I was raised in the Church of England. Our family only rarely attended church during my childhood, when we lived in a small market town in Hertfordshire. We moved from there to a country village nearby when I was eight – and then we began to attend church, principally because my sister (five years older than me) chose to be confirmed as a member of the Church of England. I followed in her footsteps at the age of eleven.
In my late teens I took a weekend and school-holidays job with some Catholic nursing nuns caring for women and children living with a range of conditions and disabilities. With them I (who have never travelled much in my life, so each trip felt significant) went on pilgrimage to Lourdes.
When I finished high school, I went to live for some months with a small community of Anglican monks in the West Country, then returned to live and work with my nuns full-time.
In the meantime I’d applied to go to university, and got a place at York. There I met – and loved – the Poor Clares in Lawrence Street. In those days the influence of Pope John 23rd had encouraged greater openness, so the York Poor Clares had a prayer group every week in the parlour, and I went to that as well as to Mass sometimes. To me, who had in my mid-teens discovered and taken to my heart St Francis of Assisi, this felt very special; I treasured the relationship.
I spent a lot of time at the Roman Catholic chaplaincy of the university, where I met Father Fabian Cowper, an Ampleforth (Benedictine) monk who became a dear and beloved friend. He acted as chaplain for an inter-denominational lay community a group of us began, which lasted a couple of years but foundered on the usual rocks of human frailty. We were not very old.
During those years, at the age of nineteen, I was received into the Catholic Church (by Fabian). I wondered about asking if I might become a Poor Clare, prayed about it, but got married as it happened – and moved far away from York to Hastings, where I raised my family.
When I had a toddler and a new baby (I was then about twenty-three), I found church attendance something of a challenge. My husband had landed a paid Sunday job as an organist in an Anglo-Catholic church – so we worshipped there; but the Mass was formal and long, a difficult context to manage the different requirements of a newborn and a small - ambulant, curious, determined – girl.
So I relocated to the Methodist Church where my parents-in-law worshipped, in search of help with the little ones. Over time, I put down roots in that church community, and the minister asked if I’d like to become a member. I hesitated. I asked, could I be both a Roman Catholic and a Methodist? The minister said I could – which surprised me; so I agreed, provided I could be a Methodist without turning my back on the Catholic church. It hadn’t occurred to me the man would actually lie to me – and I remember still the shock waves of horror and grief when in the Sunday service he announced that I was transferring from the Roman Catholic Church to the Methodist. I felt so sad; but it was done.
I remember, at the end of my teens when I became a Catholic, the parish priest of the Anglican church where I grew up (who’d been a close personal friend) asked me why. He felt hurt and sad at my decision. I tried, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to explain. What attracted me to the Catholic church was exactly its catholicity – that I’d be making common cause with people of many different walks of life, aristocrats and peasants, people whose languages I spoke and many I did not – people who could not speak at all but lay twisted in beds and wheelchairs but yet partook of the mystical union of Christ’s perfect body. “Ah,” he said, “the attraction of numbers,” which annoyed me, because that wasn’t what I meant at all. It was the commonality, the sense of one people under God, the connection, that I loved.
In Lourdes, in Rosary Square, I watched the torchlight procession, thousands upon thousands of people bearing their lanterns, a river of moving light streaming down the hillside, their individual faces illumined by the lights they bore as they took their places side by side in the darkness. And they, an international crowd, lifted up their voices as one in the Latin Mass, declaring with one voice “Credo!” – we believe. It wasn’t the size, but the abolition of the barriers that divide us, that drew me to the Catholic church.
Still, by the same token I loved the democratic organization of Methodism – that each person had a voice; or that was the ideal anyway. Over the years I learned it isn’t quite like that. Methodism too has its hierarchies and knows how to silence and marginalize as all human communities do.
The Anabaptists of the Bruderhof also influenced me strongly as a young woman – I spent a lot of time with them when my children were little. Our family almost joined them – went to the brink of doing so; then drew back when we realized the absolute severance they expected, from the families we came from and the friends we’d be leaving behind. They also expected us to uphold the view that homosexuality is a sin; and we would not. Neither would we deny the gifts of the Holy Spirit – of tongues, of healing and so on – nor suppress them. So we didn’t join up; but we loved them and learned a lot. Especially I learned a great deal about how to talk to children – simple and honest and straight, none of this coaxing TV-presenterish cutesiness you see so much of.
And as my family grew up around me, they became a kind of community – a spiritual entity in a way. I believed in human organization in circles, not pyramids. Anarchy, in the sense Gandhi espoused it. No one more important than the other. No one’s needs elevated or preferred.
If anything came up – an expense (musical instruments, sports equipment, a school trip) or a job opportunity and consequent house move, or who would sleep where in the house or whatever – then we considered it together and decided on the basis of the common good. There was leadership. The parents led – me and the children’s father – and how we led was by example. We required of the children nothing we would not accept for ourselves. So for example, if the “adult content” (ha!) of a movie made it unsuitable for children to see, then we took it to mean nobody should be watching it, parents included.
When chores had to be done, we did them together. We considered the Boys Brigade style of work rota the children’s father grew up with. But I didn’t like that. I think it encourages people to do their allotted task then stop, regardless of what still needs doing. I preferred the monastic system, where you pay attention and notice and take responsibility. So we did that, because it fostered kindness and helping and being alert to the needs of others.
We lived in a house basically too small for our family of five children. Another lesson learned from monasticism is that privacy is our gift to each other – doing things quietly, leaving each other in peace, retiring early at the day’s end. So our home was always filled with peace – as every single visitor remarked. As the children grew, we felt they needed their own rooms (our twins were the last to have that luxury), so we parents slept on the living room floor, or on boards in the attic reached by a step-ladder propped against the wall, or in a garden shed. This is Christian leadership, as we understood it – to give the best and to take the lowest place.
I am not a big fan of out-sourcing childcare, so we accepted the financial challenges of being a one-income family. It taught our children to pray. Each month as the money ran out, we asked them to pray, and they did, and their needs were met.
All troubles, all difficulties, all decisions, we discussed frankly as a whole group; our children’s views were always heard and respected, taken into account.
We never locked our house and much of the time the door stood physically open. Neither did we lock our car, and people often slept in it – we knew by the fag butts they left in the ashtray; and sometimes the overnight inhabitant would borrow the dog-walking coat we kept in the car. All sorts of people lived with us when they fell on hard times, and when we came home we never knew who we’d find in the house. A friend who was a burglar (we met him at the prison chaplaincy meeting we helped to run) confirmed our suspicion that we had nothing worth stealing so it was quite safe to leave the place unlocked.
And I have found this approach to life works very well. To include, to listen, to choose what is humble and lowly. To serve and to help, to respect even the youngest and smallest. To sleep on the floor and give things away, to say “help yourself”, and make nobody a despot or a chief. To have no lord but only Jesus – and him you find always in the company of the lost and the lowliest and the least. It is not a hardship, to live this way. It’s just nice. I like it. And I’m so grateful to the monastics and the Anabaptists who showed me how to do it, by the unassuming example of their self-disciplined and practical love.