The thing that I like about blogging is that it is almost cyclic. I read people’s posts. I often “like” them, as much to show my appreciation that somebody took the trouble to write. And, now and again, the subject matter sparks thoughts of a post of my own. Here is one such subject.
I had a period as a youngster when I was in a choir. It started very innocuously. My Junior school announced that such-and-such a church choir was looking for new members. I was about nine.
Hitherto, my religion had been limited to Sunday School, where my mum and auntie both taught. Church of England [C of E, Protestant]. Of course, at that age I had never considered the big questions on religion – I’m sure we all must come to them sooner or later, but not at nine. The choir happened to be at my local church, also C of E, with which I had no previous association.
I settled in, but it was hard to go somewhere new at that age. One of the older boys took me under his wing. He was quite unusual, a few times he would even argue with the choirmaster, an adult! (Shock, horror!) One practise, he even stormed out! But gradually I made a space for myself, made my own friends, and so on. It also prompted my parents to get involved with that church. I can look back and see it as quite sexist, but that’s how things were in the mid-Seventies. My mum helped make the coffee at the end of each Sunday service. My dad became a sidesman. I note the “man” bit – I don’t think there were any sideswomen, although the job only entailed handing hymn books out to people on arrival. But again, that’s how things were in the Seventies.
Gradually I progressed in the choir, moved up in the world. The choir had almost a ranking system. A light blue ribbon on the cassock (which we wore for services), then a dark blue ribbon, and so on. I think each ribbon gained a slightly larger “salary”, for we were paid to sing. But pennies each time, so much so that we were only paid every quarter or so, a few pounds. Weddings were the big money-spinner because couples getting married presumably paid a fee for the choir and we would get a few pounds every weekend during wedding season (almost always summer), just as long as we were able to make it on a Saturday afternoon.
The longer I stayed in the choir, the more I got to know people. The vicar was an old Irish guy. It was probably really because I was an obnoxious child, but we never really hit it off. I got on much better with his deputy, Jim, and was very upset when Jim died a few years in.
My involvement with that church probably even got me into secondary school, which was also church-affiliated. They were pre-disposed to give places to boys with a C of E background, although it was a grammar school so there was a large element of academic ability too.
To be honest I find it difficult to remember all the ins and outs. Certainly, on the “ins” side, I took myself as far as being confirmed. Confirmation is a process in the C of E where you actually affirm your commitment to the church, but as an adult, as opposed to just being baptised as an infant. I must’ve been early teens, still way too young. There should be a minimum age of eighteen, say, for this kind of stuff.
And I kept going in the choir, eventually becoming the head chorister. I don’t know how good I was, but I remember when a group of six or seven churches got together for some festival or other, I was asked to perform a solo. And again I was parachuted in to sing a solo for the church that my auntie was involved with. I guess I must’ve been pretty good, but it’s like any kind of natural talent – you just take it for granted and don’t realise that you have anything special. I know now that other people thought I had something special, but I just took it in my stride.
But at the same time, I began to see the church as very exclusive. Love thy neighbour – just as long as they’re one of us. It was not lost on me that these people followed scriptures which taught one thing, but who lived their lives according to something else. I came to view them as an insular group of people patting each other on the back. It’s a feeling I’ve had about the Church of England ever since. Again, it is quite possible that my memory is faulty here, but we tend to forget facts, not feelings, and I’m certainly able to remember that I was, in time, able to feel and express my own dissent.
Indeed, just a couple of years ago I was told that my live-and-let-live attitude (which I talk about here), which I’ve held for much of my adult life and regard as eminently reasonable, would send me straight to the burning fires of hell. By a christian, I have no idea where, or what denomination. So much for mutual tolerance, but it did reassure me that the view I’d formed all those years ago was sound.
But back in the day I was altogether coarser, and my experiences with the church just triggered an anti-religion sentiment. Especially at an age where we start to question everything anyway. But the end of my involvement, when it came, was no big bust-up. I retired as gracefully as possible once my voice started breaking. By that age, I was far more interested in going to watch soccer in any case, something which probably destroyed what little voice I had left.
At that point, I fast forward to the late 1990s, for dad had stayed involved with the church until his health gave way. Within a few years, even mum was unable to cope and dad moved into a nursing home. By that time, he’d have had some association with them for more than twenty years. Only one of his former sidesmen friends, a lovely old chap called Ian, ever visited. When dad died in 2012, I told the church but nobody came to the funeral. Short memories.
My experience in the choir ultimately turned me off religion for several years, and it’s only really as an adult that I’ve taken a more rounded view that if somebody feels better for adopting a religion, then good for them. But at the same time, they can count me out.
The John Lennon/Elton John song is wonderfully appropriate here: