Sunday 6th March 2016, Why Me? Lenten Talk 4 in place of sermon at St John The Baptist by Joy Puritz

Sunday 6th March 2016, Why Me? Lenten Talk in place of sermon at St John The Baptist 
by Joy Puritz

The first church that my two older brothers and I attended as children was the German-speaking Lutheran Church in London. My German father had been brought up as a Lutheran and, after moving to London after the war, joined the London congregation, some years later becoming the President of the German Lutheran Synod in Great Britain. I was christened in that church. My mother had been brought up in the Christian Science Church in England, although she never really felt happy with it, especially not in the claustrophobic meetings where the congregation sat in silence for long periods waiting for someone to stand up and testify to having been healed. As a small child I certainly didn’t enjoy attending the German church with its rather dreary hymns and excessively long sermons of at least 20 minutes (except when there was the occasional Sunday school). My survival tactic was, after the first few sentences from the pastor’s mouth, to drift off into daydreams. This habit became so ingrained that I still have to pinch myself in a sermon sometimes. When it was time for Communion I was happier: it meant we were near the end of the service, also there were those fascinating white wafers being placed onto my parents’ tongues. My mother told me they were simply rice paper, but I felt sure they must be coated with sugar crystals, and longed to try one.

In 1955 we moved as a family from Ruislip to Aubrey Walk. My mother, who didn’t mind what church she went to as long as it was Protestant, started going with me to St George’s, a few yards from our house. As a seven-year-old I took to wandering the streets and trespassing in exciting places with rough boys from the slums of Hillgate Village, adopting a cockney accent until my mother threatened to send me to boarding school. Our wanderings would sometimes take us into St George’s. We examined the boiler room at the back, climbed up the rusty rungs in the tower, and one day even ventured into the vestry. And there I saw a little wooden box of Communion wafers (not yet consecrated, of course). There they were, ready for the taking! Couldn’t I try just one? Curiosity got the better of me. Needless to say, the wafer didn’t live up to expectation; and to this day I feel guilty about taking it.

Having come from the Lutheran Church we liked the fact that St George’s was not High Church (and it was quite a bit lower in those days). Despite my gratitude to the Roman Catholic Church for all the music it inspired over hundreds of years, I’m not one for incense and monstrances. At the time, St George’s also had a church primary school, St George’s School in Edge Street, which I attended (as it happens, together with Bob Nibbs, Sandra Nibbs’s late husband). Our form teacher gave us a scripture lesson every day except once in a while when the lesson was conducted by the curate from St Mary Abbots who was in charge of St George’s Church (as we didn’t have our own vicar in those days). The school held its Christmas carol service in St George’s Church. (That was the first occasion on which I had to do a reading in church.) On St George’s Day and Ascension Day the school attended a Communion service in the church, although few of us children could take Communion. I always envied the boys who were allowed to be altar servers. In 1974 I finally achieved the ambition of becoming one myself.

In 1960, my last year at primary school, St George’s Church acquired the first of several priests-in-charge, Richard Moberly, who gave us the occasional scripture lesson. When I was eleven he suggested to my parents that I should be confirmed but, being used to the Lutheran way of confirming children in their mid-teens, they put it off until I was fourteen. They felt that eleven was too young really to understand the meaning of confirmation. I can remember when my brothers were confirmed in the Lutheran Church: on each occasion there was only one other candidate, and the confirmation seemed very special. But when I was confirmed, at St Mary Abbots, there were three or four pews full of candidates, some giggling nervously behind their hands. I have to be honest and say that it was a bit like being on a school outing rather than having a spiritual experience. I think the best thing about it all was Richard Moberly’s confirmation classes.

The greatest religious impact hit our family two years earlier when I was twelve. The older of my brothers, while a brilliant Maths student at Oxford, was converted to a fundamentalist faith: about as fundamentalist as you can get. He joined the Free Presbyterians, or FPs, a tiny but ultra-strict Scottish sect that had broken away from the We Frees on the island of Raasay in the late 19th century. The FPs still think that the We Frees are not strict enough. For example: the Free Presbyterian Church considers it a sin to use public transport to go to church on the Sabbath, while the Free Church does not.

This brother, whose name, believe it or not, is Christian, says that at the time of his conversion he was at a point in his life when he wanted to believe all or nothing. He chose all, which in his case meant that he believed that every word in the Bible was inspired by God and therefore had to be taken literally. He got to know the Bible extremely well and could argue the hind leg off a donkey; and as for Roman Catholicism: anathema. He took Sabbath observance to shocking extremes, and, while I was trying to get to sleep at night, I could often hear him trying to convince my parents that they would burn in the eternal fire if they didn’t believe as he did. Of course he also tried to convert me and my other brother, Rupert; and he once got into trouble when we were on holiday in the Alps and he told an 8-year-old girl that she shouldn’t be delivering bread to people’s homes on the Sabbath. He wouldn’t celebrate Christmas, because the Bible doesn’t tell you to (Passover was OK though). Music and any kind of fiction—books, films, etc. —were sinful, as they aroused emotions that were not religious. When I was thirteen I once went with Christian to a Free Presbyterian prayer meeting. Now I can only remember the half-hour fire-and-brimstone sermon, and the wailing of the psalms, and I mean wailing: there was no accompaniment, everyone started in whatever key they fancied and wailed away discordantly and excruciatingly. The Free Presbyterian Catechism explains: ‘Many modern churches have drama, dancing, and music bands in their worship, and use sport and social entertainment to attract and retain young people; but these things are of the world and should not be countenanced by the Church of Christ for promoting the interests of the kingdom’.

