[This item brought forward five years, and rewritten.]


One of the first things I did, upon becoming a Christian, is stopped going to church.

Er, perhaps that sentence will need glossing. It is intentionally misleading. Except weddings and funerals, attended from politeness; except a few events in childhood, dragged or pulled; I was no church-goer. The idea, “It is Sunday, therefore I must go to church,” had never occurred to me through my adolescent, atheist, wandering years. The contrary idea, “It is Sunday, therefore I won’t go to church,” had occurred quite often. I would see people going there and think, “I’m not one of you. Not now, not ever.”

Yet while living and travelling in England and Europe, I often went into a church. Never on a Sunday or Holy Day, however. My interest was archaeological. A history buff: I wanted to see the art and architecture while it still stood. I was also curious about the music, and drawn in sometimes by the sound of an organ. But if I found a choir, too, and a “church service” in progress, I would take flight.

I became a Christian in my twenty-third year, on the 15th of April, 1976. I’m sure I have explained this elsewhere. In the weeks and months that followed, I did not enter a church, even as a gawper. The last thing I wanted, was to meet a priest.

For I’d resisted “deism” as long as I could; resisted Christ, when that proved impossible; finally surrendering to the Holy Ghost. But still I wanted no part of “organized religion.” It was enough of an embarrassment to have lost my faith in Atheism; there’d be nothing left of my dignity if, like some bowl-capped Boy Scout (I despised Boy Scouts) I was found-in at a Jamboree. Verily, I recall one of my first sincere prayers: “Please, Lord, don’t make me go in there.”

But the Lord made me go in. In fact, He tricked me.

From what I can make out, vague belief in “God” is the easy part for most people (though it wasn’t for me). “Christ” is the hard part, because He is not vague. (Whereas, I demanded some precision from the start.) Soon you are beaten by the One-in-Three. But then, Church comes as another hard part. As Chesterton said, the worst thing about the Catholic Church is, that it’s full of Catholics. Who can stand them? Even today, I find them quite a trial.

A proud lad, I prided myself on knowing more Church doctrine than the average Catholic, more Bible than the average Protestant; and for being able to reject it all. As things turned out, I tried the Anglican Communion first. (If you can take them, you can take anything.)

Today, the Feast of All Souls, would be the forty-first anniversary of my breakdown.

It is a blustery November in 1976, and I am on one of my long walks, through Suffolk. Truth to tell, I’d already looked into “contemporary Catholicism,” assuming the Roman Communion to be the definitive Christian one. A close friend, and beloved old atheist companion from the road in Asia — giant, red-haired, Edinburgh Scottish, brilliant and philosophically ruthless, had put the matter plainly for me. This had been after, with perfect attention, listening to my account of conversion.

“If I’d had your experience,” he said, “I wouldn’t fart about. I’d go straight to Rome.”

But upon looking in, I was aghast. Those were the days of the “Dutch Catechism,” and the clown masses, and the socialist priests (remember them?) — of obvious heresies and intentional vileness. I couldn’t believe the “Catholic Church” retained any standing, with God or anyone else; it had so obviously gone to the dogs. Whereas, the higher Anglicans still had smells and bells. And beautiful music, and tasteful decorations. So far as I was unconsciously church-scouting, they had already moved to the top of my list.

Where was I? … Yes, in Suffolk, with satchel, proceeding on the footpaths, village to village; mediaeval spire to mediaeval spire. Viewing “humble country folk” with my city bug eyes. I had no business there; was only passing through, Ipswich to Woodbridge I believe. Oh dark: the sun was well set. Came, in due course, to St Mary’s, Great Bealings; though can’t be sure it wasn’t St Mary’s, Playford.

The tower bell was ringing. On a sudden whim, entirely out of character, I went inside.

There were parishioners in there, kneeling in the pews. Pray, stand, sit, mutter; kneel, sit, stand, sing a hymn. Then they rose and began to stumble about.

My memory fails, compounded by my confusion at the time. I had read the Book of Common Prayer, but quickly lost my place in it. I was ignored, stepped around, and almost through, as if I were the ghost. There were candles, a procession was forming: “What now?”

The procession led out, through the arch under the tower, into the churchyard. On clearing the portal it scattered, into small, purposeful groups.

And then I realized: these people are carrying their candles to the tombstones; each family to their own family graves.

For centuries, they had been doing this; from time out of mind. Ploughed into the ground, generation by generation; waiting patiently for the Judgement Day. “With the Lord, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”

I had come as a spectator, I suppose, or voyeur; as an intellectual, some kind of anthropologist. Now as a Christian, but from very far away. And now, here I was among the natives.

As I say, my smugness suddenly broke down. The bell again chimed: “I am one of these people.”