Updated: Apr 28, 2021
I have to hold up my hands and admit that sometimes in my life, I haven’t been very good at including others. Not others who aren’t like myself I mean. I can fit very nicely, thank-you into a church coffee morning and discuss cataract operations, hip replacements and the best way to grow a geranium, till the cows come home, but drop me into the middle of anything controversial and I can be on my guard.
Like everyone else, I am a multifaceted bundle of layers and layers of paradoxes and ambivalences. I learnt, very early on, how to survive in the group which promised some sort of nurture and suppress that part of me which didn’t belong. When I was young, this group necessarily had to be my home and church (although that was the same thing). Fundamentalist Christians in Sixties Britain were not famed for their acceptance of others and I knew that from the age of three. It was simple. Everyone else was wrong and we were right. You couldn’t get mixed up or doubtful about it because it was so clear cut. Easy-peasy – you just acquiesced to everything the pastor said and your place in the circle was assured.
I knew nothing of other denominations of the Christian church – apart from Catholics who were spoken of in hushed disapproving tones in our house with much shaking of the head. Catholics were not Christians you see, and worse than that, they were heretics which meant that they were going to hell. I felt sorry for Catholics but also inwardly triumphant that I was on the right side of the coin and would not be suffering the same fate. ( My adult self is aghast at such ideas). Even if life was a walk through the vale of tears until we reached the bright and sunny uplands of Beulah, it was worth it for the end result. I sang ‘I’ve pitched my tent in Beulah’ lustily in our meetings having little idea what it meant apart from some hazy perception that it was the Promised Land and even if it was only a tent, I was at least there, unlike those poor sods, the Catholics. I didn’t know where Beulah was either – but to fair, I’d only ever been as far as Nottingham and it wasn’t any of the stops on the train.
No - I didn’t belong in the church, and as I grew older, I found it difficult to belong anywhere. My humble roots made for a tricky time at my posh grammar school, and my failure to secure any relationship with God made church attendance a right chore. I grew up fostering an Apparently Normal Self which who enabled me to fit in and survive. She has served me every well. She has taken tea with bishops, (danced with one too), enjoyed a tolerably successful professional career, raised two well-adjusted children as a single parent, and sings in cassock and surplice in a Cathedral choir looking radiant and the very model of a modern adult chorister.
I am ten years old and walking home from our little wooden hut of a church with Michael, the son of a recent convert, who lives around the corner from me. He is incandescent with rage and spits his venom freely as we cover the half mile or so to our houses, down the back of Jonah’s whale. I call it ‘Jonah’s whale’ because my dad once told me our road was as long as Jonah’s whale and I believe him. The picture is imprinted in my mind. We’d hardly got past his snout when he starts.
‘I don’t believe it’ he says, ‘I don’t believe any of it.’
He is fourteen and knows more than me and I am immediately thrown into confusion.
‘What do you mean?’ I ask him.
‘The Bible. Any of it. It’s all made-up. I hate it. I hate all of it.’
Now I really am panicking. I think his statements sound as bad as anything the Catholics believe and if he carries on, he won’t be saved. I dare not oppose him in the face of such vitriol as I’ve often been on the receiving end of his spite and don’t want it invite it. Anyway, we are nearly home and I’m not going to save him as we just as reach Jonah’s whale’s tail fin. I leave it, but the responsibility weighs heavy on me. I don’t tell anyone as I know he’d be in big trouble if his dad found out. The idea that someone may be loved into faith rather than terrorised into it is several decades away for me yet, and I have no answers.
Now this Principle asks that I am open to all. It asks that I live in the spirit of chastity which, much to my husband’s relief does not mean separate bedrooms and not going further than a peck on the cheek. It means not using other people for my own ends. And I think, as a Christian that means setting others free to find their God and not some version of mine. It means welcoming all to the table, those of different faiths, skin colour, layers of gender, politics. Even some of our MPs which is a bit of a stretch at the moment.
But now, I want to include others. I want to be generous and free of my prejudices and fears. I really do. But I know I’m not. I manage at times to be slightly more successful, but underneath I am painfully aware of my churning cauldron of biases and anxieties. But I guess to accept others as they are, in order to include them, I first have to accept and include myself. I would think it’s is well nigh impossible to do it otherwise. I must first think of myself as a loved child of God. Bit of a tall order, don’t you think with my early introductions weighed with constant messages of how unworthy I am and how dangerous the outside world is? If other people and God are that threatening, there’s not much room left for any safe space.
And I return time and again to one of my favourite poets - George Herbert - who four centuries ago said so eloquently what I am trying to say, ‘My soul drew back. Guilty of dust and sin.’
But the invitation is there. And if I accept it, if I count myself as worthy to be at the table, then I can ‘sit and eat’ as he did.
And if I do that, I set myself free to welcome others. And the table is big enough for all.