An Agnostic Stumbles Upon A Eucharist

This week, I happened to drift into a Eucharist (a protestant mass). 

I had just been to a ‘class’ with my baby and there had been songs and lots of noise and enjoyment. We had had a blast. Almost immediately upon leaving the community centre, baby had fallen asleep, leaving me with the probable situation of wandering around the park in order to keep the buggy moving and prolong his nap. 

I don’t mind doing this, however this is my current day-to-day experience, and any opportunity to spice it up is one to take. 

I walked past our local 13th Century church and for once the doors were open. I’ve wanted to visit since we moved here four years ago, and this was the first time I’d happened upon the doors being open, so with delight I walked in.

Despite being pretty agnostic, I’ve visited a lot of churches. My Dad is a bellringer, and due to my parents’ divorce settlement, as a pre-teen I often spent Friday nights and Sunday mornings up various bell-towers, listening to the modal music my Dad and his friends made together. As an adult, I then became a classical singer, so I often visited churches and cathedrals in order to perform the soprano solos of various oratorios. My Mum also converted to Mormonism when I was a teenager so all-in-all, I’ve probably visited more churches and cathedrals than your average agnostic.

St John’s in Keynsham sits at the end of the high street. It has a small circle of grass around it, with a pathway made of paving slabs and gravestones, used regularly by commuters walking to the local train station. In 2019, little signs went up which I thought would tell us not to use the path, but which actually cautioned that the flagstones could become slippery in the rain and to take care lest we slip. Very thoughtful. As a history enthusiast, I’m aware Keynsham was the burial place of Jasper Tudor, uncle and champion of Henry VII. He was buried in the Abbey which subsequently became demolished under his great nephew. I thought St John’s may have a stained glass window featuring the man.

So with all this cultural and historical interest behind me, I trotted in with my sleepy baby. It’s a nice church, restored in the 19th Century with classic pillars and arches, stained glass windows, and a children’s play area. It has the classic aroma of cold stone and old cushions. All in all it had the feel of a well-loved and looked after, normal Anglican church. As I wandered around, a nice old man told me a service was due to start, but that I was welcome to wander around the church, or join the service.

Why not? I thought. So I sat in the service.

Or rather, first I accidentally stole the service sheet from the lady in the row in front. Whoops. I returned this halfway through and was given my own by the nice old man from earlier who was helping to run the thing. He seemed to have taken it upon himself to look after the young mother who had drifted in.

My primary school used to hold a eucharist once a month, which I remember being quite long. I also remember enjoying the songs and being jealous of the other kids who could go up and have the bread and wine. I always wondered what it tasted like.

This service didn’t have singing, but we did get to say the odd ‘and also with you.’ Can’t go wrong with a bit of audience participation, so that was fun. When the bread and wine bit came up, I declined the old man’s invitation to go up and partake. It was probably because only six of us were in attendance, and it was a nice offer, but I realised halfway through that C of E Christianity definitely wasn’t my thing, and I felt that ‘eating the body of Christ’ might be a bit overly disingenuous. Seven year old me would have thought this decision was well boring.

Ultimately, I just don’t connect with the concept of God and Jesus. Maybe it’s that as a woman I’ve rarely felt an affinity with male role models, but I’ve never really felt anything from God or Jesus… There’s something about them that’s very traditionally masculine. I was always fairly tomboyish, but it would therefore be tomboys I looked up to. I have many friends who are men, and I am regularly inspired by them, but there is always the missing piece where their accomplishments wouldn’t map 100% onto the experience of a woman; they would need translating through a certain lens and taken with a yes-but-look-at-your-male-privilege pinch of salt. Whenever I’ve tried to connect with G + J, it’s felt pretty cold, potentially judgy. Certainly not warming. Sorry, guys.

In the service there was a lot of mention of the concept that we’re inherently bad and need to pray to be good and forgiven by G + J, which left a bitter taste. My belief is that we’re inherently good and need to forgive ourselves and treat each other with kindness in order for this basic nature to shine through. 

I like the Holy Spirit concept though. I think the idea of there being some force of generic good in the world floating about amongst us is a pretty healthy belief. It ties in with lovingkindness meditations; I know that there is always someone wishing everyone lovingkindness, so when you add that to all these prayers floating about, you can guarantee that right now, someone somewhere is wishing you all the best in the world. That would be my interpretation of a Holy Spirit; a pool of good wishes which we all feed into and all partake of. I have no idea if theologians would agree with me on this, but you know what? I can interpret the Holy Spirit how I like.

I never found out if there was a stained glass window with Jasper Tudor pictured on it. I couldn’t find it after the service, but then I had to dash as baby had woken up hungry, and I didn’t fancy breastfeeding in the church.

Will I return? I certainly don’t see myself being a regular, given I am a non-believer. However the people were nice, and I enjoyed the church and the peaceful, welcoming half an hour, so maybe I will. After all, there’s a children’s play area, which one or both of us may want a play with!

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