200 Losing my religion

My first contact with the Christian religion happened when I was too young to be aware of it, when I was baptised in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Enfield, at the top of Slades Hill. The choice of church has no significance; it was simply the nearest to home. Convenience and force of habit set the pattern of my religious life, such as it was, for something like fifteen years.

 G baptized

Merryhills Primary School seems to have assumed everyone was Christian; Islam was a great rarity at the time and presumably Jewish children went somewhere else. Certainly we learned quite a few hymns and sang them in morning Assembly, accompanied by the vigorous piano playing of Miss Varley. We learned them by rote, without hymnbooks, which lead to some strange misunderstandings. I never quite got the point of “through pastures green he leadeth me, the quiet water-spy”. As many of the hymns were Victorian they contained a fair few words which were not yet in our vocabulary, and these were generally not explained to us.
The other main appearance of religion was the prayer, or “grace”, which preceded school dinners. We all said, or often almost chanted “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.” Again, the youngest of us probably hadn’t yet got to grips with future participle phrases, but never mind. On the whole we probably weren’t very thankful either.

Up to this point I had only ever encountered religion at school; there were no churchgoers in my immediate family and probably none among my aunts, uncles, and cousins. So now we can turn the page and pass on to Enfield Grammar School; but a brief digression may be needed.

Elsewhere I have surely mentioned the very good music teaching at Merryhills School. I had enjoyed learning to play the recorder and, if I may say so, had got quite good at it. Not wishing to lose my proficiency after moving on, I asked, or I think my father did, the nearest available musician for advice. This was presumably, for better or worse, my uncle Stan Foster. He, or whoever, suggested buying a hymnbook for practise purposes. My father was never one for half measures, so we went out and bought Hymns Ancient and Modern, the first and only time I entered the Christian Bookshop in Enfield Town. I thought this was rather more than I needed, and probably not the best choice anyway, but I persisted with the tunes.

This had an unexpected consequence when I started at Enfield Grammar School. Like Merryhills, they had a daily Morning Assembly, but unlike Merryhills theirs was specifically Church of England. I don’t know if the Methodists, Baptists and other Protestants took this in their stride, but certainly the Jews and Catholics were somewhere else during that half-hour. This meant they missed not only the hymn, reading and prayer but also various school announcements given out by the Deputy Head, a Mr. Leonard, and had to be updated by the rest of us as best we could.

Now music was not taught at all well in Enfield Grammar School – I shall come to that another time – and an example of this was the idea used by the music teacher, a Mr. Lowe, to save himself some time and trouble. Not long after we started at the school, we gathered in the Music Room (which was in fact none other than the stage at one end of the School Hall), and he handed round copies of Ancient and Modern, asking us to make a note of the numbers of the hymns we were familiar with. His idea was, doubtless, to use the ones we already knew in Assembly rather than bother to teach us new ones. Needless to say, I knew them all! I was disappointed that there was not enough time to complete my listing, but at least Mr. Lowe had a leisurely half hour.

We were also taught a subject they called Religious Instruction (R.I. for short); as this too was in principle Church of England, the Jews and Catholics were again excused. I hope they weren’t doing their homework.

And that was the sum total of the religious experience in Enfield Grammar School; but there was an unexpected development. Almost all of the friends that had come up from Merryhills School became enthusiastically religious. In fact one of them eventually ended up lecturing in Theology at St. Andrews (Scotland) University. I had various shared interests with these friends, but this was a bit of a challenge.

I decided to make an effort to understand what they got out of it. Along with them I attended a study weekend somewhere in Hertfordshire, but this did not help. It seemed to be just the wishy-washy bland stuff that I should have known I would get from the Church of England. No hellfire and damnation or any of that; just dull folky “modern” hymns and relentless niceness.

Nothing deterred, I started trudging up Slades Hill on Sunday mornings to St. Mary Magdalene Church (you may remember it was the nearest). Not feeling able to get up in time for the morning service (I think it was about 8.30 or thereabouts) I went to Mattins, at 11.00, one of perhaps half a dozen people in a medium-sized church. I also read the whole of the Bible from start to finish, both in English and in Esperanto. This was a rather more rewarding experience.

Even so, this was clearly getting me nowhere; but the needed revelation came from an unexpected direction. This was a film which I saw in 1961 called The Singer not the Song. I’ve no idea how I came to see it; apparently it was a flop at the time. Don’t bother with the write-ups in Wikipedia and elsewhere which really traduce the film. The idea which I took away is entirely spiritual, and it goes like this:

The two main characters are a priest and a bandit. The plot line brings them together and they form a strong friendship. The bandit, however, is strongly anti-religious and is greatly troubled by the priest’s attempts to win him over to the Catholic faith. Eventually the bandit realises that the ties of friendship (the singer) do not oblige him to embrace the beliefs (the song).

This opened my eyes. I realised it was perfectly permissible to be a good friend to people without espousing their beliefs. This was a great relief. It was with a huge sense of release that I stopped going to Church and still was on good terms with my oldest friends.

Since then I have had to present myself in church on various occasions, notably when getting married; these appearances have made me feel mildly hypocritical but all in all I have parted company with religion with no ill feelings and no damage done.

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