MY EARLY YEARS Losing my religion

Losing my religion

Church 1950s   To church. We probably looked a bit like this

My parents never went to church but they would send us four children religiously to Sunday school. I hope this gave them some respite from us. We would all hold hands, dressed in our best clothes, cross the road, and go through the park, over Raddlebarn Road and down Hubert Road to St Wulstan’s. This wasn’t the nearest church but it was near where Mom and Dad first lived after the war and we had all been christened there.

We must have attended from the time we were small children but I only recall being at church from about age nine. We were not a particularly religious family but it did give us a little kudos, demonstrating how well-behaved we were. In the 1950s life still revolved round the church. Births, marriages and deaths were all commemorated with a church service, schools had religious assemblies and national events such as Remembrance Day were marked in church. Belief in God was common sense. There were a few people who went to different churches, or even prayed to God in a different language; Catholics in Latin and Jews in Hebrew. But we all believed in God.

sw2 - small  As a choirboy, I had to wear a blue cassock, more worn out than this and in a faded blue. Frill and surplice always immaculate tho_.
St Wulstan’s church, Exeter Road, Bournbrook. As a choirboy, I wore a blue cassock, more worn out than this and in a faded blue. Frill and surplice always immaculate tho’.

St Wulstan’s was a red brick church in the middle of red-brick terraced streets on Exeter Road. At first it was a ‘tin tabernacle’[1] set up as a missionary effort in 1893 by St Mary’s in Selly Oak to bring God to the residents of the new terraced houses in Bournbrook. In 1906 a new brick church was built to accommodate over 700 people. It was a simple structure, with a small bell tower with one bell. It was impossible to heat despite the two massive cast iron stoves near the entrance which would burn your hands if you touched them but had no effect more than twenty feet away.

Inside its rather austere interior it possessed a very impressive organ with several rows of pipes. Rumour had it that it was destined for the Great Hall of the University but they couldn’t get it through the window. Although it was at about the same time, I have found no evidence for the truth of this. Nevertheless, it made a glorious noise and could sound like an orchestra with an extra section of bass instruments.

In the early sixties the church did not have a vicar for a time. The church was run with an iron hand by the church warden and his family. I was aware that there was some dissatisfaction and the church was sarcastically renamed ‘St Spencer’s’ by some of its parishioners. This all changed with the arrival of a new vicar, the Reverend Charles Hervé. He was no dusty beleaguered city priest; he had a certain presence and would have been considered handsome. He was unmarried at the time but moved into the vicarage with his son who immediately became chief choirboy, to our chagrin. I was impressed by Father Hervé’s red triumph sports car and rumours of a girlfriend in Bartley Green.

The church was High Anglican. In fact, Anglo-Catholic, complete with processions, incense, elaborate robes, bells and magnificent church music from the improbably excellent organ. The Master of Ceremonies, was, indeed, a Roman Catholic who would press small medallions of saints into my hand exhorting me to pray to them. You might imagine how all this looked to someone brought up in those sombre streets. Religion was a spectacle and I still enjoy choral music.

As at primary school, I was top of the class. By the age of twelve I took charge of a class, telling Bible stories to groups of small children in Sunday school. I was in the choir but when my voice broke I was given training as an altar server and changed my blue cassock for a red one. Did I really have a future career in the Church of England?

When I was fourteen I was offered the opportunity to meet the Bishop of Birmingham and stay at a seminary for a few days. The idea was to consider my future options in the Church although my short stay had more effect on my sex education than my piety[2].

My religion was as an active participant in a carnival of colourful processions, emotive music, exotic smells, and familiar stories. Christmas and Easter were elaborate pageants attended by crowds carrying candles and waving banners.  No-one questioned it; there was no discussion of theology. And, as a member of the Church of England you were part of the missionary project taking enlightenment to the British Empire. 

The party suddenly ended; my brother was accused of a misdemeanour. Our Dad reacted with disgust at the way the Church treated my brother and banned us from going to the church. I felt betrayed as well. My brother was not perfect but he would not have done what they accused him of. Reluctantly, my membership of St Wulstan’s lapsed. I tried others; the nearest place of worship was a Friends’ Meeting House in Bournville but they could not compete with High Church pageantry. Even the next nearest Anglican church, St Stephen’s in Selly Park, was too lacklustre.

This split coincided with my growing doubts about the church and its stories. On the streets of Selly Oak it was difficult to relate to an old tale about a young couple on a donkey looking for somewhere to sleep; they would at least have had a BSA motorbike[3]. You could not find help or accommodation at any of our local inns – just mild or bitter. If you were mugged on the Bristol Road you would wait for an ambulance rather than a Samaritan[4].

