Losing my religion

St Mary’s Cadgwith

I like these tin tabernacles! They’re often so cold in winter that your breath freezes as it leaves your mouth – I know this from personal experience because I spent twenty eight years as a parish priest; twenty five of them looking after an ever growing number of country parishes; one of them so cold in January that we moved out of the church and into the parish hall every winter. The parish hall had all the facilities and charm of an abandoned nissen hut. This particular church in Cadgwith which can only be reached by a footpath, is part of a group of six that cover the whole eastern side of the Lizard peninsula and is presently looked after by one retired priest, one non-stipendiary priest, four licenced lay ministers and four churchwardens. That’s a stupendous workload for a conscientious team .

Losing your faith is as easy as mislaying your car keys. All it takes is a couple of conversations with a bishop whose concentration span makes a goldfish look clever, coupled with the gathering sense that the institution as a whole has not the faintest idea what it is supposed to be about. Finding some sort, any sort of working faith again is bit like finishing a jigsaw when three quarters of the pieces are missing, and an unknown number of the rest come from a different box. I’m now in the position of being thought to be heretical by most, if not all of the world’s major religions, and it’s a position I rather treasure! My standby and safe place is the saying – “the Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao.”

The rupture, though, is more procedural and more cerebral than profound. It was the organisation with its systematic theology and certainties and managerial ethos, along with the idea that there was nothing left to be understood or preached. That was what did for me. During our time in Cornwall we went into the little church of St Winwaloe, on the edge of the sea at Gunwalloe; just a short walk along the coast path from Mullion, and I suddenly experienced a tremendous sense of loss. There at the back was a small leafless branch in a pot to which visitors had attached labels with messages and prayers, tied on with string. One of them read something like this – “God, if you exist, please help my niece …..” I found it unbearably touching. There was no address; this was a lost god who would, if they existed, know where to go.

But although I miss being held by the liturgy, and I miss those ecstatic and awe-filled moments when I had to step away from the words and music and hope that the service would – somehow – carry on without me; I know the god that can be described; pinned down like a butterfly or ordered to change the way of things to suit the self-righteous with calloused knees and hard hearts – is not god. The god that can be gendered into fragments or canalised into a private spiritual fountain for the use of the signed up faithful is not god. The god that can be reduced to a collection of historical facts out of which every trace of life-giving myth has been centrifuged and purged is not god either; and yet a life without music; art; literature; dance; time wasting carnival; shared meals; festivals of all kinds and the sense of community will hardly be able even to approach what cannot be spoken.

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour ….

William Blake – Auguries of Innocence

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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