So our vicar has decided to leave the Anglican church and start up his own church in the same town. Considering the size of the churchgoing public here it seems surprising that there are enough people to break off and start another one but he’s gone and done it and now it’s hit the top three in town chatter. It’s like the franchisee of a McDonalds becoming disgruntled and opening a Burger King down the street. Do we really need that much fast food?
The vicar has been the vicar since we moved here and I’ve never thought too much about him and his beliefs as he is someone I see around town and make jokes with about cats and their evil. The only time I step foot in the church is for funerals (don’t get me started) or the occasional retreat with my notebook to sit alone in the cavernous musty-smelling space and let the history wash over me and remind me that this, whatever the ‘this’ of the moment might be, too shall pass. My engagement with and respect for religion since birth has been minimal and because my parents were on the old side when they had me they didn’t have the oomph to attempt to instill anything in me except the iron clad rule to (in my father’s words) not be an asshole. Not being an asshole is, I suppose, otherwise known as The Golden Rule and the best part of it is that you don’t have to haul yourself at a designated time to some building to prove your worth. Don’t be a jerk to other people and treat them the way you’d want to be treated as much as you can and there you go, it should all take care of itself. You’d think. This rule pre-dates most organised religions because it’s just such an obvious way to approach life but it has been co-opted and twisted so many times by organised religion that it’s been lost in the complex game-show rules constructed to justify various beliefs. And one of the key elements of the Golden Rule is empathy.
Having worked for and with tabloid newspapers for much of my professional career, empathy was something I wrestled with on a daily basis and it wasn’t always easy to balance the need to tell a story with the idea that someone might get hurt in the process. Maybe that’s why I don’t do it anymore, maybe I just had enough internal wrangling and moral ambiguity for one lifetime. Maybe that’s why I chose to be an educator and to live in a little town in Cornwall where I get to spend more time in nature and work on my personal projects, far from the distracting noise and alone with my thoughts a little bit more.
Because it’s a port and because, despite its size, our town has been an international trading centre for over a millennium, there’s a strange kind of acceptance woven into the place because it’s no stranger to, well, strangers. And pirates. Lots of pirates. It does not have that terrifying Little Whinging/Sandford provincialism for the most part and people are allowed to be themselves here, for better or worse. Mostly better. The river, with all its fickleness, seems to act as a reminder that we’re all just here for a little while but it’s going to keep doing what it does while we live and die around it and it floods the Quay from time to time.
When I was doing the food at the sailing club I used to cook the monthly breakfast for the religious men of the vicar’s flock. This had nothing to do with me personally as a cook and everything to do with the venue and because cooking breakfast is actually quite pleasant because people aren’t as picky at 8 in the morning, I was okay doing it, mostly because there was always leftover bacon afterward. Except for the part where, after this men’s group had eaten, I had to listen to their talks as I was tidying up the kitchen (over the top symbolism not lost here) Sometimes they’d have a guest speaker, some religious man or a visiting vicar brought in to talk about scripture or current events or perhaps one of the locals would get up to say something. I would stand just out of sight in the kitchen, sharpening knives as they talked about women’s roles and how the bible wanted things done and one alarming day, there was a talk that included praise for Donald Trump. Had I dressed in a Handmaid’s Tale costume while giving them eggs, I’m not sure they’d have noticed anything was awry. I did always try to wear the worst inflammatory metal t-shirts I could find in the closet on those days, just to feel a little better, though stopped short of ever wearing my I Heart Satan shirt. The age of this group skewed older but there were some disturbingly young ones in there too and I felt so sad for them that they were being indoctrinated in this way and that their lives were being constricted and I had to wonder if they even realised how limiting it all was. The reason I’m thinking about the breakfasts now during this waning period of VicarGate is that I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with one of the organisers one morning as the event was wrapping up. There are a lot of older people in town, I had said, and because of the hills and various infirmities, it was difficult for many of them to get up and out and socialise and many were isolated. Wouldn’t it be nice if they (the church people) could organise a Sunday roast so that people could get out more and stay part of the community? It was a brief chat but what I remember the most about it (beside the fact that this idea never came to fruition) was how that organiser had looked straight through me when I was talking, with a slight look of indulgence. I was not one of them and I was a woman, and an American one at that. But there was something else that I couldn’t put my finger on until all this new church stuff started up and it clicked. Exclusion. I was suggesting that we include people and that was not registering.
So we have this beautiful old church that is the very heart of the town. That it is the heart of town has less to do with religion and more to do with history and architecture and beauty and tradition for most people. People have a relationship with the building transcending their relationships with their gods, whatever they may be. For as long as we’ve lived here, I’ve never felt completely comfortable in there as much as I love the physicality of the place (even my solitary sojourns with my notebook are tinged with the feeling that I might be chucked out at any moment) and that is because the whole place has been infested with a controlling interpretation of faith that finds ways to exclude rather than include and, biblical scholar that I am not, that seems to be somewhat counter to the whole game. In my perfect world, that church would be used for more community events, for film screenings and live music. It’s just a building, after all, albeit an ancient and beautiful one, and buildings are built to be used. By people. All sorts of people. Who are made to feel welcome and part of a community. Flies, honey, vinegar etc.
So now a new, more orthodox church is being ‘planted’ by the vicar down the road in a physical location that has long been a refuge for merchant seamen of many different faiths who come into port. This physical location, is, ironically, sponsored by the Anglican church which he is leaving. The vicar is hoping he can grow his new flock there. The fact that this building is behind a locked gate requiring a code to get in has not been lost on many people but, because I’m such an empath, I hope he finds some happiness there and that this whole thing moves off the mental front pages of the town, because we all have better things to do for each other. For the greater good.