Heather had always thought of herself as a Christian. It was what she had been taught and it was what she believed…… sometimes. That was fine. Doubt was fine. How could you ever be certain about something that you couldn’t prove? She had realised that very early on, when she first heard the phrase “a sure and certain hope” in church. Even at eight years old she knew that this didn’t make sense. Hope was never certain or sure. When her mother said “we’ll see” that was hope. When the ice cream was in her hand that was certainty. The two never went together. God was too big an idea for her to get her head around, but she liked Jesus. He was on the side of bad people and when she got into trouble she remembered that and felt smug. Heaven was confusing. There are many rooms in my father’s house, Jesus said. She liked that because she was good at drawing houses. There must be lots of rooms. Millions of rooms. Bigger than a palace. All those dead people needing a bed. Well not dead- obviously. Risen. Jesus had risen again and so would everybody else who believed in him. She had worried a lot about bodies and what they would be like in heaven- would people who were poorly and elderly when they died be stuck like that? If she fell under a bus would she have to be eight years old forever? When Rev Hunt told her that the early Christians had worried about what kind of bodies they would have in heaven too she felt very clever. He couldn’t tell her the answer though. That happened a lot. Eventually she had learned not to ask. She just tried to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast as though she was Alice in Wonderland but this was hard to do all by herself.
It was a long while now since Heather had been to a church service. It must be almost thirty years. This was not God’s fault. Long before middle age she had realised that while God might be all right, on a good day, other Christians were a big problem. They just didn’t like her very much and she didn’t like them. She had never gone down well. It left her sitting alone in a carefully chosen pew half way down the church, enclosed in a paper thin bubble of self consciousness which looked to those around her like a solid wall of heathen mud brick. After a service one or two people might come up to her with their cup of tea and say that it was nice to see her but they never seemed to find it quite nice enough, as they soon moved away and she was left to slip out early on her own. Inevitably she had stopped going. There were only so many times that she could listen to the story of the prodigal son- surely his brother had a point- and it was easier to think about the difficult bits on her own. Like the meek inheriting the Earth for instance. Didn’t happen. When some Jehovah’s Witnesses had knocked on her door and asked her about that, without even saying hello first, she had told them that she hoped it was true that the meek inherited the Earth because she was one of them. They didn’t like her either.
No services then, not for years, but if she was in a strange place where she was sure that nobody would recognise her, or worse still try to talk to her, she would lift the sneck and push the heavy door of a church to one side, carefully closing it behind her and find a place to sit down half way up the nave, just as she always had. There was no mother sitting next to her any more, ready to nudge her if she turned to look back or wriggled, so she could look around as much as she liked. The church that she was sitting in now was a good one. She had suspected that it would be as soon as she had been faced with the defiant message carved out in red and black letters on the first pillar that you saw. “Pra remember the power.” Once it had been an encouragement. Now more often than not it would seem like a plaintive request. There was an eagle lectern, a stern Victorian stained glass window with St George skewering a dragon and the name of the person who had paid for it in gothic script across the bottom, a high pulpit with a curving set of steps leading up to it, and seats in the choir stalls carved with animals and tiny people who hid away in the dark when you pushed a seat down. It was a glorious mish mash, formed by everyone who had wanted to make their mark on it throughout the centuries. It had the right Godly smell too, the kind of holy scent that takes many years of candles, dust and prayer to develop. It was charming. She frowned at the lion on the kneeler in front of her, a millennium lion it announced proudly, wondering about the word charming. God had been called many things, good and bad, by many people but charming seemed wrong whatever you thought about him. She was wondering about having a walk round when she heard the sneck of the door click. Damn. There was nowhere to hide so she just had to sit it out, exposed in the centre of the large empty space. They might just be visitors. They might leave her alone. They might go away.
They didn’t go away. A cheerful, well rounded woman walked boldly down the centre of the nave carrying a large armful of white lilies, gypsophilia and green foliage.
Heather muttered a good afternoon at the woman’s back as she walked past. If she was quick she could get out before she had to say anything else.. She was almost on her feet when the woman’s face appeared right next to her.
The woman sat down bold as brass. There was no way out of the pew now.
“Nice to see a visitor. Did you come to see the misericords? Lovely aren’t they?”
Heather had no idea what the misericords were.
“Not really- I just sort of wandered in.”
“That’s good. Let God lead the way.”