Although my brother’s conversion was hard to take and sometimes embarrassing, I did learn quite a lot. My father’s beliefs were very much upset, and then he read an article by biologist and humanist Julian Huxley maintaining that humans only believed in a creator because they created things themselves and therefore believed that everything must have been created by some greater being. That was the final nail in the coffin: my father became an agnostic, as did, incidentally, my brother Rupert. My poor mother, who anyway suffered from her nerves for the last 30 years of her life, had her doubts, but clung as hard as she could to her faith. She and I continued to attend St George’s; I, rather half-heartedly in my teens and university years, after which I became more interested again. Christian is now no longer an FP but a Grace Baptist, is not as strict, and listens to music again. But sadly I think he still believes that our late parents have gone to Hell. His latest obsession over the last few years has been his rejection of the theory of evolution. He is a Creationist, of course. But I think it’s reasonable to believe that our omnipotent God created the whole process of evolution, which to me is amazing enough.

I can’t admit to having a consistently strong Christian faith, but I am saddened if I hear a priest say that he or she does not believe that the Resurrection actually happened. Isn’t the Resurrection the starting point of our faith? I believe in justification by faith, and I was glad to hear of the signing, by Roman Catholics and Lutherans in 1999, of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The core of the agreement was that only by God’s grace, and faith in Christ, could we be saved, not through good works. Good works were a response to God’s grace, not the cause of it. This small step towards Christian unity inspired me to carry on as Secretary of the ecumenical Kensington Council of Churches at that time. But what about other faiths? I can’t believe that Muslims, say, who are (taken as a whole) possibly more faithful than we are, are condemned to eternal damnation, as my brother thinks. I like to believe that we are all worshipping the same god but in different ways.

What about science and Christianity? I love it when I hear of scientists who know enough to think that we humans might have hit the buffers of our understanding: no one has yet worked out how to make quantum mechanics fit with the theory of relativity: Stephen Hawking has been trying for decades to find that elusive ‘quantum theory of gravity’. I once heard an astronomer say in a lecture that it might need a different kind of brain to ours to fathom the nature of the universe in all its complexities: at present we only know the nature of about 5% of it, the part made up of atoms; the rest seems to be made up of dark matter and dark energy. But we still can’t explain what these actually are, we just know they are there because of their effects: dark matter pulling, and dark energy pushing. And then, look at the phenomenon of a total eclipse of the sun: have you ever wondered at the fact that the moon appears to us to be the same size as the sun so that it covers the sun exactly. This is because the sun’s distance from the earth is 400 times the moon’s distance from the earth, and the sun’s diameter happens to be 400 times the moon’s diameter. How amazing is that! Can that really just be a random coincidence? And how amazing it is that in all the chaos after the Big Bang our planet developed as it did. The conditions needed to create our complex life forms had to be so exactly right that the likelihood of it happening by chance must be minute. No wonder some scientists believe in God. Nature is so extraordinary that, left alone, it always sorts itself out if there is a change in its environment, but, tragically, humankind is now un-creating the wonders of nature: causing the extinction of many species and, most likely, catastrophic climate change. I put my hope in scientists working out how to achieve nuclear fusion (as opposed to fission); nuclear fusion creates vast amounts of energy, as it does in our sun. Scientists have been working on this for years: it would use very little in terms of resources, and produce very little waste. I pray that they will find the answer soon.

I believe in God when I hear glorious music causing feelings that simply cannot be put into words; I believe in him when I go on my walks in the country and see the miracles of nature we can still enjoy. Last September, when I went on a pilgrimage to the wonderfully peaceful and spiritual island of Iona, I had the chance to take a boat to Fingal’s Cave. The hexagonal basalt pillars must surely be one of the wonders of Britain. I love bird-watching, and am always filled with wonder at the beauty of their songs and their plumage. I have been privileged to hold a huge Harris Hawk on my gloved hand, to stroke a barn owl’s back, to tickle the furry tummy of a hedgehog and, best of all, to stroke a wolf. When I was 15, in the early hours of one morning, our family cat gave birth to three kittens in my bed while I was in it. I thus witnessed the miracle of birth. If that wasn’t a privilege I don’t know what is. Perhaps the following: once, when snorkelling alone on a coral reef of the Maldives, in the space of half an hour I not only saw a huge variety of colourful fish, but also a turtle slowly surfacing for air, a manta ray and two (harmless) sharks swimming past me, quite unfazed by my presence. My cup was full.

Some people, whose families have been torn apart by one or more of their members getting drawn (or even kidnapped) into a scary sect, will say that any religion is evil. I had a colleague who held that view because his childhood had been traumatised by his father leaving the family to join a sect. But I have a friend who, as a child, was forced twice a week to go to church on her own; her brothers didn’t have to, and she still really resents this and never goes to church. But some of its teaching must have left its mark: she is the most self-sacrificing person I know, constantly helping other people and never expecting anything in return: just about as ‘Christian’ as you can get. When I once pointed this out to her she went rather quiet.

Three years ago I was happy to read an article written by Matthew Parris of The Times. I will end on an optimistic note by reading part of it:

Quote: ‘Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. [...] I went to see this work.
‘It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my worldview, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
‘Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
‘I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith. But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.’

Holland Park Benefice