I am standing at the back of a church. The floor is a smooth expanse of red carpet, and there is a hallowed, protective feel within—the rest of the world might be destined for damnation, but within these walls, we are safe.
Gilded and gothic, its high ceilings and stained glass windows betray its affectation for tradition, but the church looks down on Pentecostal and charismatic practices. We live by faith—and extensive bible studies.
It is a Thursday, bible study day. I have been sick most of the afternoon, a phenomenon I am still unsure as to the nature of, but in a few years' time, a therapist will tell me it is 'an acute anxiety response' and I will think: yes, that is what it feels like.
I joined the church whilst on a year abroad, when I thought my grandmother might be dying and the ache in my chest matched mostly what my idea of desolate isolation must feel like. The pastor talked about belonging and I broke down and cried—but they were happy tears. I was sold a few months later when I sat in a room and a woman came in an hour late and Mona—one of the church volunteers— said only:
'Are you okay? Can I get you some coffee?'
I was looking for a sense of belonging, I was sold on the love, and, later, on the idea that God might heal me.
A trait my friends have laughed at me for is that I throw myself head first into everything I do. I am glass overfilled from the start. At the time, I had no awareness of this, and my initial bursts of energy soon had me roped into activities I didn't want to do.
I didn't want to always have to give food out to the upper middle class who visited on Sunday evenings, didn't want to give up my Friday mornings to church rearrangement, the occasional weekend to cook in a Welsh basement kitchen for a church gathering. I didn't want to be an unpaid nursery manager every Thursday and Sunday morning. I didn't want to be noticed as absent whenever i didn't show up on Thursdays, didn't want to be unforgiven for being busy with work and socialising and having a life.
There were not enough hours in a day for me to cohabit every world I belonged to, and church, I felt, judged me the most harshly for the hours I couldn't give. The enoughs I gave were never enough, and thank yous ran dry very quickly.
'Are you back for good now?' someone asked me drily. I said nothing.
'You've been away a while,' joked someone else.
'Sit down and tell me what happened to you.' a woman intervened—to save my soul, a kindness, I realised.
I felt guilty, scrutinised, like someone in a bad relationship. Guilty—always, perpetually, for everything. Guilty for being stupid enough to be a Christian—idiot, my siblings sneered— guilty for not being strong enough to always defend my beliefs and always be the weird Christian girl who didn't swear—God will help you get there, and accept it, my dearest friends said.
It has to be said, that Christians, the majority, are good people. Great people. I love them dearly. Even the ones who broke up with boyfriends because said boyfriends weren't against gay marriage. Even the ones who looked patient and pained when I said I wasn't straight. And I think I might have stayed, were it not for the Resurrection.
There was something very gross to me about the idea that I should sing hymns and be saved, while the people I loved the most in the world would burn up in flames—and for what? Could God really demand this? It seemed strange, to be absolved of all sin but one.
I believe there is a distinction between what God, or Grace, or the Universe, or Pre-determinism, might want, and what people who believe in God tell you to do. What is written in texts thousands of years old. Because people want power, and money, and more power. People cannot write the sacred down without corrupting it.
And I realised: it is wrong, for me, to stand within these walls, and be saved by a God who would choose me but not the many, many worthier souls I have had the privilege of meeting, some of whom were gay, some of whom made mistakes, but all of whom did not deserve the punishment the Bible promised. And so I walked away, from that gilded, Gothic church.