I think it would be safe to say that I’m not a regular churchgoer.
I lived in my previous village for nine years and entered the Norman church just once (we had Canadians to stay – they always want to see churches, it’s in the blood). I don’t actually think it was Norman, it just had a Norman doorway or maybe the vicar was called Norman. Whatever, it was quite pretty and completely empty but all that I was ever interested in was getting my grubby hands on the gorgeous Old Rectory opposite.
My church aversion probably started as a kid in Lebanon. Pretty much every one of my early family photos has me in the middle of a humongous sulk. This is because the photos were invariably taken before we went off to the British Protestant church in Beirut for either Christmas or Easter Day. My siblings and I would be forced to dress up like Little Lord Fauntleroy and I definitely had an early premonition that I was never going to be a tie-wearer.
Thankfully, something happened one year that stopped us attending. I think the new vicar had a beard and insisted everyone turn to their neighbour and shake their hand. Showing up at church was one thing but there was no way that my dad was going to put up with any beardy-weirdy, happy-clappy stuff.
That church was on the seashore, on St George’s Bay in downtown Beirut. The next time I went there, in 2011 for my dad’s funeral, it was about half a mile inland as the bay had since been filled in with the debris of broken Beirut.
At boarding school, we were forced to attend chapel every day. I would sit and read the moving memorial plaques, marvelling at the different places round the world that old boys had managed to die in. Just as I was reading about the Bishop of Ouagadougou, who had been burnt by an angry mob, I would get a slap over the head from this very annoying Iranian prefect. He would indicate that I should bow my head and pray, which I always thought was not really any of his business. He used to spend a stupid amount of time in the school gym pumping iron and grunting a lot. He is now either a hot-shot producer in LA or head of the religious police in Tehran – these roles being pretty much interchangeable.
Last week, I went to the carol service at my kids’ new school. I went mainly because I love the last day of term. I love that feeling of excitement and anticipation of freedom that is in the air. I think maybe I get more excited than my kids, as they both declined my offer to start a bonfire and burn their schoolbooks on the rugby pitch. So, once again, I found myself in a school chapel, tieless, and not really participating. Once again, I was staring at plaques with dedications to old boys who’d been cut down in their prime in all the great and not-so-great wars of the past two hundred years. I found the building beautiful and rather peaceful. I even mouthed a little prayer that my kids never have to suffer the pity of war. I think I’m getting old.