I love the notion of being on a spiritual journey. I love the idea that I have never ‘arrived’ but am constantly hiking on a sort of sacred coast-to coast. In my mind, I have already traversed high fells, treacherous bogs, thick forests, miles of open moorland and am stopping to rest with a slurp of hot coffee and a cheese sarnie in a warm and sunny glade. On my journey I have met many fellow travellers and learnt a lot from them. They have lent me their compass and showed me on the map where I might be, before waving me off again with a blessing and a prayer.
Now the latest surprise on a spiritual journey that has been full of the unexpected is that I have been asked to join the serving team at my cathedral church. To be honest, I was amazed to be asked as I thought that middle aged, post-menopausal vertically-challenged females would probably be barred under Section 948 of the good old C of E’s regulations on such matters. But apparently not. And you must understand that from where I set out on my spiritual quest, this is akin to Donald Trump going over to the Democrats and inviting several Muslim families to move in with him in his Florida mansion. It’s a quantum leap. I didn’t even know what a serving team was until about five years ago. Before then I’d have probably said it was something to do with Toby Carvery and I wouldn’t have been far wrong.
I will start my serving career by training as an acolyte. My husband is busy thinking up a suitable name for this (I am already ‘Petulant Postulant Palmer’ in honour of my Franciscan credentials). But I have to wait to be awarded my ‘Hey Duggee’ ‘Server’ badge until we actually start serving again. Because of this rancid little blighter of a virus, the clergy in my church are serving themselves and the team have been put out to grass for the foreseeable.
I’m looking forward to it.
Now the church I was raised in was austere. It was a prefabricated hut, built by the men of the fellowship with much sweat and slog over two years when I was very small. There was one person at the front and that was the pastor – always a man - who presided over everything. I remember the grand opening when I was four. I can still see it in my mind’s eye…
The church is a small space so some of the visiting faithful – recruited from other fellowships to offer support and swell the numbers, are left outside and have to peer through the windows and the open doors. Inside, it is freshly painted and decorated with flowers for the ceremony. Decorations are unusual and not encouraged since the exhortation to not make any graven image is central to the tenets of the faith, but a few pink carnations are permitted on this day. Serried ranks of wooden upright chairs, donated by a local sympathetic church, a snip at £5 the lot (they were upgrading) fill the central space.
There is a small platform at the far end (no truck here with east and west and such Popery) with a plain lectern on it for the pastor’s Bible, and an embroidered banner proclaiming in purple lettering ‘JESUS CHRIST IS LORD.' There are no crosses and certainly no statues. Oliver Cromwell would have felt at home. He may have been the first Puritan but he set a benchmark for austerity which fundamentalist churches have aspired to ever since.
Glance to your right and there is a cast-iron stove with a chimney reaching up and out of the roof. On this first summer day it stands idle but in the bitter winters to come, notably 1963, it is much pressed into service. My dad would heave great shovelfuls of coke into its gaping maw as he stoked it up, ready for the Sunday morning congregation to make their chilly way through the streets to sing praises and warm themselves by the twin fires of God’s love and my dad’s coal. I spent many long meetings (we didn’t call them services) rubbing my small frozen hands and warming my bare chilly legs around that source of heat. Other equally icy children had similar ideas and Christian forbearance was decidedly absent as we pushed and jostled and pinched each other out of the way, all the while lustily singing ‘Rescue the perishing.’ It was sheer bad luck if you needed a wee in these Arctic conditions as the toilets were built on the outside and you would have to brave the snow drifts and unheated lavatories if you were really desperate.
I am four years old and I believe everything I see and hear. I believe that this God needs to be constantly appeased and placated as I am so sinful. He needs to be convinced of my worthiness for salvation otherwise I will be thrown into the fiery pit. That’s a bit much before you start school. I am already convinced of my exclusion from the fold because I know deep deep down where the sun doesn’t shine that I will never make the grade. Something inside me locks and bolts leaving me firmly on the outside.
Faith is a journey. This is the beginning. And it is many many years before I begin to undo the locks and bolts and discover a different God.
And this different God - she will love to see me serving her in the ritual and the symbolism and the joy and the wonder of the Eucharist. She will understand that this is one of the ways in which I relate to her, I communicate with her by showing her just how important she is to me. She will know that I feel a huge privilege at being able to play a small part in celebrating the sharing of the bread and the cup with all the people gathered together, all these people who God loves absolutely, totally and unconditionally.
I’m convinced of that.