On Sunday morning, at 9.50am, a complete stranger will wake me by ringing a bell belonging to the church at the back of my garden. Until recently, I’ve ignored this tuneless summons to worship, placing a pillow over my head till it stopped. As an unbeliever, I never imagined that it was directed at me.
Nor did I pay attention when churches dropped leaflets through my door, or launched expensive advertising campaigns. Even promotions that generated media hoo-ha failed to score. Like many other people, I couldn’t care less whether the church even existed.
I’m not religious. I’ve not been confirmed, nor even baptised. I have attended church, occasionally, for weddings and funerals, but my understanding of the Bible stems from studying English literature – and from the feature-length dramas which used to appear on TV at Easter and Christmas.
I did flirt, briefly, with religion. It happened one rainy afternoon, when I was seven, after I’d watched some film about a nun. I climbed onto my bed, formed a steeple with my hands and asked God to supply me immediately with a new toy – or, failing that, some other outward sign of His existence. Nothing occurred. So I trotted off to ask my mother whether she believed in God. Hemming and hawing, she seemed to indicate that, on balance, she didn’t. And that was that.
But my lack of faith, though common, is untypical. Almost 4m British Christians regularly meet for worship. That’s only a small proportion of the 39m who call themselves Christians, but still more than all professed Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs put together. Christianity remains strong: the queen is Supreme Governor of the Anglican church, and – in England and Scotland, at any rate – this fact confers on Christianity the status of established religion.
Churches have closed, it is true – becoming bars, restaurants and apartment blocks – but that process is two-way: elsewhere, congregations have built new churches, or adopted premises previously used as snooker halls, offices and even petrol stations. Altogether, across the British Isles, there are more than 41,000 churches, chapels and other places of worship. To put that in context, compare the number of banks: the ten biggest groups run little more than 11,000 branches.
So what have I missed? Hot stuff, presumably. Throughout history, people have been tortured – and murdered – for being Christians. And regular churchgoers still suffer persecution, in the form of mockery. To find out why they put up with that, I decided in August to give church-going a try, sampling denominations to see if any suited me. You could call it market testing – or Sunday shopping. If I hadn’t become a Christian by Christmas, I would give up; and maybe next year try some other religion.
I drew up a shortlist, each church with a Unique Selling Point, then photocopied a map of the UK to pick out branches at random. I might not always choose typical churches, or the best of their type, but by choosing randomly I hoped to replicate the experience of any other pilgrim. This story, necessarily abbreviated, provides snapshots from my journey.
Mormons, Hyde Park
On weekdays, Corey Chivers works as a lawyer. But in his spare time he’s bishop at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (better known as the Mormons). One Thursday in September, I met Chivers at his office, and asked if his colleagues knew about his other life.
“People know I don’t drink or smoke, so in that sense I stand out. Also, I never come into the office on a Sunday.” Beyond this, even rank and file Mormons avoid extra-marital sex, and undertake to give one-tenth of their income to the church. They believe that Christ reappeared in America – because that’s what it says in the Book of Mormon, brought to light by the church’s first prophet, Joseph Smith. When they are young, Mormon men undertake a two-year mission – largely self-financed – to spread the Gospels.
“We believe the Gospels will make you happy,” Chivers says. “Everything around us is designed to make us selfish, and lie, and think of ourselves first – but we say, no!, I’m going to love my neighbour and look out for outcasts and the underprivileged. As you do that, you become extremely happy. Don’t just take our word for it. Pray for it sincerely, after having studied. Literally get down on your knees and ask God to tell you this is right. We will have you converted by the end.”
When Sunday came, I put on a suit – Chivers particularly recommended that – and drove nervously to the 1960s church on Exhibition Road. Crossing the threshold, I found myself shaking hands with a long series of smiling people who asked – usually in American accents – for my name, and where I came from. They also gave me a name badge.
In the crowded hall, the benches were luxuriously padded – which perhaps explains why nobody stood up to sing hymns. Nor did anybody move for communion. The body of Christ was brought to us in our seats: I took a piece, and popped it in my mouth. Nothing happened. Next came the blood… which turned out not to be wine, but water. (I took some anyway. Still nothing.)
Then began a part of the service which Chivers claimed to be unique: personal testimony from members of the church. “Usually it’s very positive,” he had warned. “But sometimes when I hear it I cringe, and wish I had a trap door.” I could soon see what he meant: testimony, typically, consisited of children asserting love for parents, or vice versa – and also for Joseph Smith – before reciting the Mormon catchphrase, “I know the church is true.” Charming to begin with, this soon became dull, and eventually mind-numbing.
