During the early nineties, the cycle ride from my home town of Bracknell to Minehead in Somerset was split into two parts. The first was the 90-mile ride to Bath Spa, a Roman city famed for its ancient pool, the second was the 70-mile ride to Minehead from Bath Spa, after spending the night at a backpacker's hostel, a steep hill climb from the city centre. Thus, the two-day ride was 160 miles, approx 260 km, in total.
However, the climax of the whole ride was not merely the chalet assigned to me and three other flatmates, but the mass welcoming service at the Big Top, accommodating thousands of excited Christians of all ages at the opening ceremony of the annual Spring Harvest Bible Festival held here at the Butlin's holiday camp located on the north coast of England's southwest peninsula.
|The Big Top, Exterior.|
The thundering praise and worship, accompanied by a music band and dancing spotlights, say it all. Indeed, it was the climax of the two-day cycling journey. As such, I could help but feel a sense of uniqueness, as the car parks crowded with parked vehicles testify of the type of transport used to get here. As we all stood and sat next to each other shoulder to shoulder, who would ever think of social distancing, facemasks or sanitary stations placed at the tent's several entrances? On the contrary, hugging was quite the norm, and neither of us sharing the chalet would even consider one another as a "disease."
There was one year when I decided to spend a whole Sunday at Bath Spa. Here, I had the opportunity to visit two churches, both of them in the city centre. The first one I visited was Bath City Church which, at the time, met in a disused cinema building. It had roughly the same number of people as the Kerith Centre in Bracknell - several hundred. It was also a "live" church, that is, free from established tradition, and its morning service was charismatic. Bath City typified any large church gathering.
The other venue I visited was Bath Baptist Church for the evening service. It was smaller in numbers, and also met in its own built-for-purpose facility, and it was more traditional in its service liturgy. Yet, due to having fewer people, I felt a stronger sense of intimacy present. Of the two venues, I felt more at home in this smaller gathering than I did at the first one.
The point I'm trying to get across is that for more than six decades of my life, I was able to walk into a church of my choice as freely as walking into a shop or superstore. After sixteen months of restrictions caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, to walk freely into a church service as a member of the public seem to be of a bygone age - something I now look upon with fondness.
My PhD friend Andrew tells me that at one of the churches he attended, advance booking is necessary to sit at a service. And that's not the only one. I saw on Facebook that advance booking was mandatory at another church elsewhere. This, I find rather shocking! To book a place at a service? A facility that should be open to the public, allowing free entry to anyone - even on the spur of the moment, or in need of spiritual edification, or just to give thanks to God, the church service should be open to all, regardless of numbers. After all, the Bible does say,
Whoever will let him come. (Revelation 22:17.)
Does this mean being turned away from the door had I just turned up without first booking? Suppose, earlier that week, a loved one fell ill and, not knowing any better, I arrive to attend a church service for spiritual support or intercessory prayer? Would I really be turned away similarly to a bouncer refusing entry into a nightclub?
It's wonderful news that our own church at Ascot will be meeting physically once again after 16 months of virtual services on the Internet. And, thank heavens! No advanced booking will be required. If the weather is suitable, we will likely meet outdoors within a small, enclosed field. According to their newsletter, by meeting outdoors, a facemask would not be a necessity. But if there's a threat of rain, or simply that it's too chilly, then we will meet at our usual venue - the Paddock Restaurant at Ascot Racecourse. However, although not mandatory, the wearing of masks will still be preferred, especially during the singing. And that, despite open windows blowing a chilly drought through the room.
Unlike my PhD friend, who has a lanyard around his neck, I would feel ill-at-ease if I don't wear a mask. Not because I'm afraid of becoming infected, but a feeling of concern about how others around me may feel if they saw me remaining maskless. It's the same ill-at-ease I have felt when shopping without the facecloth, even though it's no longer illegal to shop without a mask. Especially now that I'm fully vaccinated.
A bit like last Wednesday, when I took a short train ride to Reading Station. On the outward journey, there was no problem in not wearing a mask. But on the return journey, the carriage tannoy came to life with a request for all customers to wear a mask. I dug into my pocket. Sure, my cellphone was there, but as for the mask - it must have fallen out onto the street. The snag when that happens is that there is no characteristic clatter of a solid hitting the ground to attract my attention. The loss can remain unnoticed for hours. And so my feeling of uneasiness returns with the train announcement, and I silently pray that the conductor won't suddenly decide to inspect our tickets.
|Spring Harvest Big Top, Interior.|
As facemasks come and as facemasks go, how could I avoid reading about a scandal which erupted at an Anglican Church at Branksome, Dorset? Rev Charlie Boyle of All Saints Anglican in Poole, was accused of hugging a mourner at a funeral he was conducting. He also sang the hymn Thine Be the Glory aloud and with much emotion as he concluded an Easter service earlier this year. An anonymous person in the congregation complained to the church authorities. Now he is under threat of losing both his job and his home. And what was the complaint? Singing without a mask. And that was despite that he was also exempt from having to wear one.
