Chapter Twelve (of BIG BLUE SKY – A Celebration of Norfolk)
Norfolk Churches – and my journey
Jumble sales, Flemish weavers, canaries, Malchus’ ear.
As the preacher droned on in a solemn monotone, most eyes closed and chins gently rested on chests. The small elderly congregation in the country chapel in rural Norfolk appeared to have departed for the antediluvian land of Nod – except for Hugh, sitting alone in the back row.
His flushed face was deepening in hue as he became increasingly agitated, and eventually leaving his pew, he strode to the shelves of Bibles and hymn books at the rear of the building. He quickly found the largest and heaviest tome, and removed it from the shelf. With the athletic prowess of an Olympic shot putter, he took aim at the preacher and hurled the huge volume high in the air. It rotated slowly as it flew over the heads of the oblivious congregation, on its ominous trajectory towards the unsuspecting target, whose eyes remained glued down onto his preaching notes.
Alas, with the passing of years there had been an accompanying passing of strength, and the missile fell short of its target, landing with a loud thump on the back of the head of a balding octogenarian dozing in the front row.
Knocked off his seat, he crashed to the floor, hearing aids skidding east and false teeth west across the tiled floor.
Now at last there was something to grab the attention of the congregation, who creaked to their feet and shuffled round the motionless victim. “Are yer awlroight?” enquired the senior steward. “Can yer hair me? Can yer speak?” The prone figure stirred slightly, and turning his head, stammered out, “Not hard enough. I can still hear him!”
I have always enjoyed a sense of humour, and the story I have just related was one of my favourites. I was sure it was not really true, but it was not too far removed from my regular Sunday morning experience. My parents’ childhood years had included church on Sundays. People did so when my parents were young, and no doubt, there were those who really wanted to worship, and there were those who attended under duress. Like me in the late 1950s. My father had been a happy, contented man looking after the garden on Sunday mornings. I had spent my Sundays collecting creatures suited to my bedroom menagerie. My young sister had her dolls. So why spoil it all with church?
My mother was the dominant force in our family, partly due to my father’s accident, which I described earlier. She felt an affinity for the Congregational denomination that had been an integral part of her childhood years. And having discovered there was a church of her chosen persuasion in North Walsham, she announced that we would all be attending in future. Two of us protested, my sister kept her head down and played with those dolls, and my mother was, as I have said, the dominant force.
The lady minister’s sermons grew lengthier every week. I complained to my mother, who was not interested. I pressed, and proved my point by constructing histograms (a type of graph), but to no avail.
I asked some of the older ladies (most of the congregation were ladies, and elderly. Or old) if they really believed in God. They told me they were ‘seeking’, and I felt that if they had not ‘found’ during their eighty or more years on this earth, they might as well give up. And wasn’t there a Bible verse that was not being fulfilled here?
One Sunday morning, the lady minister came through to the Bible study class, which comprised my sister and me. She said she wanted us to know that God was a God of love, and hell did not really exist. So the Bible was not true? Or maybe just the Ten Commandments and the luvvy bits were? Who decided which parts to believe? More and more, the church confirmed me in my atheism.
And then there was the endless succession of jumble sales. Jumble – and at last members of the congregation came to life.
Jumble – so there was something that brought a smile to the faces of our agéd congregation. Jumble – so that’s what it was all about.
(Thos of you who know me at all, will realise that I had hardly started my spiritual journey at this point. The best was yet to come!)