St John’s is my parents’ church. And so, by default, still kind of my own. The important Christian festivals are spent here: Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day. Being unmarried, unfianced and unlikely to be either any time soon leaves an aching chasm of belonging when standing in any other church, compared to the security I feel standing with my family.
The idea of the church “family” is a powerful one, but for the people that worship among people they are not related or married to (or hoping to find the latter there), in reality it often falls short. If I am honest, this is the church that I commute to. True, it is a commute that comes with several nights’ free accommodation and all the beer I can drink before Dad notices, but this is a journey I am always willing to take. And, like my workaday commute, the final destination is eventually home.
We drive to the church…if I took public transport it would probably take an hour. Hopefully my additional presence offsets the trip a little.
St John’s is the first church in Eastbourne to have a female vicar. In other dioceses they’re almost ten a penny, but in Chichester it’s a big deal. Along with being a poster child for the new dawn on the south coast, Alyson is just lovely. She gives me a huge welcoming smile and says how nice it is to see me before rushing off to berobe. Meanwhile I am saying hi to all the wonderful people I already know in the congregation; brief greetings because something more in depth is what the post-service coffee is all about.
It is Mothering Sunday. I found out from the gospel of Google after the service that Mothering Sunday began as a throw-back from a Roman festival in honour of the mother goddess Cybele, which adapted well to worship of the Virgin Mary. It evolved somewhat over the centuries until becoming almost obsolete by the twentieth century, when American and Canadian soldiers in Europe during the second World War brought back the custom. Not the best of services to be back with my parents – a dangerous reminder that I am not well on the way to being a mother myself.
I look around the church, with its leaning towards an older female demographic, and wonder how Mothering Sunday falls on the shoulders of other women, those with children and without. Then I turn back to my own mother and give her hand a squeeze.
The service is very traditional: welcome, slightly patronising children’s slot, hymn as they all troop out and then reading, hymn, reading, sermon, prayers, communion, final hymn and dismissal. Oh yes, and the Peace. Needless to say it registered low, but there was the guilt for not getting round to everyone. Rock, hard place, peace.
Alyson did a good sermon on Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the city walls. My favourite part was her entirely sincere confession that she loves the beginning of chapter 3, where it describes in great detail who built which gates: “how wonderful to be remembered forever for being part of the work.”
From conversations I’ve had with other people, the warmth that I feel at this church is not just the reflected glow from my parents’ place within it. The congregation has grown in the last few years, and while it may not be bursting with bright young twenty-somethings, guitars or plasma screens, it is somewhere that welcomes people as they are; gives them space for worship and reflection. All this being said, there is no one else there my age. At the moment anyway. Blink and I’ll be well into the average.
I am looking for a church with people like those at St John’s. People who are close without being cliquey, loving without being insincere, challenging without being judgmental and welcoming without being suffocating. I guess it takes time to discover the full measure of a church family. It will take years (and maybe a husband and eventual sprogs of my own) to find the same security elsewhere that St John’s affords me through birth.
NB. I realise reading back that this sounds a little like I’m suggesting the only way to feel comfortable in a church is as a married couple with children. Hell no! But the security of being in my own family unit within the wider church family is what I’m able to relax into. In contrast being single in a church is not easy, whatever age you are and however long you’ve been there.