It gave Heather a jolt hearing God mentioned suddenly, even Christians didn’t often do that so quickly in front of strangers these days, but then if you couldn’t mention him here, where could you?
“I’m not a believer I’m afraid…….. at least I don’t think I am.”
The woman did her best not to look disappointed.
“What makes you unsure?”
“The church mostly- organised religion. It doesn’t always seem to have a lot to do with God.”
Well she had asked.
“He gets mentioned a lot.”
Heather gave the woman a sidelong glance. It was all right- she was grinning.
“Don’t worry. I sometimes wonder what I’m doing here and I’m on the flower rota.”
The woman introduced herself as Delia and returned Heather’s glance.
“Why don’t you go to church then?”
There was a long silence.
“Sorry. My big mouth again. You don’t have to tell me- it’s just our vicar said we should ask people so I am. It might make your mind up for you.”
She made a rueful face.
“Of course there’s always the risk that it might put you off.”
“Would it put me off if I came here?”
Delia screwed her nose up.
“Fifty fifty I’d say. It depends who you sit next to.”
“Do many people come?”
“A few. The usual mixture of the lost and the bewildered. They were the first to believe and judging by the way things are going they will be the last.”
“That must be discouraging.”
“It is for the person who has to count them every week that’s for sure.”
“Somebody counts them?”
“That’s how we know that we’re in decline. Although I like to think of it more as genteel poverty. Shabby chic.”
Heather looked around her. The church was a bit like a down at heel stately home, come to think of it. One that the National Trust hadn’t got around to yet, full of beautiful things that had been there for a long time, dusty corners, faded fabrics, polished metal and waxed wood. All labour intensive. It was the kind of place that unlucky owners sometimes called a money pit and now the servants had gone. The small core of family members who were left- the Delias- had to make do and mend, doing the work once done by a small army of believers. Delia was still talking.
“Of course there are churches where it’s all new carpets, plastic chairs and microphones. The younger ones like that and that’s where the growth is. Good luck to them. It wouldn’t do here. They’d have to take the pews out of here over my dead body.”
Heather wondered about pews. Of course they would be an issue. They were a straight backed, rigidly arranged bastion against change, filling the space with a silent promise that things would always be like this. You could dress it up as protecting heritage and beauty but what you were really protecting yourself against was the possibility of change. This was where God had always been and in the past he had never needed a microphone.
“I think the saddest thing is that so many people don’t think about God at all any more- after all even the most convinced atheists have done that and made their mind up- that’s probably why some of them are so angry.”
“Oh people still think about God. They just call him something else. Crystals, angels, mindfulness, the universe- as if the universe ever cared less about anybody. They are still looking, they just don’t come in here to search any more and there’s nothing to make them feel guilty about that. God will go on working- of course he will, he’s God- but if the church isn’t careful it won’t be through the church.”
This sounded like subversion to Heather.
“Do you say this kind of thing to the other people in your church?”
“As if. I’m unpopular enough already. I get fed up of people who seem to think they can understand the workings of almighty God- especially when the workings of almighty God mostly boils down to exactly where the vicar stands to say the peace and what kind of teabags there should be at PCC meetings.”
“If he’s there I think he might be just a bit bigger than that.”
“I’d like to think so, otherwise what am I worshipping?”
“Well, nothing potentially.”
“At least you will never be able to say I told you so.”
“I wouldn’t do that. I was brought up a churchgoer and it never leaves you. I sometimes think I come back to places like this to mourn. Hoping.”
“God’s not dead.”
This firm statement seemed to remind Delia why she was there.
“Well, I’d better get on.”
One last quick smile and she was on her feet, all bustle, finding, fetching, pouring, flat feet flip flopping around gathering what she needed. She was comfortable here, happy in her own space, purposeful, confident. Heather sat silently, watching her work. The vase she was using was an old one, quite ugly really, with a dented, wide meshed metal insert. As the pile of flowers and greenery on the grey flagstones grew smaller it was transformed into something beautiful, a timeless cascade of white lilies, trailing leaves and tiny white lacy flowers, an act of faith which had been made and remade many times before by a series of skilled hands. A whisper into the darkness. Finally the job was done. It felt as though it was time for Heather to leave. She was not allowed to do this silently. Delia waved a dustpan at her as she saw her get up.
“So have you found any answers?”
Heather shook her head.
“I don’t think there are any answers. Only questions.”
“Just so long as you keep asking.”