Monday, 8 October 2007

Shaking Noel's hand

This time last year I went back to Bugrooke. I arranged to go up to a Men's Weekend with David's household and stayed at Servant Hearts in Northampton, sharing a brothers' room with four others; my first taste of community since 1984. The door was covered with a blanket as a modesty screen, as we were on a floor which accomodated a married couple, and therefore a sister. The accomodation was sparsely decorated, the air stale and the brethren a little put out when I asked to open a window, but it felt good to be there, not least of all because I knew I was free to leave.

The funny thing is that, just as I felt no need to sabbotage evangelistic efforts the day that I left the community, I now felt no wish to break the rules of the household or to be argumentative. I was a guest in someone else's world and I was determined to respect its mores and expectations. So, when I walked into a room full of sisters, I knew better than to do more than briefly greet them and go into the next room and when "someone coming round" hung around the sisters a little too long, I steared him away, as much for his sake as for theirs.

I don't think I knew any of the current members of Servant Hearts when I was in community, though I got into conversation with one brother, Bill, who I recall having been around back then, a lanky American, modest and very appealing, and someone I'd like to know as his own man, rather than someone speaking very much the Bugbrooke line.

The following day I was rather nervous because I knew that all the men of the community would be gathered at The Deco, a large ex-cinema. Very many of my old friends, I knew, had since left the church, but there would be many still left who would know me and I didn't know what reception to expect, even though David had cleared a path for me....clearing it with the eldership and especially the Prophet, Noel Stanton.

I know David won't mind me saying, but in his mind there was very much the hope that my desire to clear the air with the fellowship is evidence that the Lord is doing a work in me - and the young man who stayed with me this summer tells me that the household took great pride in being party to the reconciliation, seeing it as the beginnings of my return to Bugbrooke for good. It's something that I had anticipated and David was gracious when I insisted that this was, to my mind, nothing more than friends catching up and shaking hands.

I was particularly delighted to meet and spend much of the morning with Trevor Saxby, who I'd liked very much in the old days, when he had been my Elder, briefly, when I had been his "Timothy" (a young brother training to lead) in the last months before I left the community. We had kept up a brief correspondence after I left, a luxury which I wasn't allowed with other, more junior members (non-elders) in the community. He told me he still has one of the letters, which he treasured, and had wondered over the years how I'd got on.

I enjoyed singing choruses, some of which I remembered, and even singing in tongues, which I admit I did tongue in cheek, because it just went to show that we had indeed learned to fake it. Anyone can do it. In fact I remember my first elder, Mick, encouraging me not to be self-conscious about making it up, with the assurance that God would take over and use it. Mine always had smatterings of school Latin and Arabic remembered from Lawrence of Arabia. Knowing it is faked doesn't make it less attractive when everyone is singing in tongues. Like Morgan Freeman's character in Shawshank Redemption talking about opera broadcast over the tannoy, "I don't know what those two ladies were singing about. I don't want to know. It is better that way. All we knew was, when they sang, every one of us felt like free men" (well, something like that).

Near the end of a meeting ,which was led in the main by Mick Temperate, my old elder, who seems now destined to replace Noel, I received a message that Mick wanted to speak to me. David and Trevor escorted me to the stage, where Mick and miscellaneous other elders were talking and a rather serious Mick took my hand, while Trevor softened the atmosphere with a pleasantry.

What follows makes it clear that precisely why I had chosen to go to "Bugbrooke" had not been made clear to the Eldership. I don't know if David's wishful thinking had coloured perceptions, but Mick seems to have expected me to beg his forgiveness and will have been a bit stunned by my response. I'd hoped to avoid raking up the past, but Mick set about telling me that what I had done in the 1980s had been very damaging: they had been ousted from the EA and Baptist Union, been shunned by leading Christian leaders, been unable to find rentable venues for several years and many doubters had "wobbled" and left and even some senior figures had wavered. Perhaps my response was not tactful, but I just said "Good". We stood there in silence for a moment.

There was a slightly anxious atmosphere and I said, "Mick, what I said had to be said. What was there in my pamphlet that wasn't true?" and he conceded that none of it was untrue, "But it wasn't helpful".

"It wasn't meant to help you", I said.

I don't think much more was said. Mick brought the meeting to an end. I had genuinely tried to come to the get-together with the campaigning stuff behind me, but leaving the stage, I realised that I felt incredibly proud of what our campaigns had achieved. It had taken twenty years for me to hear it from the horse's mouth that we had been far more successful than I'd ever dared dream at the time. And if the church had changed as much as it wanted the world to believe, perhaps John and I had had a part in that. I felt vindicated.

The meeting with Noel was more brief. I was standing enjoying talking to Steve whom I'd liked very much and who told me that he remembered almost verbatim a conversation we'd shared the week before I'd left the community, which had left him hurt because I had given no hint that I was going to "split", when a message came that Noel was ready to see me. I respect the fact that Noel is their leader and that I was his guest, but I didn't want to cut Steve short, so I let things run on just a bit, until the rather anxious messenger returned to insist that I must not keep Noel waiting. I was sorry I'd hurt Steve and I apologised and we shook hands warmly.

Noel stood on the stage, flanked by what we always used to call "strong young brothers". Trevor's warm pleasantries opened things and Noel took my hand and told me he knew God had me on his heart and had plans for me in Zion. I had no wish to offend Noel, but I did say, jokingly, that I hoped God had got that wrong. I told him how I was not a believer but how much of a pleasure it was to be among them again and how grateful I was to be received by them. There were a number of light-hearted exchanges, which David feared might lead me to going too far and carrying out my threat to challenging Noel to get a haircut, so that he abruptly cut things short and I was ushered away.

I enjoyed my time back in "Zion". I think I achieved some measure of "closure". Very few brothers had been at all unpleasant, and being in the company of old friends, Steve and Trevor, talking briefly with Ed, John C. and various other familiar faces, and spending time with the folk at Servant Hearts and with David and his household was good fun. I am grateful to all the people who were open to me for making this visit a success.