Several things here. First, the complainant remains anonymous - even to the extent that the vicar himself doesn't know who he is. And if the complainant was so displeased, then why didn't he raise the issue with the Reverend himself? Why go to the Parish Bishop?
According to the national statistics, the Church of England is on a decline. However, the All Saints Anglican in Poole is a rare exception. Here, under Boyle's leadership, his church is thriving, especially among the younger set. He has a heart for God, and his keenness to sing the hymn aloud and without any reservation shows his delight in the Resurrection of Christ.
All that tells me a lot about the complainant. First, he remains anonymous to this day, second, he preferred to inform the Bishop rather than sort out the issues with the vicar himself. And thirdly, he refuses to come out and admit that he made the complaint. All that is enough to tell me that the complainant was consumed with jealousy of the vicar's success. And he's too cowardly to come out.
Nothing new here. Back in 1994, I was a volunteer at a Christian Conference Centre near Haifa in Northern Israel. One day, a young Arab friend who had a high level of respect for me approached - with a question of whether I was homosexual. When I asked him where he got that idea from, he was very apologetic and revealed that it was Trevor who informed the teenager that I was likely gay and had a fancy for David. Look at it this way. I had never shown an interest in bedding with another man. It wasn't only because this was unbiblical, but rather, I never had any interest in it. The teenager believed and sided with me.
Whether I was gay was true or not, Trevor had no right to inform the teenager - or anyone else - without approaching me about the circumstance. If my orientation and my supposed crush on David had bothered him, then why didn't he come to me first and sort the matter out? At least I could either verify or deny his accusation. Instead, he found it easier to spread it behind my back. And all that by a man several years older than I was.
Then it was my mistake to say to Trevor, in the privacy of his bedroom, that Joy was a lovely-looking volunteer. That was it. That's all I said. Joy wasn't around, instead, she was elsewhere, well out of earshot. There was no one else with us. Just Trevor and me, alone in his bedroom. The next day, I was called into the Centre manager's office. Here I was questioned by him whether my crush on Joy was true.
Why? Oh, why? The similarity between Trevor and the anonymous complainant in Dorset is, to me, quite astounding! I guess the human heart is so mysterious, so secretive, that no one but God can see into it. Being a volunteer in Israel very nearly brought me to the brink of apostasy. In fact, I did renounce the Christian faith whilst lying alone on a bunk-bed inside a medieval hostel within the walls of Jerusalem Old City. But God, seeing my distress, gently called me back to Himself, and then afterwards, opened the door of opportunity for world travel.
The anonymous complainant moaned about the vicar singing a hymn aloud without wearing a mask. Therefore, instead of shouting his own praise and thanksgiving to God, he makes an effort to get rid of him, to deprive him of a job and a home for both he and his wife. And it looks as if his foul efforts to have the Reverend sacked might be successful. And the cause of the complaint? Not wearing a mask.
I can clearly see a parallel between this unknown fellow and Trevor, who was successful in getting rid of me almost exactly 27 years earlier. True enough, back then, no one wore masks. But bring Trevor forward in time and here we see the most cautious, Covid-phobic individual I could ever imagine and the most ardent mask-wearer who could ever walk this earth. And still insisting that he's a devout Christian.
And so, I try to picture the scene in Israel in the midst of the pandemic. The hot sun is out, almost entirely overhead in the late, Middle East Spring. David and I are both working outside and neither of us is wearing a mask. Then Trevor, himself masked, arrives at the spot, looks directly at me and orders me (but not David) to put my mask on.
I then suggest to David, I suppose you better put your mask on too.
To which Trevor replies, Never mind about him. It's your duty to follow the procedure.
Later, the Director calls me to his office (yet again) and discusses with me the latest altercation I had with Trevor (which I didn't, instead, I actually obeyed him.) The manager then decides that with regret, and to keep the peace here at the Centre, I must leave and fly back to England. But because I have done nothing specifically wrong, I'm to be paid by ITAC* for a holiday in Jerusalem (or anywhere else in Israel, other than Haifa) and will not be escorted directly to the airport (the normal procedure for volunteers guilty of rule-breaking.)
|All Saints Anglican, Branksome Park.|
The next day, I lay on my bed in Jerusalem with my spirit crushed and with my emotions all over the place. Why was Trevor's prejudice aimed at me and not towards David? Could it be that his perception of me being gay (without proof) "pollute" the holiness of the land? Therefore, to "Rid Israel of all impurity" - was I expendable?
Or could it be that, since David is a graduate and I had only a mediocre education, Trevor fawned all over him while I was, in his eyes, next to nothing, even someone to be despised?
That was the most likely scenario - had it been now instead of in 1994.
I hope so much that the Reverend Charles Boyle will keep his leadership post at his church he worked so hard to revive, and the discipline aimed correctly at the anonymous complainant, whoever he is. And may heaven help us all if the scandal in Poole is read by atheists. Such treachery will entrench them further into their unbelief in God, and give them more ground for them to sneer at all faiths.
*ITAC: Israel Trust of Anglican Churches.