"Of course, the reason we have all these terror attacks is because there are more foreign people than English people in London now."
Where was I subjected to this lovely piece of hate speech? At a BNP march perhaps? Nope, it was after a Sunday service, in the most liberal church I can find. I’m reluctant to define myself as a Christian. Seriously, have you seen the kind of headlines we generate? So I add "liberal", despite there being several conflicting definitions of what a liberal Christian actually is. The definition here is a Christian who doesn’t use the Bible as an excuse; who doesn't use it as camouflage for particular attitudes about women, LGBTQ+ people, sex workers, people of other faiths, and atheists.
A liberal Christian takes the story of Jesus talking to a woman of Samaria seriously. Jews at that time didn’t talk to Samarians, but Jesus did. He even offered this woman living water. It’s an openness to difference, instead of insisting that every single word of the Bible is God’s law.
With a trans-niece and a gender non-conforming child, where is it safe for me to worship? How can I find people I align with politically and socially, as well as spiritually? Answer: hardly anywhere.
One place I have found is with The Quakers. The Quakers win hands down on ‘most willing to accept those of other faiths or no faith’, and ‘support for marginalised groups.’ But, on a purely selfish level, their services don’t contain enough familiar music, ritual or liturgy: the stuff that can spiritually fulfil those who were brought up in more formal church settings.
I was brought up Episcopalian, and when the first women were ordained in the Scottish Episcopal Church in 1994, my mother was one of them. As an adult, I attend the Church of Scotland most Sundays, with my children. But I couldn’t possibly become an elder (like a parish council member). For a start, The Church of Scotland doesn’t officially subscribe to "different paths, same god(s)", a central part of my belief system. During the Equal Marriage debate which raged in a small corner of Scotland, I took on my local minister, and lost. He toed the church’s line; I left the local village church where I had been married, and where both of my children were baptised. FYI, a rainbow appeared over the Scottish Parliament just before they passed the Equal Marriage Law. I’m just saying.
One of my favourite things is making a friend and later realising that they have a faith, or a Christian faith, but increasingly, I find I’m never fully relaxed in new friends’ company until I find out what kind of beliefs they hold.
Do they hate the sin, love the sinner? We’re talking the classic “homosexuals are all going to hell, but some of my good friends are gay.”
Do they blame the entire religion of Islam for acts of terror carried out by a tiny minority of religious fanatics?
Do they – and this will sound like I’m nit-picking – but do they believe in non-inclusive language?
For as long as I can remember, I have omitted the ‘men’ from the following line, whenever I’ve said it: "For us
men and for our salvation" – because I’m not a man, and if you tell me that "men" is a generic term, I am likely to explode, in a non-liberal kind of way.
When I talked to some fellow liberals about their experiences, they all began by hesitating to accept the terminology of “liberal” Christian. Then, they all admitted that finding like-minded people and places to worship could be difficult.
One told me an excellent story about a Sunday school teacher, who was asked by a tweenager: "Why is it so embarrassing for me to tell my friends that I go to church?"
“Leadership is key,” says Josie, a liberal Christian living in Yorkshire. Theoretically, if the vicar/minister/priest is liberal enough, then one is at least spared from listening to what she calls “horrible offensive crap from the pulpit.” Also important though, is finding a like-minded congregation. “It can feel like physical training: it all works better when you have a training buddy,” said Nicola, an academic from Nottingham.
However, when I approached my mother about this article, her line was that, “Worship should bring together people who have different insights and different experiences.” And my own minister, Jennifer Macrae, agreed. “We don’t know the mind of God, nor are we entitled to limit God’s grace to like-minded folk.” And I was reminded that church is one of the few remaining places that I’m dragged out of my comfy bubble/echo chamber.
So why go to church at all? Why associate myself with what one of my interviewees called “an institutional dinosaur”? There are two reasons, one which I can explain, and one which words don’t really serve.
The first is, that for all my liberal credentials, I’m not a nice enough person to wander around this earth without having a weekly recap of them on a Sunday. As a Christian, I’m supposed to behave in particular ways. I’m supposed to have a moral, religious code. I’m meant to forgive people, and pray for them. And I’m certainly not meant to yell at the children all day.
The second is the spiritual nourishment from joining with a group of people, liberal or not, and raising our hearts, minds and voices in song and prayer. Sharing a ritualistic meal, listening to passages from an ancient text.
Hitting reset on my soul.