Autobiographical article by way of introduction to a bit about me.
Written in November 2019 and given as a talk
My parents were liberal Anglicans of the 1960s, not sure if virgin birth happened, open mind on most things. We went to the Anglican parish church in the village every Sunday.
At this point I would not describe it as a journey; it was more like being parked in a layby. Christianity is a journey, and sometimes you rest in a layby – but why were we still in the same layby?
In 1978 Uncle Noel and Aunty Bunty invited my family to go to a charismatic conference at Butlins Camp in Bognor Regis organized by South Chard Fellowship. I was aged 17.
At one of the gatherings when one of the Evangelical preachers was in full swing with his preaching and asked for commitment or something quite over-the-top, Mum got up, Dad got up, I got up and my sister got up and we all walked out. However, by the end of the week my Mum had become a Born-Again Christian. My Dad later took on board a living faith. This opened my eyes to the things of God.
Age 17 I started a journey; I started to search.
I’d been to church every Sunday for my entire life. So I decided one Sunday I would not go. When the family disappeared off to church I sat behind a chair in the sitting room on the floor in front of the French doors – because when you are 17 you can’t sit on a chair like normal people. I thought, if God is not real why go to church? So the best thing might be to ask Him if He’s real.
I prayed – I asked God if He is real?
It came into my mind that nothing would exist and I would not exist if God did not exist.
The next Sunday I did go to church and have continued ever since. I’ve never found church boring because God was always there, no matter what the people were like.
I did what all teenagers do and made all the mistakes that young people make. I was deliberately annoying and disobedient. At the same time I had decided that I would search for spiritual things in my own way.
At age 18 I left home and went to France for a gap-year. I worked as an au pair girl in a ski resort in France. On Sunday I tramped through the thick snow to mass in the tiny mountain village. There was a very old priest aged over 80 and a handful of very old people at mass. It was in French so I only followed some of it. Yet I was astounded that I was elated at having found God at the mass – this was strange since there was nothing attractive for an 18 year old to be found there.
I then realized that God is hidden. You may find Him where you don’t expect to find Him.
I came back from France and started a degree in biology at Oxford Brookes Polytechnic. There was a very lively Anglican church in Oxford around St Aldate’s. These Evangelical Born-Again Anglicans had home groups to which they invited students.
I went to one of these home groups up near Headington led by a very charismatic man and his team. Lots of students went to the group sitting on chairs, window ledges, cushions on the floor and everyone sang until they raised the roof.
Then they had words of knowledge for people, prayed in tongues and invited people for individual prayer. They asked me if I wanted the Holy Spirit. I tend to make snap decisions so not knowing what it was, I said yes.
They placed hands on my head, and started to pray. I was a difficult case so reinforcements had to be brought in. I started to see a vision: angels were pulling me out of what was binding me; I was caught in chaos that was like the nightmare of delirium you feel when you are very ill – I had been ill for six years as a child with chronic osteomyelitis and often close to dying; I remember the room swirling round as I fell in and out of consciousness when ill and when these people started to pray for me. Then the angels succeeded in freeing me and in my vision I was set on a high plain, and before me was a path and at the end of the path was bright light so intense you could not see into it and this was God. I began to walk along this path towards the light.
So I was then a Born-Again Christian, and filled with joy.
This experience has stayed with me. But looking back it is easy to see that I had all sorts of unrealistic and misguided intentions. Very early on I also started to see that some extreme forms of spirituality involved quite a lot of pretence. I decided I’d rather make mistakes than pretend, especially I did not want to pretend to myself. So I made a decision to always be true whatever the consequences. Even if this made me not what a Born-Again Christian should be.
I was young and had a lot to explore and learn, I did not know what was wise. Not that I fell into every pitfall. I didn’t get drunk like other students or go for random encounters or wild parties.
I did sign up to do a philosophy course led by a secular non-Christian instructor – I had to do it to see that it was not for me. The choice was the path of meditation focussing on breathing exercises or relationship-with-God prayer? I decided on prayer and very honest prayer – after all God sees all.
As student life went on, I did my studies in the library every day and went to all my lectures taking proper notes – I wasn’t lazy. Then I went out every evening to different church events and talks and get-togethers.
I kept on meeting Evangelical Christian students and every single one of them asked me if I’d been saved? I said yes. They said, if I was the way I was I couldn’t have been saved. I hadn’t been done properly so I’d have to be done again. This started to really annoy me. I knew God could cope, and they were not God so who were they to try to understand the path I was on – a path very far from classical Christian rules, but its not about rules.
When spiritual uplift was turning to pressure and judgment I decided that my path had to take a new direction. I was not going to be ‘me’ as an Evangelical.
