When I was a boy I used to like stories from the Bible and although a lot of the learning bits about going to school I found thoroughly uninteresting 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, the Reverend Brian Keene, nearby used to attend and tell a story or two in a short 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.
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 he preferred his drink. 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 definitely no Sunday school.
For this reason I was sent to the Methodist Chapel 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.
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.
The Wesley Road Chapel is a place with fond memories and I was disappointed and sad when I discovered last year that it no longer functions as a church and was to be demolished and the land sold for housing development and another little piece of my childhood will be swept away by the wrecking ball and the bulldozer.
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 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.
Left to right – Reverend Peter Bennett, ?, Heather Salisbury, Elizabeth Salisbury, ?, Andrew Petcher, Katherine Bennett, ?.
I auditioned for the choir with my friend David Newman but whilst he was accepted on account of the fact that he had a good singing voice I was rejected on account of being tone deaf but to compensate for this disappointment the Vicar appointed me a server which meant that instead of choir boy blue 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.
In 1969 there was a new face at the church when the Vicar got a Curate, a sort of assistant, called Haydn Smart and I liked him immediately. He was only about thirty and brought a new youthful dimension to St. John’s. With Haydn as a role model I became even more convinced that I was destined to a life in Holy Orders.
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 forgotten.
In 2012 I visited the city of Padova in Northern Italy and dropped in to the Basilica of Saint Anthony (A Basilica is technically a double Cathedral because it has two naves) and inside there was a pile of postcards in different languages with an invitation to write to the Saint with a request. I assume this could be like writing to
Jim’ll Fix It Father Christmas or to ask for a cure for a gammy leg or something but I thought that I might use the opportunity to enquire why that elusive call never came?