Life, As I Find It
As I’ve written elsewhere, my formative years were spent as a Baptist. Then, after a move to Southern California in the second half of the 1980s, I attended a variety of non-denominational Evangelical Churches. I have described that period as a spiritual wilderness for me, as I was alienated by what the so-called Seeker Movement had done to many churches. Well-intentioned evangelism had given way to a superficially market-driven and trendy worship style. For me, a true sense of the transcendence of God and His Word had been sacrificed. Though, at the time, I wouldn’t have known to articulate it that way, I knew that the Seeker style wasn’t what I was seeking.
Circumstances in my life and career allowed for my wife and I to leave Southern California at the end of 1991. We moved to her home country of England.
My yearning to find a church persisted there. Now, rather than wandering Southern California, we wandered that “green and pleasant land.” But the experience was similar to what we’d found in the Los Angeles area: worship services that were centered around the audience with a blatant emotionalism that, at that time in England’s religious history, may have been needed but left me cold.
I remember attending one service at a non-denominational church meeting in a school where the big finish was everyone standing up and doing a “Jesus Cheer.” There was a frenzied “Give me a J” – “J!” – “Give me an E!” and so on. My wife and I stood there and cringed. As the cheer went on, we became aware that people were looking at us, noticing our lack of participation. “Oh God,” I prayed, “they think we’re heathens. They’ll lay hands on us, in all Christian love, if we don’t get out of here.”
At the end of the cheer, and by the grace of God, the Pastor asked everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes for a final prayer. My wife and I made our escape.
In some ways, that wasn’t as bad as communion with Goldfish Crackers & grape juice or the California Raisins dancing in church to “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” but the Jesus Cheer was frightening in a different way.
We lived near a town called Virginia Water and one Sunday we drove past an Anglican Church with a full parking lot and what looked like a very tasteful glass addition to the Victorian church building. We warily said, “Maybe something is happening in there we ought to check out.”
I say “warily” because we’d been to one other Anglican church before – a dark building filled with ancient relics (the congregation) who looked at my wife and I with expressions akin to “Fresh Meat!” The service itself was what might be called “Low Church,” meaning it wasn’t especially formal, no “bells and smells,” just an easy-going service. We didn’t make a quick escape this time, but stayed for coffee and biscuits (cookies). The dear old souls were very kind and friendly, almost quintessentially Anglican in the way you see in black-and-white movies. We also sensed they were desperate for someone under the age of 75 to join their church. We opted not to.
So we warily attended this other Anglican Church in Virginia Water. It had an elegance and beauty that made a great first impression – high-ceilings filled with light through the stained-glass windows, a lovely altar with a rail, and chairs with kneelers. This was completely unfamiliar to me, but I wasn’t put off.
With the start of the liturgy – more in the “high church” realm – I was drawn in. There was something about the formality and reverence, the beauty of the wording, the dignity of it all, that made an unexpected impression on me. This is what I’ve been looking for, I thought, truly surprised. I’ve come home.
The congregation was friendly and welcoming. And, by a nice coincidence, the Curate of the Church was an American. We returned the following Sunday and I realized how very little I knew about Anglicanism. But I was determined to find out.
Art: Christ Church, Virginia Water Built in 1839, photographed by Michael Ford, 2007, CCA-SA 2.0 Generic, Wikimedia Commons.