With thanks and apologies to Pete Rollins and Brian McLaren for nicking ideas from their book titles…
Throughout my life there have been many influences on my religious outlook from a variety of streams and denominations. I’ve benefited from a rich heritage of different traditions and I’m grateful for that; it’s broadened my horizons and taught me to see beyond the confines of any one particular group or their way of handling truth.
I see all these different streams as mentors, parents even, who have raised and taught me and contributed to the kind of person and Christian I now am. This is the ‘am’ of the title; in some senses I am evangelical, and Catholic, and charismatic, and all the many other things I have been influenced by.
But as with human parents, at some point the child has to grow up and grow away, finding his or her own ways – keeping the best of what they’ve learnt but rejecting other elements as unhelpful. So while I owe much to these various streams of faith, I no longer see myself as defined by any one of them. This is the ‘not’ of the title. I have Catholic components, but I’m not fully or only a Catholic – so actually not a Catholic at all. I have evangelical elements, but I’m not really an Evangelical. And so on.
Over the next couple of posts, I want to go through these various influences chronologically, looking at what I’ve retained and what I’ve rejected, and why.
Why I’m (not) Anglo-Catholic
I was born and raised in an ecumenical Anglo-Catholic family. My dad and sisters were Roman Catholic, my mum High-Church Anglican (‘smells and bells’). Most weeks I went to church with Mum; at age 10 I was confirmed in the church, and in my teens became a ‘server’ (swinging incense, carrying the cross and candles in procession).
I went to church mainly out of loyalty to Mum, and out of a sense of religious duty. But I struggled to find meaning or reality in the endlessly repeated ceremonial rituals, the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ of the liturgy, and the history-lesson sermons about the Book of Common Prayer. I believed God existed, but he seemed distant, inactive and inaccessible. Everything he’d done seemed to be in the far past and to be couched in the language and ways of the far past.
Once a month though I went to the Catholic church for ‘folk mass’, where under my Dad’s musical leadership they sang much more fun and lively songs, accompanied by guitars and tambourines. Many of these songs were (it turns out) the same as those being sung in Anglican renewal meetings and charismatic churches. This was a breath of fresh air for me, though the Catholic liturgy in between the singing was still baffling and a little boring.
I left Anglo-Catholicism behind when I left home for university, but looking back now I see I’ve gained much from it. I value beauty, order and calm in worship; I find the idea of sacraments and icons helpful; I appreciate good liturgy, and I like many traditional hymns. In these ways, I’m Anglo-Catholic.
However, I find a lot of Anglo-Catholic practice and dogma very off-putting, dull, meaningless and in some cases downright wrong. I’m also no fan of old-fashioned language or overly ceremonial rituals that seem to have lost their living meaning. And while I believe that church tradition has an important contribution to make, I don’t believe it should ever be the predominant voice.
Nonetheless, in recent years I’ve worshipped in both Roman Catholic and High Anglican churches and have felt my faith enriched by the experience. True, I’ve been to plenty of dull, stale Anglo-Catholic services where it felt like the life had moved on and everyone was just going through the motions. But I’ve also been to some where the ritual was living and there was a very real sense of divine mystery and presence – far more so than in some charismatic and evangelical churches.
Why I’m (not) agnostic, atheist or pagan
In my late teens then I largely turned away from my childhood churchgoing, though I retained a nagging strand of belief in the Christian God.
I tentatively explored atheism, mainly through Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene which I found fascinating but frightening. I also became interested in the occult and elements of neo-paganism. For a while I trod a muddled middle path as an agnostic who would occasionally let himself be dragged along to church, while also trying out various other types of spirituality and religious experience. I wanted – perhaps even needed – to believe in something, but I wasn’t too sure what, and I was willing to give almost anything a go.
I won’t dwell long on this period which was not generally a happy time or one that I’m proud of, but I did retain some good from it. I have at least an appreciation for atheism, agnosticism and alternative spirituality and for why people choose these various paths. And I did learn some good from each of these strands.
So I would say that I am agnostic in that I realise I don’t and can’t know most things for certain, at least not in any scientifically provable way. I’m even ‘atheist’ in that I reject most or all codified formulations of God – though that’s not because I believe there is no reality for them to describe but rather because I believe they all fall short of the reality. And I’m ‘pagan’ in that I love nature, art, music, and see God as ‘shining through’ these things (though strictly speaking, I’m more of a panentheist than a pagan).
But I found full-on atheism ultimately unsatisfactory because it couldn’t take account of experiences and emotions that seemed fundamentally important to me. By contrast, alternative spiritualities made much of these experiences, which was exciting, but they also contained what were for me frightening and disturbing elements from which I ultimately felt I needed to flee. What I fled to was charismatic Christianity – which I’ll leave to the next post…