One of the most influential teachers in my life used to tell the story of how and why he was a firm believer in infant baptism. Both of his parents were somewhere along the agnostic – unbeliever spectrum, one nominally Jewish, one nominally Christian, but neither of them practising their faith with any great conviction. He was born, however, in a time when some infant rite of passage was expected. So they decided that, if their child was a girl they would bring her up as a Jew, and if a boy, they would bring him up as a Christian. So when M was born, he was duly baptized. He always claimed it worked, in spite of his parents’ relatively low level of commitment to the enterprise, because when he was an undergraduate he came to fully-fledged Christian faith, and ended up being ordained and teaching me liturgy and much else besides.
It only goes to show. Though I’m not sure what.
But the story makes me often reflect on my own childhood, and the mysterious and unknown influences of what was done for me or to me. My parents were both of the generation who had enough of religion in their childhood. Dad sang in the choir at St Bartholomew the Great. He enjoyed the singing and the pocket money he earned him, and being able to get the autograph of film stars who occasionally showed up in the congregation, but he never told us much else about the experience. Mum had a pretty difficult childhood and teenage years, much of them spent as a weekday boarder in a children’s home. I don’t remember her ever mentioning church from those years.
But they had me christened, on 23rd October 1949, at our parish church of St Aldhelm in Edmonton. I wasn’t paying much attention at the time. Or at least, don’t remember anything of the experience. But that doesn’t stop me being grateful, and believing like my teacher M that it must have worked.
St Aldhelm’s Church, Edmonton
For some years Mum and Dad sent me and my sister to Sunday School, because that was the way your parents got you out of the house on a Sunday afternoon in the 1950s. There is another story about going to Sunday School and what I learned about myself in the going (rather than the being there). But I’m grateful for what I got from it, too.
And then the other church of my earliest years was St Cuthbert’s Wood Green.
St Cuthbert’s Church, Wood Green
This was my earliest experience of public worship, from the days of Church Parade with the Cubs. When I couldn’t think of an excuse for not going, I had to go there once a month, especially after I got to be a Sixer. There was no such thing as Family Service in those days. We got Prayer Book Matins, like it or not. There was, yes, some concession to the fact that children were present in the form of what I suppose was intended to be a child-friendly talk. But we still had the psalms and canticles and the language of the Book of Common Prayer.
How accurate, ever, are memories of when you were 9 or 10 years old, 60 years ago? What I think I remember, is puzzling over the language of those words, and feeling that I was beginning to get some sense of what they were about. And of being aware that what we were doing when we sang and prayed was Serious Stuff, so that I was impatient with my peers who kicked and scuffled under the pews, when we were expected to be somehow reverent about doing that Serious Stuff. I wouldn’t say I have loved Prayer Book Matins ever since. But I love it now, and still think there’s more solid meat and nourishment in it, than there is in most contemporary Services of the Word.
Yes, I am grateful for the first churches in my life. One ‘High’, one ‘Low’, both still seemingly alive and active, describing themselves as vibrant, friendly, inclusive, ethnically diverse, engaged with the local community: all the boxes that churches are supposed to tick.
I pray for them, their priests and congregations, that they may above all still be places where God meets people, and where children, women and men meet God. Even if they’re not paying attention at the time, or not fully understanding what it’s about. Who of us ever is?