There were exceptions. One man stepped forward to say, shockingly, that he’d received a letter informing him that his father, in Africa, had died. “At the moment I’m a sorrowful person,” he stated, unnecessarily, “and I wanted to share this with you because I feel so much love”. A young missionary broke into tears even before reaching the lectern. “I love the Scriptures,” he sobbed. “The desire that you have to learn about the Gospel brings me great joy.” (Despite this, he pulled a long face, and sniffed.) Another who burst into tears was a middle-aged woman: “I look at this congregation and feel I love you all. We have more than 50 nations here. I love you. I can’t call you all by name but I love you!”
This was extremely awkward. I had not consciously radiated love towards these strangers: could they have misinterpreted the general mood, or was it just me?
After more than an hour, the testimony ended. Bishop Chivers, coming to find me, suggested a scripture class on the Book of Mormon, led by a woman with half-moon spectacles. “Can you see what a wonderful person you could be?” she said at one point. “These are not easy commandments to follow. To love someone who hates you takes a lot of practice…”
Before the class finished, Chivers conveyed me outside, for a tour of the church. Wherever he went, people slipped him envelopes – containing, presumably, tithed income in cash and cheques. On the stairs, a man shuffled up to Chivers, asking for an appointment to see him. Politely, the bishop introduced me to this man – a beneficiary of Mormon welfare programmes, he later explained – and reflexively I stuck out my hand. Only too late did I notice that he smelled strongly of poo. Retrospectively, I see that this was a perfect opportunity to love my neighbour – but for the next 90 minutes, until I found a washbasin, I could think only of the germs on my palm.
Next, Chivers led me upstairs, to a room where male members of the church – dressed in dark suits, like a convention of salesmen – had gathered for a “priesthood meeting”. This, to my horror, comprised testimony even more banal than before: “I would like to talk about the welfare of my soul,” said one American, typical of others. “I’m with one of the private equity shops in town. It’s very stressful. I would have a hard time keeping balance were it not for the Gospels. I know the church is true.”
To liven things up, I could have stood and announced that God doesn’t exist. I didn’t, because I had no wish to offend, and because I feared I might never escape. After three hours, I was parched; the low ceiling and bright lights were making me ill. I couldn’t take much more. Testimony seemed to confirm my worst preconceptions: that religion was boring and creepy. Karl Marx, memorably, likened religion to opium, but I wondered if it also more like cigarettes: an acquired taste, not especially pleasant to begin with. Alas, I’ve never possessed sufficient will-power to take up smoking.
Free Church of Scotland, Dundee
On a Saturday night in Dundee’s arts centre, David Robertson briefed me on the next step of my journey. We drank pints of lager, and Robertson, who called himself Dave – as in, “You might say to me, ‘Dave, I can’t come to service on Sunday’ – carried a mobile phone and a PalmPilot. Nothing in his appearance positively identified him as a minister of the Free Church of Scotland.
But he had strict rules. “We expect people to attend on Wednesday at 7.30pm, and on Sunday at 11.00am and 6.30pm. You have to make a commitment.” Also: “You simply can’t be a member of the church if you don’t believe in God, or if you think the Bible is rubbish.” (The Free Church accepts the Bible as the sole rule of faith and conduct.) “If you’re open minded, I think you will be converted. You could go to your room tonight and have a visitation from an angel. Or you might hear something in church tomorrow.”
The next morning, at St Peter’s, I was handed a Bible and a book of psalms. The words were unfamiliar, but I managed to join the singing after a few lines – if quietly, because it felt dishonest praising a God I didn’t believe in. After the sermon – readings from Luke, and thought-provoking analysis – the congregation rose and filed towards the linen-covered pews at the front for communion. Only if I had suddenly converted during the service – he warned me – should I step forward. Sitting alone at the back, I felt the exclusion of a dunce, or miscreant, and understood that peer-pressure alone might be enough to convert a weaker soul.
Afterwards, Dave invited me for lunch with his family, and some friends. After spoken grace – a novelty, for me – his wife, Annabel, asked if I had many friends who go to church. I told her I didn’t. “How strange!” she exclaimed.
Church of England, Somerset
A few weeks later, Andrew Norris, the vicar in charge of three churches outside Taunton, in Somerset, invited me to his vicarage to observe a meeting with parishioners, to discuss baptism. I accepted, grateful for the opportunity to witness the discussion that precedes a more typical entry to religious life than my own.
