Lenten Why Me? Talk, given by Becky Barrow at St John the Baptist Church, Lent 3, 28 February 2016

Lenten Why Me? Talk, given by Becky Barrow at St John the Baptist Church, 
Lent 3, 28 February 2016

Hello and thank you to Peter for asking me to come and talk today in this inspiring series of “Why me?” talks. I am honoured to have been asked, and thrilled that you are here to listen. As I am a regular at St George’s Campden Hill rather than St John’s, let me introduce myself – my name is Becky Barrow. My husband Tom and I live locally in Hammersmith, and have three children, May, who is 11, Flora, who is 8, and George, who is this weekend celebrating his 7th birthday. I am a journalist – I edit the Money section of The Sunday Times. In this house of God, however, I would like to point out that I do not worship Mammon, but simply write about it.

My teenage-self would be very surprised to see my 43-year-old self tonight in this pulpit talking about my faith. I have memories of going to St Mary the Boltons as a child, but I really cannot recall going to church many times as a teenager or in my early twenties. The day school that I attended in London, Godolphin & Latymer, had very little faith at all. Indeed, I can remember only going to the Jewish assembly on a Wednesday morning because I thought it was rather cool and rebellious and I had lots of Jewish friends.

So, yes, my teenager-self would really not *believe* that I would become a believer. I chart my journey into faith as one which began when I got engaged at the age of 29 and met Father Michael and came to church, frankly, because I wanted to get married at my mother’s church St George’s. It was then that I got the bug.

I had enough underlying faith to want to get married in a church, but it was very diluted and very distant. Coming to church started as something that I felt I had to do in order to get married in one, although I remember hating having to set my alarm to wake up on a Sunday morning in time to get to church. Over the years, it developed into something that I really *wanted* to do and now *need* to do (although I still hate setting my alarm on a Sunday morning as it is set so early during the rest of the week).

I also think my faith has deepened since becoming a mother because so much of parenting is about making sure that your children grow up with a strong moral compass, and understand not just how to read and write, but how to be kind, be caring, be charitable, be considerate of other people and so on. These are all values which the church, particularly the Sunday school that they go to, the friends that they have met there and Margaret’s wonderful influence on their lives that help to instil these values.
I also feel it is very important to give my children the religious knowledge and understanding – as I was given by my parents – which they might well reject in the future – as I did temporarily – but at least they will know what it is so that they can come back to it when they are older – as I did. If I had not had any experience of going to church, I wonder if I would have ever found the church again in my late twenties with nothing to return to?

It was Father Michael – who was then the vicar of St George’s – it was his warm, encouraging, open-minded and loving welcome to my fiancée Tom and I that really won my vote, so to speak. I didn’t feel embarrassed not to have been confirmed (which I did not do until many years later). I was not made to feel ashamed for not having been to church on a regular basis for years. So it was Father Michael’s open-mindedness more than anything – and the many bottles of wine that were served whenever we visited – that helped me to start the journey to become the Christian that I am proud to be today.

I am a huge fan of Desert Island Discs, which recently starred Lord Indarjit Singh, the broadcaster and religious leader who you will know from Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. He told the presenter Kirsty Young that religion is “a sat nav that gives you directions.” That is exactly how I feel about my faith. I also rather like what David Cameron said about his faith – that he is “a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of that faith” but that the church “really matters to him.” I would fail a pub quiz that only asked questions about the Bible, but my faith is still inside me and guiding me all the time.

My time in church every week is *always* the most special, most moving, most calming and most uplifting time of my week. We all rush around all week working, cooking, jogging, checking emails, paying bills, getting on the tube, going to Tesco and, in my cases, asking my children to brush their teeth and to practice the piano and so on. But it is that hour on a Sunday morning at St George’s for the 10am service or at St Mary Abbot’s at 9.30am on a Thursday for the church services at their school, that are on a totally different level – and that is a much higher, deeper, more spiritual level – than the whole rest of the week. It is probably no coincidence that I very often cry when I am in church.

