and approachable. When he took a very long time to find the time to talk to me (not, as far as I’m aware, because I’m an atheist), I resorted to reading books about, and by, vicars and other clergy. These books, although frustrating at times as far as the religious beliefs themselves were concerned, gave me a deep appreciation of parish clergy and the difficult job that they do. I had never thought about vicars before, other than as a symbol. I was impressed, and glad that I had picked a parson for one of my main characters, although 18th century parsons had a far easier time of it.
As time went on it became obvious that I wasn’t going to have an honest account of a church service in my book unless I actually attended one. All the same, it was very difficult to muster the nerve to go to church for the first time since 1970. It’s a small village church with an average congregation of 30. What if all the people stared at me? Wouldn’t they all assume I was a Christian? Would they besiege me with questions/try and get me to keep going? How would it look when I didn’t ‘do’ Holy Communion? What should one say to the vicar at the door (I hadn’t met him at this point)? I was so nervous that my legs were wobbly and my mouth was dry. When I reached the door I almost made a run for it. The needs of the book somehow made me enter, and once in I realized most of my fears were groundless.
As a writer, I was trying to absorb everything I possibly could about this service as at that point I had no intention of attending again. The church is very old and although small is frankly impressive with the lights on and candles lit. The whole experience was unexpectedly fascinating, partly because it was the old Book of Common Prayer service that my character would have used himself but also for all sorts of other reasons. Even the prayers were interesting of themselves, and the sermon was good, with some amusing parts. I was embarrassed at being the only person in the church not to go up for communion, but I kept my head down reading the Book of Common Prayer until it was over. I didn’t have to talk to anyone and even the vicar was engaged in chat with others when I sloped out of the door. All in all, it was a pleasant experience, so much so that I decided to attend the subsequent week as well, striking while the iron was hot.
Sadly, that second service was not pleasant, although nothing bad happened to me personally. I still did not have to speak to anyone, and the vicar at the door simply said ‘Good Morning’. It was the reminders of my outsider status that spoiled that service, the more ‘Bible-thumping’ sermon, talk of a silent march for Easter, the fact that the church was unusually full as a celebration of the vicar’s being in post for many years. I came away wondering what on earth I was doing getting involved in all that nonsense when I had no place in it.
I didn’t go back, but I did get my interview with the vicar two months later. He was friendly and helpful and answered as many questions as we could fit into the time. As he was leaving I told him I’d found going to church very interesting and asked if he minded an atheist attending his services. He said no, not at all.
Since then I have of course not become religious. In fact, I could go so far as to say that all I’ve learned from my research and current study has only increased my distaste for religion and sadly for Christianity. However, there is still that spark of interest, that little glimmer that keeps me going to church every couple of months. There is something about churchgoing and Christianity that appeals to my idealistic nature. I wish there was a god. I wish that there really was brotherly love and that we did ‘love our neighbour as ourself’. I wish that prayers really did some good. Above all I wish that Christianity actually made sense.