Sharon and Ian – and baby Chloe – crowded the sofa while Norris, at his desk, put everybody at ease with his classically jolly Anglican manner. (Offering sugar with tea, he asked: “How many sins would you like?”)
“In medieval times,” he began, “it was [considered] awful if you weren’t baptised, you were outside God’s love. But I find it difficult to believe in that kind of God… It may be that you want to leave this for her to decide later. In this parish I’ve had children from five [years old] to 12 asking to be baptised, and that’s really nice because they have a real motivation.” A short-term alternative would be a blessing. (Norris’s own children, as it happens, were not baptised till they were old enough to request it, but he doesn’t mention that.)
But Ian and Sharon have already made up their minds. So Norris changes tack, explaining the ceremony’s importance. “I hesitate to say that the church is like a club, because clubs can be quite exclusive, but if you are a member of the cricket club, and never turn up, then that is a bit meaningless… [In the service] you are asked, as it were, to agree that you believe in what the club stands for: God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit… I will make the sign of the cross and that is a bit like your membership badge. Then you’re a soldier of Christ, so, er, go for it!” (Chloe gurgles.) “Well, I’ve sort of rabbited on, is there anything you’d like to ask?”
Ian, remembering his wedding, says: “Er, fees…?”
“No fees! There are no fees! This is about welcoming someone into the church, and God’s love is not something you can buy.”
Back at work, I received an email from David Robertson, in Dundee. “I thought of you the other week,” he wrote. “About four weeks ago, we had a young man walk in to the church. He is an engineer in a factory here. No church background – he just felt like coming. Anyway, after four weeks of attending he has now ‘converted’.”
This was encouraging, but it was becoming clear that I’d started my quest on a questionable basis. Travelling outside London involved little spiritual jeopardy: there’d never been much chance I would join a congregation in Dundee, or Somerset. I decided from now on to confine my search to London. By this geographic measure, the Mormons remained in the frame. Their head of mission had invited me to observe missionaries at work. As a journalist, I saw this as a compelling assignment; but personally I felt nervous. I decided to try a few other denominations first.
At St Etheldreda’s, a Catholic church in Holborn, Father Kit Cunningham1 met me in his office before lunchtime mass, and immediately began talking about Original Sin. The Mormons had been oppressively upbeat; this, to me, was going too far the other way. How about accentuating the positive? “We’re flawed creatures, born with a propensity to sin,” he said. “A lot of people do not accept the church because it’s a reproach to their lifestyle.”
Unprompted, Cunningham launched several attacks on his competitors, particularly the CofE. “Anglicans have no moral theology,” he said. “Anything goes. The Ten Commandments, you can take them or leave them…” When I told him I’d visited the Mormons, and taken communion with them, he rolled his eyes. “Well, you can’t take Communion here , because you’re not a member of the church.”2
I’m impressed that people give up their lunchtimes for mass. Don’t they feel they’re missing out? “No. They’ve spent the time well. One woman told me she used to waste the whole hour looking in shop windows.”
We talk about confession, which Cunningham represents as, essentially, a cheap alternative to psychiatry, and prayer. “You start with vocal prayers, Our Father and Hail Mary, and this raises the mind to God. You can raise your mind to God at any time, for example when you are waiting for a train. Just think of Him: it can be a mind-blowing operation. Cultivating a sense of the presence of God is very useful.”
Does Cunningham think I might convert, one day? “I would think that you will succumb, eventually.3 This is where the grace of God comes in. It will trigger something in you. Tell me, the genius of Shakespeare and Beethoven – do you think that can go out like a candle? What is the difference between a corpse and a human being?”
Inside the church, amid beautiful stained glass and life-sized statues of saints, I tried to think of an answer. In all, 23 people arrived for lunchtime mass. Even the last, rushing to their seats, paused to genuflect towards the altar. I couldn’t do that without feeling foolish, so I didn’t even try. But that omission, in turn, seemed foolish – and the same applied when congregants kneeled to pray, crossed themselves, or uttered verbal responses. I had learned that fitting into a church requires familiarity not only with doctrine, but also with procedures: the slogans, the dance-steps.
It was time to change my approach once more. A journey which had begun as an idea for a magazine story had gradually turned into something more personal. (Much of the “work”, after all, needed doing in my own time, on Sundays.) I decided to abandon my self-protective guise as journalist – to stop asserting, in effect, that I was here only because of my job. For my next visit, I would turn up unannounced, and leave my notebook at home.
