16/09/2021

Religious persuasion

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Let me make clear that I am agnostic. I would love to be convinced but nothing has yet ‘tipped me over’. My mum professed her Christian beliefs though to my knowledge only visited a church for births, deaths and marriages, satisfied in her belief that attendance was not essential for being Christian. As the eldest child I was expected to be the one who attended the local St Gregory the Great, a red-brick High Anglican Church. St Gregory was Pope from 590-604 CE, and associated with the Western plainchant or Gregorian chant.

St Gregory the Great, Horfield, Bristol

I enjoyed the ceremony and later became a server (at the altar), carrying candles. I was also trusted to wave around the thurible and censer full of burning charcoal and incense.

ASIDE: as a server I sampled my first cigarette but didn’t like it. My dad had given up smoking while I was young, probably an economic decision as health risks were not yet firmly part of the culture and there were none around the house. I was quite an impressionable child but thankfully I never picked up on the habit. The only time I regretted my decision was while at college; smokers could hang around in the toilets during loo-breaks to avoid tough-going lectures.

The church task I most recall was ringing the single church bell which I did very occasionally. This required a climb up to the belfry that was in the main hexagonal tower of the church. It was hardly campanology. The single rope had a big furry handle, the cord passed through a free pulley in the ceiling to disappear into the bell chamber. You gave it a long steady pull and could cling on it to ride up high as the bell flipped back. The downside was that it was centrally mounted and in the floor at that location was a trapdoor. This door flexed a tad and was not flush-fitting, so you could look through it down on to the altar, fifty or more feet below. As you rode the rope back down you inevitably hit that trapdoor, the stuff of falling nightmares, though not enough to displace those of spiders.

I later served as a Sunday school teacher which meant reading out bible texts to rapt younger children (I always liked the sound of my own voice) and then handing out those large cartoonlike full colour sticky stamps of bible scenes, a ‘sacred’ version of kids’ stickers today. There were no thoughts of iconoclasm in our High-Anglican version of Christianity.

I first attended church for parades with my Cub group, the 234th Bristol North Winds. I became a choir boy, but this had self-interest because I could earn money, particularly for weddings. We earned two shillings (10p) for a wedding and occasionally there would be more than one on a Saturday. This was real money when you could get four blackjack sweets for an old penny; my material needs then seldom extended beyond sweets.

Sunday schools stickers

I was confirmed and still have the bible presented to me at my first communion by the then Bishop of Bath & Wells on 31 May 1959, just a few weeks past my eleventh birthday. By the time I was fourteen I had fully investigated religion from many aspects and concluded that it wasn’t for me.

ASIDE: Forty years later when I briefly returned to live in the West Country, becoming the Commercial Director at the Royal Bath & West in Shepton Mallet, I was responsible for use of the agricultural showground for other than the Royal Show. This included raves and exhibitions and becoming prison cells during the Glastonbury Festival.

We held a controversial Hells Angel event each year. The Bishop of Bath & Wells had close links with the showground organisation. He was a down-to-earth and worldly experienced guy but this show probably tested him. He came to see the event dressed in his civvies and I walked him around.

We passed a huge shiny Harley, the owner pitching for visitors to have their photo taken beside or on it, for a fee. I waved him aside but he wasn’t easily shaken off. He called out to the incognito bishop ‘You can have your picture taken with my chick on the back!’ As we continued on past he added ‘She’ll get her tits out!’. The bishop didn’t break pace and smiled wryly. I took joy later in letting the exhibitor know just who it was that he had pitched!

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