As mentioned elsewhere, I have been reading Matthew Paul Turner’s blog and enjoying his tweets for a while but I have never got around to checking out his books. That all changed yesterday, when we went shopping for soccer kit for our resident goalkeeper and then dropped into a bookstore nearby. There, I found the very last copy of Turner’s Churched on the shelf.
Taking this as a nudge and having read a great sample chapter online, I bought the book and returned home to enjoy an afternoon siesta with a cup of bush tea in one hand and the book in another. The first few chapters of the book explore the impressions of a young Turner as his parents leave the Methodist church of his early years to help plant a fundamentalist Baptist church. Whether he’s describing the pastor’s wife – a piano-playing, hymn-singing Farrah Fawcett double – or getting his first ‘Jesus’ haircut from the unbeliever Mr Harry, Turner neatly sketches the claustrophobic world of church, law and eternal damnation through the eyes of a boy looking for straight answers to his questions.
The similarity of his descriptions of early church attendance – right down to the clip-on tie and Sunday-best shoes – made me think back to my Sunday school days at the Quaker meeting for worship I attended. I have the utmost respect for Quakers and their theology but for those with excitable butterfly minds and single-digit ages, the traditional hour-long silent meetings for worship seems like an eternity. With a whole world of fun, adventure and Sunday morning television cartoons just beyond the walls, it was impossible for me to understand why we were all sitting in silence, looking for God and the Spirit inside each of us.
Turner’s early religious experiences and teaching left him with distinct impressions of a hellfire and brimstone God of dos and don’ts whose return was to be eagerly but fearfully anticipated. Mine simply left me bemused and adrift, unable to join the dots between the Jesus of the Sunday school stories and the quiet inner journey of the Quakers sitting silently in meeting.
Each meeting I attended as a youngster seemed like some alternative reality where time stood still. Not matter my good intentions at the start of meeting, all too soon I would be scuffing my sandals on the pew in front and looking around for distractions. The slow ticking of the old wall clock, drifting dust motes in the sunlight and the radiant calm of the worshipping faces all provided momentary interest but inevitably I would end up staring at the clock, incredulous that we had only been seated for barely 10 minutes and not the 59 I had carefully judged to have passed.
This realisation would mean that there was at least another 35 minutes to go before one or more of the Friends might (though only might, mind you) feel moved by the Spirit to speak to those present about some matter of import. Such sharing would often be concerned with issues of peace or social justice, both of which are central in the beliefs of Friends. With some embarrassment now, I can almost see myself innocently rolling my eyes and mouthing the word ‘Bo-o-ring!’ whilst concerned Friends spoke to the acts of despots, the dispossession of indigenous peoples and any number of bloody sectarian wars.
The alternative to sitting through meeting was to trot across the small courtyard to the Sunday school class in the adjacent hall. To the best of my recollection, these would invariably be presided over by well-meaning women in tweed suits and sensible shoes. I can almost taste the musty tang of that hall, feel the splintery roughness of the tables and smell the industrial-grade disinfectant all over again.
The hall was so cold in winter that no amount of frantic scribbling on the colouring templates of Jesus healing the sick could make the wax crayons to give up any colour to the butcher’s paper. During the short British summers, we’d occasionally play a game in the courtyard, doing so very quietly so as not to disturb those in meeting. More often than not though, we’d simply sit and listen to the deadpan delivery of another parable or Bible story, read from a book as old as Gutenberg. While the faithful listened intently, I would conduct clandestine raids into the steamy fug of the the adjoining kitchen in search of biscuits, keen to locate and consume any chocolate ones lurking amongst the plain ones on the chipped plates along the counter. Soon enough, I’d be found out, given a disappointed look and shooed back to the parting of the Red Sea or recounting of how our missionaries were doing in Africa.
That said, I am truly grateful for my Quaker upbringing and experience of meeting for they have worked on and in me for years, helping to form my values, mould my opinions and prick my conscience along the way. Indeed, amid the flurry of the last week of the summer holidays and the frenetic back-to-school preparations of four daughters, I can at last begin to appreciate the wonder and wisdom of spending an hour in silent contemplation and communion in the company of like-minded folk. As I have just discussed with a good friend over lunch, it often hard to see the learning close up and so it is only with the passage of time and the accumulation of experience that we begin to understand and start to develop wisdom. I remain very much a work in progress.