Additionally, I resolved to try something far removed from energetic evangelism. By early November, I had conceived the self-regarding idea that – like Groucho Marx, unwilling to join any club that would accept him as a member – I could never join a church that showed interest in me, only one that was virtually indifferent.
But that particular notion was easily exploded. When I telephoned the Greek Orthodox church nearest my home to find out about services, the man who answered said gruffly that Sunday service lasted three hours. Was that the best service, I asked, for a first-timer? “You can come along if you want. No one will stop you,” he said, and put his phone down. His bluntness, admirable in some respects, did not attract me. If the Greek Orthodox weren’t interested in my soul, I wasn’t interested in them. I struck them off my list.
But the Quakers, who do not actively recruit, seemed pleased to hear from me. The Society of Friends, to use their proper name, have no formal doctrine, or sacraments. They base their outlook on the Gospels, but acknowledge debts to other religions, and even to people of no declared religion. Most peculiar of all, they have no clergy, and they worship in silence – no hymns, or set prayers – interrupted only when an individual ( any individual) feels moved to speak or pray.
At the Meeting House in Hampstead, the seats were arranged in concentric circles, around a small table. For once, there could be no hiding at the back. I wondered how to react if somebody opposite should stare at me: do I smile, stare back blankly, or get up and run away? The solution was to gaze intensely at a gap between two table legs, causing peripheral vision to blur.
Over the course of an hour, the thoughts that passed through my mind consisted principally of work, family, and death. There were four interruptions. The first speakers, both women, stood to ask for prayers to help absent friends. A man with shoulder-length grey hair rose to announce that prayer is “like surrender”, and to offer a parable involving diseased wood, highly prized by carpenters for its spotted appearance. Finally, after about 55 minutes, a woman in the centre circle stood to give, essentially, a response to the previous comments. “What is God?” she asked. “Well, he’s certainly not a magician, to do magic at our request. So who do we ‘surrender’ to ?”
When the meeting ended – marked by an outbreak of handshaking – newcomers were invited to introduce themselves; and over coffee, several individuals asked me how I liked the meeting. To one, I said truthfully that I’d enjoyed it, and would happily come again – but that I didn’t believe in God. His answer surprised me: “Oh, well, that doesn’t necessarily matter.”
Church of England, Child’s Hill
At last, I was making progress. My enthusiasm revived. The following Sunday, woken as ever by the bell, I dressed at speed and walked round the block. By chance, my first attendance at All Saints fell on All Saints day – and this was also the day on which the Church of England unveiled its new Order of Service. Instead of delivering a sermon, the vicar stood in the pulpit explaining the changes. He flourished a succession of prayer books from throughout the ages – ending with the photocopied order of service that had been folded inside our hymn books.
The words to be spoken by congregants were printed in bold type. There were only a few changes: instead of praising Christ in the third person, for instance, worshippers should now say: “Praise to you , O Christ”. “This is to bring us closer to Him,” the vicar explained.
But at another amended passage, he said the new wording was “of no consequence at all”. My first response to this stereotypical Anglican vagueness was to smile, but on consideration I thought – so why bother? If set prayers aren’t to be taken seriously, how can they possibly raise the mind to God (as Father Cunningham had indicated they should)? Worse, the droning recitative provided just enough distraction to prevent the mental focus I’d achieved among the silent Quakers.
Victory Christian Centre, West Hampstead
Maybe I was thinking too much. Perhaps I should throw myself into something more spontaneous. The place I had in mind was the Victory Christian Centre, a Pentecostal church on the Finchley Road, in north London. Whenever I passed it, going to and from work, the pavement outside overflowed with worshippers who looked uncommonly cheerful.
I no longer feared walking into churches, but this one I approached with trepidation. As a tall white man I was certain to stick out in a congregation that was overwhelmingly Afro-Caribbean. By now I’d started to suspect that people join churches that suit their social class, intellect, and cultural background. Believers, predictably, disagreed; insisting that only one church – their own – was the right one; but I clung to my view. So what was I doing here? Was this visit tendentious – like the trips to Dundee and Somerset, merely a stab at something exotic? I hoped not.
In the packed foyer, I was welcomed by a woman in a splendidly coloured suit, with a badge identifying her as usher. “Er, this is my first visit…” I said. She beamed, and walked me into a windowless hall, steamy with breath from the previous service. Every seat was taken, so she pointed me towards the balcony, and another usher directed me to a seat at the front.
