The other day, by accident, I went to church. I was in Sussex with my mother and we were on our way to Glyndebourne. We'd already visited Charleston, home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and shrine to middle-aged ladies aspiring to Bloomsbury Bohemia in loose linen frocks. We decided to pop into Berwick Church to look at Grant's Christ in Glory and Bell's Annunciation. A service, it emerged too late, was in full swing.
My mother cast me a "you'll be sorry now" look as we were ushered, by an elderly man in a blazer, to a pew near the front. "Right," said a certain tilt to her chin, as we squeezed into the vacant spot. "There's no escape now," said a certain firmness in the grasp of her hymn book as she flipped, with the ease of one with half a century's practice, to the hymn that everyone was singing. Which, it was clear, was the first of several listed on the hymn board, and would be followed by prayers, communion – and a sermon.
The general message, of the chin, and the flipped hymn book, and the slightly over-loud Amen to the prayer that followed the hymn, was "that will teach you". Teach me for what? For seeing the sign saying "service in progress" and forging on anyway? For not thinking, as she'd told me since I was two, about the consequences of my actions? For embarrassing her when I was 13 by refusing, in a fit of Camus-inspired hatred of hypocrisy, to say the prayers in morning service? For embarrassing her even more by stopping church altogether?
But she was wrong. As I gazed at the paintings, and out of the clear glass windows at the glorious countryside around, and listened to the voices joined in sweet harmony (or something like it), and to the ruggedly handsome vicar speaking about the symbolism in an exquisite Russian icon, and watched a church full of people – some old, some middle aged and one or two young – troop up to the altar and kneel down to sip from a cup they all shared, I wasn't sorry at all.
At the end of the service, the vicar invited the entire congregation to join him for drinks in his garden. He pumped our hands and asked us what we were going to see at Glyndebourne. He told us that he'd heard the production was marvellous. And I wanted to say that this was marvellous, this oasis of tranquillity, this small community engaged in a quiet celebration of its shared life, this homage to beauty and maybe even to a kind of truth. If I had, my mother would have been extremely surprised. But since her Saturday purchase of The Independent is as regular as her church attendance, I'm telling her now.
So why do I, who found the Anglican church so boring as a child that I flounced away at 13 never to go back, and who then had an adolescence as a born-again Baptist nutter, and who now has no religious belief whatsoever, and believes that religion is responsible for some of the biggest disasters in human history and some of the biggest threats to our planet, now love the Church of England? (The traditional Church of England, not its evangelical, Alpha-armed wing.) Why do I love it? Let me count the ways.
I love it because it is patient. It does not expect the world to change in an instant, or to be bludgeoned into belief, because it knows that certain things take centuries. I love it because it is kind. It is kind enough to welcome strangers, whatever their beliefs, and shake their hands, and offer them drinks. It is kind enough to suggest that the biblical teaching on sex before marriage is a mere technicality that can be disregarded, and to offer couples with clear evidence of this disregard (in the form of children) its blessing in the form of weddings when they want them and baptisms when they want them, and even both at the same time, if they want them.
I like the fact that it is neither envious (of more flamboyant, more attention-seeking and more successful-at-proselytising religions) nor boastful. I like the fact that it is not arrogant or rude. I like the fact that it does not insist on its own way, but is genuinely tolerant of other religious beliefs and none. I like the fact that it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but quietly presents an ethical framework of kindness. I like the fact that it believes in the values of the New Testament, and of St Paul's description of love, which I've just paraphrased, but also believes that it is more important to embody them than to quote them.
I like the fact that it doesn't speak like a child, think like a child, or reason like a child. I like the fact that it is mature enough to recognise doubt. I like the fact that it is calm. I like the fact that it recognises that the religious impulse is here to stay, and that the more you try to crush it, the stronger it will be, and that all human beings, irrespective of their beliefs, have yearnings for the transcendent.
And I like the fact – I really like the fact – that it can commission portraits of its founder from atheists living in a bisexual ménage à trois. Faith, hope and charity indeed.Reuse content