I was against returning to being a ‘liberal Anglican’ since there was absolutely nothing liberal about me. I was quite extreme in everything I did or thought. The option had to be radical, and it had to be annoying to general society.
So one Sunday morning I went down Cowley Road in Oxford to a Catholic church. At the mass there were people of all ethnicities, I remember there being black people there. The church was run by Grey Friars. I noticed one thing – everyone left me alone, I was not called to give an account of myself to anyone. So I started going there.
After a while I asked the priest how you become a Catholic?
He said you must believe in three things:
- That the Eucharist, the consecrated host, is the actual body of Christ
- That the Pope is the head of the church and follow his directions
- That the Virgin Mary has a special place as our mother and intercedes for us
These are hard teachings for a student of science, and one who had grown up in the very secular society of the 70s. But I understood the value of obedience to things that you do not always understand at the time, and the seeking is what matters. What I liked about the Catholic Church was that everybody knelt when you had to kneel, and stood when you have to stand. People acted as one body.
I’ve never wanted to put my arms in the air and shout ‘Alleluia’ or to pray out loud. I’ve never wanted to conform in a way that is free and individual, yet imposed. I found more freedom in being who I was with all the contradictions and rough edges, while doing what you do in church as part of a community. Outward conformity can allow inner freedom.
A French bishop once said to me – the Catholic Church is harsh on dogma, but soft on the individual. There is the paradox of the high ideal and very down-to-earth people.
As a young person I was once hitch-hiking out of Paris at a place on the motorway I wasn’t supposed to be in. I was in despair because I couldn’t get out of this place. Finally a very posh car stopped and I got in. The male driver asked me what I did, and I replied I was a student going to a work camp in the south of France. I was hitching to the south of France because I had no money to get there ( I managed to live on my student grant by these economies).
I asked him what he did? He replied ‘I’m the bishop of Paris.’ I turned to look at him and recognized him from the tele. I realized that he had broken the law to stop and pick me up where I had been thumbing a lift. He left me in the right place to hitch down to the south. When I arrived in Dijon at my friend’s house, she joked “Thank God you found a bishop put you on the right road.”
Later after two years I took a years break from my studies because I changed my degree in biology to sociology and anthropology instead. I went to France where I did work on an anthropology thesis on the Cult of Saints in Brittany. For the second six months I went to Israel to work on a kibbutz and learnt about Judaism.
In France I became part of the Catholic Charismatic Movement which was big in the 1980s. I was at Pentecost Over Europe celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit with 20 000 people. I’ve been several times to Taizé and worshipped with 10 000 young people there at Easter.
I did my First Communion at Abbey Landevenec, in Brittany amongst Benedictine monks. I did my confirmation at Buxton, England aged 30 in the Catholic parish there. I became familiar with Catholic devotions in a Rosary Group there. The prayers learnt by heart are always with me to recite while walking in the countryside.
After this I emigrated to Chile and was there for 11 years. I lived in a shanty town part of Coquimbo called Guayacan. It was here that I became a catechist for the mothers of First Communion candidates as Tia Clara (Aunty Clare). I also became a go-between between groups of different social classes since I got on with all types of people and could see both sides to any argument.
Eventually I returned to England where parishes are both Anglican and Catholic. I reengaged with Anglicans during this phase of my life to see the full range of what churches were offering at this time such as Celtic Spirituality among evangelical Anglicans. Services at the Bridge Chapel with clergy from the Cathedral took me deeper into silent prayer and meditation. With Anglo-Catholics I did the Stations of the Cross every Lent. I went on pilgrimage to Walsingham both as an Anglican and as a Catholic. It was here that I met a nun in the pub who asked me why I was doing Catholic things with Anglicans? She said I needed to return home. So I did. With Catholic and Anglican priests, after confession, it was decided that I would be a Catholic, but a friend of Anglicans.
Nearly everyone in my family was a church-goer with all the churches in Britain represented in our family. We kept up conversations about faith between family members in a spirit of mutual support and respect. I often went to other church services with relatives. I completely know each Christian denomination seeing it from the inside, rather than the outside.
God placed me in the Catholic Church, but I never lost any of what I had learnt in Evangelical churches. I believe in the Bible as an Evangelical. As lived experience of a lifetime I am fully Evangelical and fully Catholic. In many ways uniquely placed to converse with Christians of all expressions of Christianity. I believe true worship of God requires only one thing and that is sincerity of heart.
The journey and the destiny can be summed up very simply: it is a relationship with Jesus Christ – it is to walk with Him; to worship the Father, the Living God; and to be transformed by the Holy Spirit who infuses our minds with the Mind of God.
At this point I would not describe it as a journey; it was more like being parked in a lay-by. Christianity is a journey, and sometimes you rest in a lay-by – but why were we still in the same lay-by?