The Church wanted me not to grow up. Many adult activities were sinful and to be avoided for as long as possible. Alcohol, as perceived by the Cadburys, was anathema[5]. Or, as with sex, only to be used for limited purposes (ie procreation) within limited circumstances (ie marriage). With my teenage hormones starting to churn and a growing desire to try some of these activities, the church was becoming a grumpy, finger-wagging aunt telling me I shouldn’t..

I was also keen on learning about nature and science. To me, there was no intervention by a deity which made the natural world so much more glorious. I didn’t believe in miracles. One day I was heaving my butcher’s bike along Elmdon Road in Selly Park with deliveries for the people who in lived in detached houses in this leafy neighbourhood. Suddenly I found myself in front of a tree which appeared as a glowing halo with shining golden leaves. It certainly stopped me in my tracks and it remains today in my memory as a glorious sight. Others might have taken it as a vision but I just saw beautiful autumnal leaf colours lit up from behind by the setting sun. This mundane explanation did not detract from the pleasure it brought.

Branches Autumn Yellow Live Leaves Tree High  Glorious autumnal colours

Problems with the church elders, my desire to test the limits of sin and my inability to see a prime mover in nature did not immediately plunge me into apostasy. It was an intellectual leap too far so I reserved a small place for something vaguely called ‘spirituality’ and hung onto the idea that there was an historical ‘Jesus’. Without knowing about Blaise Pascal at the time, I might just have been hedging my bets[6]

I was beginning to think about what religion actually meant. If I was in the process of losing my belief, what was I throwing away? I wasn’t aware of anyone else, privately or publicly, who had renounced religion. God was still a Big Thing in everyone’s life so I had to be sure of what I was doing. It was a school exam which slowed my descent into disbelief.

Everyone did RI (Religious Instruction) at school, even taking an ‘O’ level. In RI lessons we only learned about Christianity. This was well before the inclusive curriculum that schools have these days where they might not even mention the word ‘god’. We were taught by Mr Brown, a short round person with a moustache wearing the inevitable dusty academic gown; we called him ‘Holy Hovis’.

Gospel-of-John  John chapter 1 verse 1

The exam meant memorising the first few verses of the Gospel of St John[7]. This Gospel begins with an abstract concept: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’[8].  It may not sound much but this was no story about animals going two by two, or David slewing giants or Jesus turning water into wine.  It meant that that there was something abstract out there. That was enough; everything else in the Bible was an attempt to explain the inexplicable and probably missing the point.

The hymn-writers of the nineteenth century described the deity as ‘ineffable’ or ‘immortal, invisible’ and ” inaccessible’. I couldn’t see or know God so I decided to get on with my life. If He wanted me I presumed he would send an angel, or a thunderbolt, or perhaps an inspirational book. I gave up waiting a long time ago.

In the meantime, my understanding of science grew. I became fascinated by complex biochemical reactions and the workings of chromosomes. I began to understand how evolution operated. Life itself was an epic tale that dwarfed any parable in the Bible.

I did find some books that inspired me but they had little to do with God although I was too immature at the time to understand their implications. By the time I was 19 and leaving Birmingham for London, I was entering a fabulous godless world.   


[1] Tin tabernacles were small chapels, made of corrugated iron. which could be quickly erected to serve the newly built suburbs. There was a corrugated iron building on Raddlebarn Road used as a sort of community centre in the 1950s. I wondered if this was the original tin tabernacle.

[2] See my previous essay about ‘Sex education’.

[3] Our version of ‘We three kings’ went: ‘Bearing gifts, we travel so far; one on a bicycle, one in a car, one on a scooter beeping its hooter, going to Perry Barr’.

[4] I was born in 1948, less than three months after the NHS, making me one of the original welfare state babies. With the NHS and I both at seventy years old, I am pleased to celebrate the achievements and benefits of the welfare state. The loser in this is the Church which was previously responsible for providing for the poor, housing the homeless, visiting the sick, assisting prisoners and burying the dead.  It was obvious to this welfare state child that the Church now had little practical use.

[5] Bournville, including the Friends’ Meeting House, was built by the Cadbury family who were committed Puritans. Pubs were not allowed in the district. The whole raison d’etre of Cadbury and Co was to provide a nutritious alternative to the demon drink. They were, however, considered the best of employers.

[6] Pascal said: ‘If I believe in God and life after death and you do not, and if there is no God, we both lose when we die. However, if there is a God, you still lose and I gain everything’. Thus, you might as well believe in God, just in case.

[7] My struggle with belief in a deity did not prevent me committing possible mortal sin by damaging property, cheating and sacrilege when it came to taking the exam. I hated learning by rote so I cut the words out of a Bible and stuck them onto the back of a ruler. I was able to reproduce the text perfectly, with a couple of necessary punctuation errors. After the exam I taped the verses back into the Bible.

[8] The text reads: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it’.