It makes me sad that being a Christian is something that is a minority sport. At a party on Friday night, a friend offered to buy me a drink and I asked for a sparkling water, having given up alcohol for Lent. I said I would not be having an alcohol drink until Easter Day. He was genuinely mystified why I was abstaining at this particular time of year, as surely “dry January” had come to an end by now, he pondered? He had literally no idea that we are currently in Lent.

As a journalist, I read newspapers – and a lot of them – every single morning. It also makes me very sad that religion appears in often such a wholly negative way: it is mostly about religious Irish bakers who will not make a cake bearing a pro-gay marriage slogan, or a married vicar who runs off with a member of the congregation.

I want to cheer whenever Christianity is presented positively. When David Bowie’s widow Iman made her first post on social media after the singer’s death, she wrote: “The struggle is real but so is God.”

And when Martin Sheen was on Desert Island Discs – yes, I really do love the programme – he spoke brilliantly about his deep faith and chose that wonderful hymn, How Great Thou Art, as one of his eight favourite tracks. “Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder, Consider all the works thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed.”
On the subject of my favourite radio programme, I wish somebody would whoop with joy when Kirsty Young says they get to take the Bible (and the complete works of Shakespeare) with them, and asks which other book they would like to take. Indeed, I worry that somebody will refuse to take the Bible with them before long, given the decline of the Christian faith in this country.

My modest contribution to try to spread the word about the wonderful thing that is coming to church is to talk openly about being a Christian, and to bring it up in conversation with friends, with work colleagues and with contacts. Not obsessively by any stretch of the imagination, but just when I can and it seems appropriate. People are often flabbergasted and genuinely perplexed. But some people agree, and say they are too, which is very cheering and very bonding. At a recent lunch, a contact and I discussed a friend who is going through a troubled time, and he said: “We must pray for her” as both he and I know each other to be regular churchgoers.

My job as a journalist is not one that is classically associated with having a faith, you’re probably thinking. But I know many journalists who do have faith, and indeed I think my job is one that does actually fit perfectly with a Christian faith. Day in, day out, we – that is, my team and I – are helping people, sometimes very vulnerable people, to get back money. Typically, one of Britain’s banks or insurers or investment companies has completely shafted them, and it is only when The Sunday Times gets in touch with the company that it admits wrongdoing, pays back the money and apologises. You would be amazed by the size of our postbag – well, really email inbox mostly nowadays – from people who need our help – and we give it to them as much as we possibly can. It makes me enormously proud that we have got back more than £1m for our readers since I took charge of the Money section in September 2014, and we get very touching letters from readers who we have helped. I got a lovely one this week from a father who said his son, who is physically disabled, loves the Money section, but was upset that his February 14th edition of the paper was missing this section. So we sent him one, with a nice note inside.

My Christian faith is something that really helps me. It gives me, as Lord Indirjit Singh said, “a sat nav that gives you directions.” I often fail to follow them, as my children will testify whenever I lose my temper; or when I just don’t have the will or the time to help another Sunday Times reader who clearly needs assistance; or a family member or friend who is lonely or confused or depressed whose number I see on my mobile phone and do not pick up because I just cannot bear to speak to them. I fail every day to be a perfect Christian.

But I try to be kind; to be supportive of those who need help; to give to charity; to volunteer at my children’s school; to support my mother; to raise my children to be responsible citizens of the world and all those things that I see as good and Christian.

As Charles Swallow said, I do believe that God is love and that it can be glimpsed whenever I am in the paradise that is my mother’s little island in Norway; when I hear children singing in church; and when the rose in our garden blooms and on lots of other occasions.

When atheists do battle with my faith and ask me how God can possibly exist when there is so much suffering in the world – when children are starving in Syria; when the Taliban could want to murder school girls, like Malala, in Pakistan; and how Jimmy Savile could have died after getting away with the sorts of despicable crimes that he committed over so many decades to so many children. I don’t know the best answer to lob at the atheists, but I do know that coming to church and having a faith feels like the strongest bone in my body, and the sat nav that I follow to try to be and do more good, than bad, in this complicated world, and that I am extremely grateful to have it.

Thank you very much for listening.

Holland Park Benefice