One person's experience

This article by Anne Horner first appeared in Surfing: Women on the Sea of Faith. Anne explains her transition from active church supporter to Sea of Faith non-realist—a journey many of us have travelled in one way or another—and, like Anne, not without regrets.

I am a member of the SoF network and until recently a very active member of the local Anglican congregation. I joined SoF eagerly because a friend, who is also a member of the local church, suggested that we might be able to explore ideas more freely at its meetings than we ever felt free to do at parish discussion groups. I have found this to be true.

I have been interested enough in religious studies, theology, call it what you will, in the last ten or fifteen years, to read many books on the subject and attend seminars at the local University Centre for Theology. I took an OU degree in the 1980s; one of the courses I studied was 'The Religious Quest' which I found extremely enlightening.

Before and during that time I had been very involved in church life. This included helping with Sunday school. It was planning what I would say to intelligent twelve year olds that made me take that big step towards at least acknowledging what I did not believe. I am still trying to sort out what I do mean by 'God'.

One part of church life which I found appalling, once I had started on this path, was the way in which congregations have been kept in the dark about twentieth century explorations of theological ideas. It was only when I was in a parish with a clergyman who welcomed the chance to talk with laity on an equal footing, and respected their ability to cope with new ideas, that I realised how simplistically most clergy preached and spoke to anyone not wearing a dog collar. Is it because they cannot cope with the implications of 20th century thought that most of the time we are treated to hackneyed and often literal interpretations of biblical writings and church dogma? However, even this man knew he had to be careful what was said in front of most people. With the new way of appointing clergy without a freehold it must be even more difficult to be honest.

When I found that theologians and clergy had actually written papers and books expressing those views I had been trying to suppress, because I felt they would alienate me from something I held very dear, it was a most liberating experience. John Robinson, Don Cupitt, John Hick, John Spong and Harry Williams spring immediately to mind, but also Keith Ward, Lavinia Byrne, Daphne Hampson, Lloyd Geering and many others have greatly helped me in my ongoing quest for a personal view of life's deepest meanings.

I recently decided that, after a lifetime of extremely regular church going, I needed a break to try to analyse why I now felt so uneasy in a place where once I had felt so happy and at home.

Various beliefs which had once seemed immovable had now become stumbling blocks to me, and also to some other people in our particular congregation. But these had to be affirmed week by week. For some months when I stood to say the Creed I just didn't say anything. I found it impossible to say 'We believe' when a great deal of it I did not believe and other parts I was ambivalent about, I know this to be true of other people, many of whom said that they had not said the Creed for years.

When it was decided that the laity should lead the Intercessions in our Parish I was invited to take part. The Rector and a few others knew of my doubts about God and prayer but suggested that I should contribute and this was generous. Perhaps this should have helped me. I know my way of contributing to it helped some other people, but I still felt as though I should not be in church any more.

This was a very big decision and I am still feeling the after effects. My present beliefs have alienated me from something which I have held very dear for the greater part of my life. I had been going regularly to church since the age of eleven. I chose to go, it was not something I was pushed into by my family. I tried several different denominations, often with school friends who attended that particular church or chapel, and finally came to rest very happily in an anglo-catholic church which was full of music, incense, colour and wonderful words, All through my marriage I have been to church in whichever parish we have lived. We have been in this parish for 23 years now and I have until recently been deeply involved.

My husband and I have three children, two boys and a girl, who have been at the centre of our lives since they were born. They all left home some years ago now and only my daughter still lives very near us. We are still a very happy family, with the recent addition of two lovely grandchildren. When they were all at primary school and my mother was also living with us as part of the family after my father died, I retrained on a 'mature student' teacher training course and eventually starting teaching in the local infant school. However I had only been teaching for about three years when our eldest son was diagnosed as having Hodgkins disease at the age of fifteen.

Of course this was a terrible shock. I continued teaching for about a year but, when the consultant said that he did not think Stephen would reach his seventeenth birthday, I decided to give up work and be with him when he needed me. In fact he persevered, whilst still having treatment, with O levels, A levels, a degree, and even work. He also met a wonderful girl at university and they have been coping with life together ever since.

I never did go back to full time work and gradually found myself doing more and more on the parish scene. I did it because I enjoyed it. And I must say that during all these years my husband was a great support and strength - backing up what I did in all kinds of ways, even though he decided churchgoing was not for him long before I did. I had been a typist before having the children so I was able to take on the job of PCC Secretary and also any extra secretarial work needed in the parish. I had been a teacher so I was able for some years to take on the running of the Junior Church. I enjoyed singing and was in the church choir. And so on and so on. So when I decided I could no longer believe those dogmas of the church which we had to keep saying each week it made a much larger hole in my life than if I had been someone who just attended services on Sundays without much further involvement.

Anthony Freeman's book spelt out in ordinary language, as opposed to theological language, much of what I had been thinking - not only about God but about Jesus. When you read of the myths and stories from other cultures it is easier to realise what happened in the early years of the church and each century since. When you listen to what physics and biology have to say in the 20th century you have to take account of it. I do not think that we will ever explain all things in the world, but surely our ideas about life and all the hows and whys must take into account modern thought and not just stick in first century Palestine or with the early church fathers.

There are so many good things about church which I greatly miss since I stopped going, and this has been a great sadness to me. One thing which has sustained me is a meditation group to which I belong. This group of seven women is most important to me. We use material from many religions and none. Love, peace and justice are things we think about, but the most wonderful thing is the harmony and silence. I know many people are trying exactly this all round the world but when you find your own niche it is marvellous. And we are not tied down to other people's dogma!

I would dearly love to find peace in the church community again but unless things change radically, and I don't really think they will, it seems a forlorn hope.

However, maybe I will do as someone suggested to me the other day, which is, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, after all the exploring to arrive where I started and know the place for the first time. Or is this wishful thinking?

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