Yep, I’ve made things weird by talking about religion.
As a general rule, I don’t talk about my beliefs in this respect, which is odd, as I will happily spout off any other opinion I’ve got with little (or no) prompting. Partly I’m reticent because religion does seem to make people uncomfortable but also partly because I don’t think what I believe really has a name.
I’ve packed a mish-mash of Christianity into my life so far – dedicated into the Salvation Army (their version of a christening), attended both Methodist and Church of Ireland churches while growing up (though never getting around to being confirmed) and finally giving myself over to a heathen life, only setting foot in church for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (and I’ve missed that in the last couple of years) or if it’s a particularly beautiful church (St Magnus Cathedral the most recent addition to that group) There was also a brief flirtation with Quakers but sitting quietly until the Holy Spirit moves me is not my bag. At the back of all of this is the Corrymeela Community. Corrymeela is not a religion – it is people of all ages and Christian traditions who, individually and together, are committed to the healing of social, religious and political divisions that exist in Northern Ireland and throughout the world. Corrymeela’s centre in Ballycastle is the setting for some of my happiest childhood memories. Worship takes place twice a day there, in the Croi (an Irish word for heart). The services are short, informal and it is there that I have had the most powerful religious experiences of my life and an absolute certainty that God is with me. It’s an overwhelming feeling. I don’t know if there’s something about the location or if I am more open to these experiences in a place I know well?
Anyway, if pushed to define my beliefs, I suppose I would describe myself as a New Testament Christian. I’m not into the smiting, vengeance and begetting that seems to characterise the Old Testament. I believe strongly in the message of love, peace, forgiveness and tolerance preached by Jesus in the Gospels, even if I sometimes – well frequently, actually – struggle to practise them. As a result I tend to think of myself as a person with faith, rather than a religious person. I’m not a member of any established church and lots of different beliefs appeal to me. As with so much else I tend to find myself sitting on the fence, which not only means I get splinters in my bottom but also that I can get equally annoyed by those on both sides of the fence. The Catholic Church’s policy on women, birth control, abortion and divorce make me want to tear my hair out. The efforts of their officers in Ireland to conceal paedophile priests not only infuriates me on behalf of their victims but also makes me feel real sympathy for those followers who’s belief system now lies in tatters. The ongoing wrangling over the ordination of gay clergy in the Church of Scotland makes me want to scream. I don’t care who goes to bed with who, so long as everyone involved is a consenting adult and I genuinely do not believe that God as I understand him/her/it gives a damn either. All God’s children got a place in the choir. However, I get equally annoyed by those on the other side of the debate – the aggressively atheist opinion which seems to suggest that I have been duped – ‘There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and get on with your life’ – I have no issue with them believing there isn’t a God, so why should anyone mind if I believe there is? I understand of course that it’s very easy for me to express my view – the UK is a Christian country with an established church and ongoing links between church and state, so I’ve never felt like my views are in the minority. Even if church congregations are dwindling, it’s a safe bet that the majority of you reading this (all 7 of you, or whatever) will have had R.E at school. In N.Ireland it remains compulsory in all state schools (primary and secondary) and during my school days if you weren’t taking A-Level R.E, you had a couple of periods of ‘Divinity’ in your timetable throughout Lower Sixth. I don’t have a problem with it (and indeed, why would I, I have a faith after all) because some of the best debates and discussions I remember having at school came out of R.E. I went to an all-girls school and there were spirited discussions about marriage, divorce, abortion, morality and the position of women. More than any other subject I studied (and I took A-Level Politics) R.E was a forum for debate and discussion.
I’ve spoken before about not growing up in an aggressively political household and equally it was not an aggressively religious household either. My father took my brother and me to church on Sundays, though all I really remember of that is Sunday school and boredom. I was able to ask any questions I had but otherwise it was up to me to make up my own mind. That’s no mean feat when you grow up in N.I and I remember casual conversations with people at school which made it very clear my experience was both unusual and very lucky. I remember repeating something a childhood friend had said to – ‘Burn the Catholics’ to be precise – and my mother nearly taking the head off me. I’m often nervous about speaking about my experience growing up in N.I because I don’t want to portray myself as some kind of war survivor, staring moodily off into the middle distance, while petrol bombs fly behind me and ‘Across the Barricades’ swells the soundtrack. That simply wasn’t my experience – it’s not anyone’s experience to be fair, as I’m being sarcastic to make a point. However. Grow up in N.I I did and inform my experience it has. I’ve seen religion used to foster the bitterest hatred, watched so-called ‘men of the church’ tacitly – and not so tacitly – support terrorism and generally spread such a vile and polluted version of Christianity that it makes me want to scream and then drink really quite a lot. My wee province is not alone either. Across the world and throughout the centuries truly dreadful, horrible things have been done in the name of religion. So why do I stick with it?
Because I believe. I believe in the values that Jesus lived by and sought to spread. Jesus kicked against the pricks in his time, tearing down and challenging the established church time and time again. He healed lepers, socialised with prostitutes, threw money lenders out of the church. They got him for it in the end, but his message continues to resonate and be relevant today. When asked ‘who is my neighbour?’ Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans despised one another, yet the Samaritan, rather than the ‘holy’ men, was the one who helped. Whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we also do for Jesus. The other thing that keeps me going is the example set by others – Symon Hill, John Sentamu, David Stevens. So, I carry on believing and I do the best I can. Not because I’m scared of a vengeful God or because I’m trying to guarantee my place in heaven but simply because I believe.