My father is an Anglican vicar. He got ‘The Call’ when I was three years old, went to theological college, became a deacon, then a priest and when I was nine, became rector of his own parish. My mother’s faith is a little more ecumenical; I remember from an early age her sampling various denominations, from the happy-clappy gospel types, to the more austere and ceremonial factions. My earliest memories involve churches filled with incense, picketing supermarkets that had begun to open on Sundays and accompanying mother on the ‘March For Jesus’ days bearing placards declaring “God Is Love!”. While my Dad was entrenching himself in the furthest depths of organised Christianity, my mother was experimenting on its more extreme limbs, visiting and converting prisoners for example. While most children had posters of cartoon characters or popstars in their bedrooms, mine were inspirational quotes from the Bible.
When I was fifteen, a friend and I had been shopping in a nearby town and my mother had given us a lift and gone to a prayer-meeting. We came back early, let ourselves into the building and waited in the next room while they continued the session. My friend looked at me agog. I didn’t understand why she was so disturbed, but she had grown up without any contact with organised religion and to her, hearing them singing and chanting and praying through an organised and planned ceremony, was like being in the presence of a cult. I’d never thought of it like that before, so used to it was I that hearing people speaking in tongues was a daily and usual occurrence for me.
Though it is my father who followed his faith into the priesthood, it is my mother who is more of the active Christian. That’s not to say that my father isn’t vocal in his beliefs, but my mother is like a politician who is unable to ever stop campaigning. If you were to meet my mother and catch her in a moment when she’s not doing or saying anything, unlike the rest of us she’s not having a moment of contemplation or just resting, she’s praying. The form her thoughts take are not addressed to herself but to an outside being; to God. While you or I may think “When I get home, I need to put the laundry out to dry” my mother would instead pray, silently inside her head “Lord, help me to remember to put the laundry out to dry when I get home”. In this way, she is constantly having a dialogue with God, who at the same time happens to be her sentient self, which she believes is God speaking through her. Therefore it also means that any conversations with my mother will 90% of the time find their way back to her faith. If you ask for advice, she will always drop in a “Well if you ask the Lord for guidance” or a “Our Lord would say x or y”. Heaven forbid that you should disagree with what she is saying, because she believes that the Lord is speaking through her, which means it is basically impossible for her to be wrong.
When I came out as gay at fifteen, my parents’ response was… complicated. My father shut-down and didn’t mention it again until about a year ago, while my mother basically imploded. Her initial reaction was one of Christian compassion and support. I think she had prepared herself somewhat, reading up on the “love the sinner, hate the sin” doctrines beforehand, but after a while she was no longer able to cope. “I CAN’T ACCEPT THAT I HAVE A SON WHO IS GOING TO GO TO HELL!” she screamed at me one day, whilst hurling herself across the kitchen in tears. It was at that moment that my own view on my parents, Christianity and my whole childhood changed. Until that moment I had always accepted that what my parents had told me was truth. I had believed everything they had taught me; I believed I was a Christian, I believed in the teachings of the Church and that my parents, as good Christians, were mouth-pieces of God himself. And yet suddenly I realised that my mother wasn’t infallible. I knew that she was wrong on this subject. I knew that her belief was incorrect. It didn’t just undermine her faith, for me it undermined absolutely everything she’d ever taught me. Suddenly the whole basis of my morality, my outlook on life and the way I viewed the world was torn apart, because I had always believed her to be some kind of saint.
For a while afterwards I assumed a devil-may-care attitude toward absolutely everything. In my eyes, if I was definitely damned to go to hell because of my sexuality, then what did it matter what else I did? I stopped thinking about right and wrong, I stopped worrying about whether I was a good person; because I had always grown up on a morality founded in faith, I didn’t understand the concept of how to formulate a system of ethics without it. It took years of soul-searching, a weight problem and a near-breakdown to finally come to terms with the idea that I could live a life without the spiritual centre that my parents had taught me. Is it any wonder that I now question whether parents should be allowed to bring up their children and teach them about their faith at all?
I know there’s nothing I can do about it. If a boy grows up with a father who supports Manchester United, the boy will probably support Manchester United too, whether the father insists that they’re the best team or not. I would just like to offer some advice to every parent though, who wants to have their child christened or send them to Sunday School: religion is a way of adults making sense of a world they do not understand. That world is different for a child. Until they are mature enough to deal with the deeper, scarier concepts of your faith, teach them right and wrong and let them know that they are loved, by you, by their family and by God. That is enough. I don’t resent my parents or begrudge them their faith, but I just wish someone had said this to them thirty years ago.