‘Are you a Christian?’ asked one of my fellow students, about 35 years ago now, ‘I’m trying to be’ I replied.
At the time I could be observed by my fellow students to get up and out early enough on Sunday mornings to attend the Anglican communion service held on campus, to go to the Methodist church on Sunday afternoons/evenings and to mix with others who did likewise. They may well deduce that I was a Christian. If any of them listened to the student radio station, I could have been heard (with a group of other students) examining issues of how Christianity might work out in our lives, every Monday evening on a programme we called ‘Sunday on Monday’.
I was observed by the chaplains to sit firmly in my seat while everyone else received the bread and wine, to remain silent during much of the liturgy (especially the creeds) and to chat over coffee afterwards making no secret of my doubts and questions. I joined in many of the activities offered by the Student Christian societies on campus including discussion groups and a pilgrimage to Iona. To the chaplains I was, I heard, ‘a bit of a problem’.
I was seeking to work out what my commitment as a girl guide to ‘do my duty to God’ might mean in practice. Church and the Christian societies were where people were prepared to talk about God, so that was where I went.
I found a lot to think about, and a lot of questions. I learnt to sit in silence for prolonged periods. I asked God a lot of questions. Very occasionally I received a clear answer. In retrospect, I can see that answers did, gradually, become clear to me. I was very uncomfortable with the creeds. I didn’t believe most of the content and refused to lie. Others assured me that nobody believed it all, but they said it anyway. That didn’t make me any more comfortable. I could not understand the necessity of the ritual of baptism. (I was not baptised as a child, but my parents had been clear that the decision was mine should I wish to take that step.) I could not understand why the ritual of bread and wine was needed (and why it was only available to those in membership) – the words said ‘every time you do this (break bread, drink wine) do it in memory of me’ not ‘make a once a week ritual of remembering me’.
The pilgrimage to Iona helped. It exposed me to a wider variety of Christian practices and interpretations and emphasised the community aspects and the importance of living our beliefs out in practice. A Methsoc retreat in Grantham on the theme of prayer led me to a deeper understanding of the vital importance of listening as an aspect of praying, and to a meeting with an elderly member of the congregation who was actually a Quaker and who was an important influence on me. Then I read ‘Quaker by Convincement’ and kept responding ‘I agree’, ‘now I understand’, ‘me too’. I found the opportunity to attend Quaker Meeting for Worship and was immediately convinced that this was where I fitted in. Here were people trying to live out the Christian faith in practice, who spent more time listening to God than talking to God, who required no creedal statements, who regarded the rituals of baptism and the eucharist as unneccessary.
‘Are you a Christian?’ If asked today, how would I reply? I’d probably respond ‘it depends what you mean by Christian’.
If you mean ‘do I subscribe to the creeds?’ – no. If you mean ‘do I try to follow the teaching of Jesus?’ – yes, I try to. I might use the term ‘Jesus follower’. If you mean ‘do I do my best to do my duty to God’ – yes, though I am very aware that I could do better. The girl guides now say ‘to love my God’ and we’re currently consulting about the words we use and how meaningful they are to today’s girls. The change in wording (despite my quakerly qualms about any form of words) has not altered the fundamental question for me. What I want to do with my life is what God wants me to do, which may or may not mean following a ‘Christian’ path, but definitely does involve developing my understanding of what the word ‘God’ means to me and to other people. It does, currently, involve taking the life of Jesus as a example to follow. It does, fundamentally, involve listening to God, taking heed of the ‘promptings of love and truth’ , and, vitally, getting out there and doing the best I can in practical ways. It involves accepting my failures, accepting that they are forgiven, picking myself up and trying again today and every day.