The walk to church is enough to make me aware first that my new shoes are not as comfortable as I thought and second that I am nervous about going. Church and me are not a comfortable combination these days.
This is probably my 30th Easter as a member of the Church of England(well since confirmation, that passing out parade for teenagers that saw my entry and not my exit) but the last three I elected not to go anywhere and we celebrated Communion at home.
It’s not the people that bother me about the established churches; it’s what the institutions do to those people and by default what those people do to me.
In this case, I am a total stranger. No one in the building we are fast approaching knows me from Adam(or Eve for that matter) and I take comfort in that anonymity. OK, so we are a little conspicuous in certain ways; maybe I ought not to have worn my rainbow coloured Nepalese jacket if I’d truly wanted to be inconspicuous.
Inside the flint built church a familar range of odours meet me; the unmistakeable fragrance of old hymn books, candle wax, flowers and something else I can’t initially place. The place is bright with spring flowers and the scent of lilies and narcissi is so evocative of Easters long gone I feel tears spring to my eyes. I feel both at home and a complete stranger.
I usually choose my seat in any public building with a view to rapid escape, and in a church, near to the back as possible. I choose a pew(yes, those excrucating inventions of Victorians) near enough to the back so I know I can run for it if I feel the need but not at the immediate back. That’s just too obviously a newcomer’s move.
A moment of quiet follows ; head bowed, I shut out the chatter of people around me and check for the divine prescence. Gotcha God! That’s OK then. The service starts and as the organ plays and people sing, I let my attention wander, like a dog exploring. Just as long as it doesn’t mark its territory, we’re all right…
In the sanctuary tall candles burn, their golden flames creating a sweet heat haze that makes the stained glass images in the east window ripple and shimmer as if animated. A newer, stronger fragrance wafts down to me: incense. I assess it: Prinknash for sure, Basillica or maybe Abbey. I sigh with some pleasure; sensualist that I am, I count it a plus that this place caters for my own personal little quirks and tastes.
The sermon doesn’t send me to sleep but it does make me want to put my hand up and ask questions: “Please sir, I don’t quite understand…” and the music, the singing irritates me. I question the why of it all; why the hymn sandwich? Why an organ, that most thunderous of instruments? Why?
The central part, the consecration rushes upon me and finds me unprepared; I rush to examine my soul and find it much as it usually is, in a sort of permanent state of first-thing-in-the-morning unreadiness, sleep in its eyes and its collar turned in on one side and out on the other. I tenderly straighten the collar, rub a damp metaphorical hanky round my soul’s sleepy face and declare it won’t get any readier and follow, head bowed to the altar where I kneel and take a fragment of hard bread(it tastes like no real true bread and reminds me of a mental image of sailor’s hardtack, a good image in this seafaring town this church with its walls covered in memorials to men lost at sea for many centuries and still not home) and a gulp of good red fortified wine.
Back in my seat, I allow my soul to ponder on the Host and my tongue to revisit the taste of port(for surely port it was, and again here in this small port town, what better drink(other than grog) for communion?) I think the non-comformists have a poorer experience of communion for their replacing the wine with fruit juice. Somehow Ribena just doesn’t have bloody enough a colour, with its bland sweet taste without the kick of alcohol to bring the soul back to the understanding that this is blood, His blood and my blood and the Earth’s blood too.
Hallelujah, He is Risen. Like night follows day and day follows night, life follows death and death follows life; Easter follows Lent and the year moves on into Spring and year in and year out the cycle continues.
This year I jumped into the cycle again, running fast to keep up and make that leap and now I feel dizzy with too much experience and too many thoughts, and with the feeling that one day, I may take that bread and wine and my soul will be standing there, scrubbed and ready and in her best, and not, as this day, like a grubby street urchin made passably clean and presentable to casual inspection, and ready to run at the slightest hint of danger.