The first churches in my life, part 2

I ‘graduated’ from the Methodist primary Sunday School at the age of 11, with memories I’ll share in another post. The next step would have been to move on to their secondary school age section, but this met at the church in Palmerston Road, which was more than a mile away (more than a mile away!) and would have involved crossing some major roads to get there. So instead I tried the group at our parish church, which turned out to be St John the Baptist & St James the Great, Tottenham.

This was only half a mile away, and involved crossing an even more major road, but for some reason was felt to be preferable. This extraordinary building – like no other church I’ve ever known – was built in 1939 and designed by Seeley and Paget. We knew it as St John the Baptist: again, I don’t know any other church with a paired dedication to St James the Great. Where does this come from, I wonder?

My experience of Sunday School here was disappointing and short-lived. I was 11 years old, a shy and wimpy kid, in a small group where I was the only boy together with six girls. This did not appeal at the time. The curate (of course!) who led the group was probably one of those young clergy who, like me much later, thought working with children, pre-teens and youth generally was “not his special gift”. At any rate, he didn’t inspire me with enthusiasm. With hindsight I can see the aim of the group must have been to prepare us for Confirmation, since we were being encouraged to learn the Apostles’ Creed by heart, and read St John’s Gospel. I didn’t succeed with either of these at the time. And incidentally, I’ve never been sure about the predilection for encouraging religious seekers to read John. It’s such an odd book. Long before you get on to any of the stories you know about Jesus already (of which, frankly, there are precious few in the whole thing, anyway) you have to wade through verses and verses of mystical Greek philosophy and metaphysics. (OK, I like John better now, but I still think Mark would be a better gospel to give to people wanting to know what Jesus was about.)

Apart from this, most of what we were ‘exploring’ in our sessions was St Paul’s Missionary Journeys, from the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps they were in vogue at the time, or part of some curriculum for 11-year olds, because later that year we were covering the same ground in RE lessons at school. And both were equally boring. It has remained one of life’s great mysteries to me, how anyone telling these stories, surely some of the greatest and most exciting adventures in history, can make them dull? Was it something to do with the maps?

I mean, I love maps, always have. But somehow these particular tiny maps, always out of context and always in black and white, did little to impart the excitement or stir the imagination. They looked like they were only about pouring facts into jug-shaped heads, rather than firing God-shaped hearts with excitement, and passion for God.

So within a very few weeks I became a Sunday School drop-out. I think I have a memory of the curate coming round to visit and “follow me up”, an occasion of acute embarrassment for all the family. It was no use. I was gone from formal church for the next decade.

Except for… Yes, there is one other church which features in these memories, and that is the old parish church of All Saints’, Edmonton, which I attended every Ascension Day for the next seven years.

The secondary school I joined in September 1960 was the Latymer School: the local grammar school, but bearing the same name as the more prestigious (and fee-paying) Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith. The founding benefactor of both was a London city merchant named Edward Latymer, who on his death in 1624 left a bequest for education. Most of this bequest went to the people of Hammersmith, but a part of it was designated, according to Wikipedia, ‘to fund the education and livelihoods of “eight poore boys of Edmonton” with a doublet, a pair of breeches, a shirt, a pair of woolen stockings and shoes distributed biannually on Ascension Day and All Saints’ Day.’ It was widely believed in Edmonton that the twice-yearly handout included half a pint of ale for each boy, as well as the clothing; but both had lapsed by the time I was a scholar there. What remained was Founder’s Day on Ascension Day, when the whole school walked to the parish church for a morning service of thanksgiving, and then were granted a half day’s holiday. Long before I became a regular churchgoer, or knew what the Ascension was, I acquired a lasting affection for the day. Ale or no ale.

Apart from these church encounters, and the uniformly boring RE lessons (not helped by the fact that our regular teacher was off sick for most of the first two years), my main experience of the Christian faith for seven years was daily school assembly. Our headmaster was an ordained man, the Reverend Dr Leonard Jones. The school’s daily act of worship consisted of a hymn, a Bible reading, and a prayer, often one of the Collects for Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. No attempt to preach, or convert, or interest, or entertain; no suggestion that you might not believe what you were hearing and singing. In other words, probably the best of all possible ways to present the Anglican version of the Christian faith.

I’m still convinced that the plain words of the Bible, good traditional hymns, and the words of the liturgy, are the most powerful ways we have of communicating the faith, and teaching what it is. That seems an unfashionable idea these days. But it’s a part of my own life and faith journey that I am forever grateful for.

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