A young woman slipped in beside me, introducing herself as Michelle. She’d attended since May, she said, having been saved in January. (From what? I almost asked.) Admitting I was a first-timer, I asked what I should do. “You just praise and worship?” How? She pointed to the stage, where a dot-matrix board hung on the wall. “You see that? Just follow the words.”
The noise, when the service started, was astounding. One woman led the prayers, supported by a full band and eight glossy backing singers, with microphones. My plan, this morning, had been to join in wholeheartedly. And despite the offputting presence of video cameras, that’s what I did. (Except at the end, when the Pastor induced congregants to open their cheque books: I hadn’t thought to bring mine.) As well as singing at full voice, I clapped to the rhythm and swayed from side to side. And when Michelle raised her hands – palms up, in the pentecostal fashion, as if to catch a beach ball – I did the same. I even fluttered my fingertips, like Al Jolson. But was I worshipping, or just going through the motions?
My Christmas deadline, by now, was getting close. I hadn’t tried as many denominations as originally planned, but the ones I did try were diverse: variously with or without clergy, hymns, musical accompaniment, fine clothes, incense, a broad ethnic and social mix, and transubstantiation. In short, I’d sampled a greater range of Christian experience than many practising believers. But if I hadn’t deliberately sought out Christianity, how might Christianity have found me? It was time to get in touch with the Mormons, and spend time with some missionaries.
From morning till night, Elder Tholl, 20, from Utah, and Elder Verral, 24, from Wales, walk the streets and ride public transport trying to strike up conversations. They’re almost constantly rebuffed. People usually turn away when they identify themseles as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “Around about the ‘Jee-’ of ‘Jesus’,” Tholl said (though I suspect it may be as early as the “Chu-” in “Church”). Even when they make appointments to visit people, they frequently find that the person they’ve come to visit, presumably having forgotten about the appointment, is not presently home. But they didn’t seem the least bit sorry for themselves.
On the bus from Hyde Park, Tholl started a conversation with a man reading the Racing Post. “Is this the right way to Westbourne Park?” “Yes.” “Is that where you’re going?” “A bit further.” “Do you live around here?” Initially the man looked irritated, but Tholl, who has an engaging manner, brought him round. Nevertheless, the conversation ended prematurely when we arrived at our bus stop.
Our destination was a modern block of flats, where a Colombian woman was waiting to learn more about the church. Rather than introduce me as a journalist, the Elders decided, they would describe me to her as “a friend”. And that’s what they did, shortly before launching into their sales pitch.
Tholl, the American, spoke first. He asked compassionately about Matilda’s sick husband, and gushed as he spoke of the love he feels for his own family. Then he suggested some New Testament passages for Matilda to read, in halting English, and with a few simple questions he brought her to agree that these passages prove that God exists.
Among other issues addressed in the 90-minute meeting was a lesson in how to pray, following a formula prescribed in Tholl’s flip chart. And while Tholl flicked through illustrations at the front of the Book of Mormon – showing Jesus making his appearance in the American continent – Verrall explained how the Book of Mormon was brought to light by Joseph Smith. Then Matilda read a passage from that controversial testament, and once again the Elders asked her what she thought it all means.
In response to their questions, Matilda frequently addressed her unvarnished conjecture towards me, pehaps because I was the oldest of her three visitors. In describing me as a friend, the Elders had failed to make it plain that I was not one of them. And Matilda didn’t seem to notice that, unlike them, I had brought no Bible. So I nodded, and smiled – but for the whole 90 minutes I said nothing.
At the end, having scheduled a further meeting for next week, Tholl suggested a closing prayer, and asked Matilda to decide who should say it. She pondered a moment, looked from one to the other of us. Then she said: “I’d like him to say it,” and pointed a finger at me.
1 Around the time I interviewed Fr Cunningham, I also attended two weddings at St Etheldreda’s, where he was the priest. Both weddings, as it happens, involved friends who are journalists. According to Wikipedia, Cunningham had a mission to work with journalists, and liberal views about marriage.
He also turned out to have perpetrated sexual abuse earlier in his career, when he was teaching at a Catholic boarding school. This was known before his death, but didn’t become public knowledge until then. I considered removing this passage from the essay, then decided that I’d rather let it stand, as originally published – but with this footnote.
2 In light of the previous footnote, this paragraph is particularly hard to read. I find myself wondering how Fr Cunningham, having done what he had done, was able to speak so ungenerously about other religious traditions having an “anything goes” attitude.
The most generous reading I can come up with: we can all, at times, be self-deluding.
3 Eighteen years later, I did.