(1st of 7) I invite you to join me, especially if new here, in revisiting my ‘dog-legged’ journey into the spiritual and supra-natural reality of our lives. I was heading towards the destination I’d wanted and planned but got forced into a totally unforeseen, unexpected diversion. In fact, my philosophy of life got totally upended! My new goal proved to be a far more exciting and never-ending journey!!
Now, step into my time-machine and I’ll turn back its dial 60 or so years:
STUNNED BY A ‘FRIEND’
Whilst playing alongside my 10-11 year-old pals, one of them suddenly stops, narrows his gaze and eyeballs me hard, “You shouldn’t be at our school – you should be at the one Cat’licks go to!”
I’m shocked and stunned into silence. I can’t recall my response other than being very alarmed and hurt.
Upon reflection, maybe I denied the accusation outright. In retrospect I’d like to have responded, “So what? It’s where my parents want me to be!”
Such a riposte, however, would have plugged into a parental disagreement!
It is late 1950s and the ancient conflict of Protestants versus Catholics shoots an arrow into childhood friendship. My playmate’s tone implies there’s a stigma to belonging to the wrong Christian denomination in post-war England – something almost unknown today.
Moreover, my parents disagree over my schooling. Devout mum would have preferred to follow her church’s rule that children of Catholic parents – even if of mixed marriage – attend Catholic school. Father, however, had his way in my attending the better of two local state schools because of its good pass-rate for 11+ exam for entry to a grammar school. And the Catholic one was even worse.
When dad was a boy his mother took him daily to 8 am Mass. In later life he knew the disadvantage of not having a higher education – and my much older cousins in mum’s family were at college or university! So, I’d started my schooling only weeks before my fifth birthday by mum walking me to the primary school located our side of Alexandra Park in Edgeley, Stockport.
So, I’ve been brought up in the Roman church yet attended non-secular school with its Anglican-style morning assembly of hymns and short scripture reading. In the 1950s many families went to one church or another. Yet nowadays, religious beliefs are of little concern, although attendance at faith schools is prized for educational achievement. By comparison, most people in this 21st century since Christ are religiously illiterate and ignorant.
So, this son of Mary and Joseph didn’t get the normal Catholic education and what little religious knowledge I gained, other than from mother, came mainly from state schools rather than church. As far as that was concerned, I didn’t attend its Sunday school but sat through the normal morning service, which was conducted in a foreign language – and a dead one at that: Latin!
Thus, being at the ‘wrong’ school began to stir a dissatisfaction that would affect my teenage years. Even so, it did start an unquenchable lifelong quest for spiritual truth, which eventually led to my captivity – followed by my eventual freedom!
At the time of the confrontation I’d been happily playing on bikes with two boys outside one’s house. We three Johns had been classmates throughout primary school, yet I felt an outsider in living half-a-mile from school, whereas most pupils lived nearby. When old enough to go to their homes on my own I was happy visiting these boys.
My earliest adventures coming home from school on my own involved taking a longer route via the local library at the far end of the public park next to but beyond the school. And it was a place to explore and dig around in…
When allowed to cycle to those friends I relished exploring the warren of suburban side-streets – plus learning how to read street-maps and explore for miles around, far away from the main thoroughfares. I avoided those because an older boy had been killed on the A6 in town and I’d seen another have an accident right in front of me (he survived).
My only classmates in my neighbourhood were girls, and we lived near the other school attended by most of the other ‘baby boomers’ on our patch. So as piggy-in-the-middle between two peer groups and I didn’t feel I fitted in with either.
Therefore, John’s confrontation made me fear losing the closer friendships I’d grown up with! Perhaps details of my family’s church may have slipped out whilst chatting, or maybe I’d been seen going there? And perhaps ‘top of the class’ John did regard it as a stigma! Differing parental opinion is uncomfortable, but it was a very hard knock to learn it’s a reality in the outside world too!
At school I was one of four Johns. Boring! I decided to start using my first name from the start of the school year just before my 8th birthday. The first day in my new class our new teacher asked each of us our name.
Upon my turn I said, “Richard” – the class was shocked and called out, “No you’re not – Miss, he’s John!”
Miss Jackson kindly asked me about this, found my reason sensible and said she respected my wishes – and liked the name. From that time I’ve been known as ‘Richard’. Back home however, mother and her family wouldn’t accept the change because they’d always called me ‘John’. Maybe it was because it means ‘beloved of God’. Also, in being her first-born boy, mum hoped I’d become a priest – arghh, perish the thought! Nevertheless, in one way that’s come true because all believers in Jesus are priests (1 Peter 2).
Even so, thank you Lord for the two loving and caring couple who brought me into the world.
CHURCHES IN CONFLICT
As mentioned, in the Church services mum attended children didn’t leave for a Sunday school but were expected to sit through 45-minutes of Latin liturgy!
It was hard, but mum always urged me to look at the day’s picture in her small prayer book, or Missal. Being of artistic bent I noticed the small pictures displaying the Gospel theme of each Mass. As Gospel and Epistle readings were in English I caught snippets and began to connect them with the book and story of Jesus’ life. I recall musing it must have been marvellous to have seen all that Jesus said and did – I’d have liked to have been there and met him.
My home friends attended church and I asked to go there as it was near our house, not a mile away by bus as with the Catholic church in Shaw Heath.
“No you can’t, they’re Congoes,” was mum’s retort. She’d then explain, “We go to the church founded by Jesus Christ himself.”
‘Congoes?’, I thought that was in Africa so maybe it was a church for pygmies! In the 1950s we had few Africans in our northern town but our own doctor was a West Indian. [‘Congo’ was mum’s term for those attending the Congregational church.]
Fortunately, I passed the 11+ and went to one of the town’s grammar schools, where Jews and Catholics were allowed to opt out of morning worship. As I was familiar with the routine assembly I stayed with my classmates, and hopefully gave the impression I was non-Catholic or couldn’t care less.
Unlike today, cooperation between churches was a rarity fifty years ago. It bothered me that if churchgoers believe in the same Jesus Christ, then why were they bitterly opposed and not friends? After all, Jesus told believers to love one another.
Also, they weren’t performing miracles like those of Jesus had done, as he said they would. So, churches were failing on both counts to live up to Jesus’ commands.
Although I was just a boy, it was clear churchgoers had badly missed the mark. What’s more, I suspected they’d lost a great deal of what Jesus had taught. So how could what priests and preachers say and do be true?
Hypocritical conflict between most denominations drove me towards ‘New Age’ ideals.
And so I needed to start searching out the truth of these matters for myself…and that marvellous local library pictured above was a treasure trove of information beyond the children’s section.