One of the good things about growing up in our house was that Dad liked reading and there were always plenty of books around. When I was quite young my parents gave me an impressively substantial ‘Children’s Picture Book of Bible Stories’. It had a burgundy cover with its title in gold letters and inside it contained water colour comic strip style stories of the scriptures. God was depicted as a booming voice from heaven, angels would swoop about in the sky and occasionally descend to earth to give helpful advice and the stories were full of sagely old men with kind faces, white beards and flowing robes.
I read the stories over and over again, for me some of the best were David and the slaying of Goliath, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea and then, there was Samson who used his tremendous strength to defeat his enemies and perform other heroic feats such as wrestling a lion, killing an entire army with nothing more than a donkey’s jawbone, and tearing down an entire building with his bare hands. At the time my favourite was always the story of Noah and his Ark and I can remember being slightly sceptical to read that he allegedly lived until he was nine hundred and fifty years old which even at seven years old seemed a bit far fetched to me. Adam, the first man, did nearly as well but only lived until he was nine hundred and thirty. My favourite story about Noah now however, is not the Ark, but the fact that after the great flood he settled down and became a farmer, experimented by planting some vines and invented wine. We should all be eternally grateful to him for that!
I found that book most inspiring and it stimulated in me an interest in the stories from the Bible and although a lot of the learning bits about going to school I found thoroughly disinteresting and a bit of a chore I did enjoy religious education and especially used to look forward to morning assembly when once a week the Minister from the Methodist Chapel nearby used to attend and tell a story or two in a children’s sermon. Some of my school reports from this time revealed quite stunning results in religious education and at the same time as I was without fail picking up a disappointing sequence of Ds and Es for the important subjects like arithmetic and english I was consistently being awarded As and Bs in religion. In 1963 I scored an unbeatable 100% in the end of year exams.
In 1961 the New Testament of the New English Bible was published which to date was the last major translation of the Bible and to commemorate this all pupils at the school were given a copy courtesy of the Warwickshire County Council. It was quite a plain book with a green cover and with only a few black and white illustrations it certainly didn’t compare with my ‘Children’s Picture Book of Bible Stories’ in all of its technicolour glory.
Strictly speaking we were a Church of England family but the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist in Hillmorton was in a sorry state of neglect and significant disrepair on account of the fact that the Vicar had little interest in his parish or his congregation because like Father Jack from Craggy Island he was an alcoholic. People use to say that you always knew when he was coming because the beer bottles used to rattle in the whicker basket that he had attached to the handlebars of his bike. He didn’t hold many services in the Church, well, certainly not as many as he was supposed to, and there was certainly no Sunday school.
For this reason I was sent to the Methodist Church where the Reverend Keene and the Sunday school teacher Christine Herrington made us feel most welcome. I liked the Reverend Keene, he was down to earth and amusing and later he used to come to secondary school to teach religious studies and take a weekly assembly there as well. I remember that he smiled permanently and had a most pleasant disposition that was appropriate to a minister of the church. One morning in 1969 without any warning the Headmaster announced at morning assembly that following an operation he had died suddenly and I was really sad about that.
I don’t suppose so many children go to Sunday school any more but I used to really enjoy it. The origin of the Sunday school is attributed to the philanthropist and author Hannah More who opened the first one in 1789 in Cheddar in Somerset and for the next two hundred years parents right across the country must have been grateful to her for getting the kids out of the way on a Sunday morning and giving them some peace and quiet and a chance of a lie in and who knows what else?
In contrast to the Hillmorton County Junior School I seemed to be learning something at Chapel and what’s more I was being really successful. Every year we used to take an exam, well, more of a little test really, and if you passed there was a colourful certificate with a picture of Jesus and signed by absolutely everyone who was anyone in the Methodist Church hierarchy. I was awarded a first class pass three years running and even though the school headmaster had written me of as an educational no-hoper I wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned because I was becoming convinced that I was going to be a vicar.
I had heard it said that people went into the clergy after getting a calling from God and I used to lie awake at night straining out listening for it. It never came. I also understood that it might alternatively come as a sign and I used to walk around looking for anything unusual but this never happened either.
One night, some time in 1966, I think God dialed a wrong number and got dad instead because overnight he suddenly got religion in a very big way and we all started going to St John the Baptist which by now had got a new vicar. His name was Peter Bennett and he was starting to deal with the problems left behind by the previous man who had retired somewhere into an alcoholic stupor. At twelve years old I was too old for Sunday school and went to church now instead, I was confirmed in 1967 which meant that I could drink wine at communion (thank you Noah) and joined first Pathfinders and then the Christian Youth Fellowship Association or CYFA for short which was (and still is) a national Christian youth club. The good thing about CYFA was that I got to go away to youth conferences and camps and there were lots of girls there too.
I auditioned for the choir but was rejected on account of being tone deaf but to compensate for this disappointment the Vicar appointed me a server which meant that I got to wear a scarlet cassock and had the important job of carrying the cross down the aisle at the beginning of evensong and putting the candles out at the end.
None of this could last of course and with no sign of the calling, and with dad’s religious fervour waning, my attention began to drift off in other directions such as pop music, girls and woodpecker cider and gradually I just stopped going to Church and to CYFA, left the bell ringing group and all of my scripture exam certificates were put away in an envelope in the family memory box and simply got forgotten.
The only time I go to Church these days is for a wedding or a christening or a funeral or to visit a cathedral when I am on holiday.