Earlier this year, I did something I had dreamed of since I was a child growing up in the very gentile English West Country; I attended a synagogue. After a few months, I stopped. It wasn’t them, it was me.
When I decided a few years ago that I wanted to put something back after having such a gorgeous, fun life for so long, my first thought was volunteering, which I did. This in turn led me to wonder why Christians carry out so much of the voluntary work in this country — a whopping 80 per cent.
We’re always being told that you don’t have to be religious to be a good person but sadly the “humanist morality” doesn’t appear to have worked. Atheists are obviously too busy shopping and sacrificing chickens to Satan to spend any time on soup-runs.
I was raised nominally CofE and had enjoyed Sunday school as a sprog. But, after a quick tour of the local churches, I felt distinctly Other. At one Anglican church, I was appalled when a child of around 10 (a regular!) wrongly identified the Cross as “a space rocket”. Was I the only member of the congregation, I wondered as the rest laughed indulgently, who wanted to wrap said “spaceship” around the child’s throat as a response to her blasphemous ignorance?
At the Salvation Army Church, I was similarly disappointed. Though I participated in a very enjoyable soup- (and cake-) run to a bunch of charming homeless men on Brighton seafront, I was somewhat put off by the primness of the Army-folk themselves.
“Why can’t we sing Onward Christian Soldiers?” I inquired after one rather limp, modern service.
“Come now, Julie, it’s a bit militaristic!” jollied charming Major Swanson.
“But I have to call you Major, Major, and you wear a military uniform and lead an army!” I replied, not unreasonably. After a tussle with their press officer about the evils of alcohol, I made my excuses and left but not before contributing a cheque for £500 to their appeal for the homeless. “And if I’d been drunk, it would have been a thousand…” I couldn’t help adding over my shoulder as I walked out.
There was also the irksome matter of the Trinity. A hymn which kept cropping up during my Sunday sojourns ended with the line, “three-in-one”, followed by an exclamation mark; no matter how solemn my mood, this little flourish never failed to raise a snicker, with its irresistible connotations of “Buy One, Get One Free!”
But the questing camel’s back was truly broken when one Sunday we were encouraged to express our hopes for the coming year. An old guy stood up and demanded that Christianity should stop stepping on other religions around the world. Laugh? I almost choked on my wafer. All across the Muslim world, Christians are tortured, raped and murdered for their faith. Saying sorry when someone steps on your foot is one thing; apologising when they are butchering thousands of one’s co-religionists each year is taking the English apology reflex a bit too far for me to swallow, even with a big gulp of Communion wine.
So when I finally plucked up my courage and walked into a local synagogue for the first time, I was pleased to feel a sense of extreme excitement and tranquillity. The rabbi was eloquent and the congregation extremely welcoming. But, after a few weeks, the trouble started. The exciting Torah readings about God smiting the enemies of the Israelites were followed by earnest sermons on the benefits of multi-faith dialogue.
When, after writing a very mild, marginally amusing piece — about Heather Mills McCartney, of all things! — for this very newspaper, I was publicly denounced by the rabbi for being an Islamophobic bigot, I threw in the towel and started to spend Saturday mornings stewing in the marital bed before heading out to a liquid lunch once more. Truth to tell, as winter draws on, it’s not such a sacrifice…
Let me make this clear. I’m not looking for a religion that stomps all over other religions. But I am looking for a religion that stands up for itself, and for others who are in a — raped, tortured, murdered — position where they are unable to do so. Like I said, it’s not you, it’s me.