In the corner of the courtroom was a beautiful stained-glass window. It was dedicated to a former judge of the court, and simply read “Praise God” underneath. During the week I spent in that room I would regularly look up at this window and seek solace in it, repeating the Lord’s Prayer to myself as I listened to an army of men in suits speak legalese.
I was there, at the Court of Appeal, to fight an Electoral Commission fine of £20,000 for alleged irregularities during the referendum. The case had propelled me to a sort of notoriety, and had I lost this appeal, it would have ruined me – both financially and professionally.
It was the culmination of a long journey. A few years ago, in my early twenties, I would have called myself a staunch libertarian and atheist. I thought that religion was just a form of coercion and control, and to believe in some mystical pixie in the sky – when science has explained away any need for the divine – made you a deluded fool at best.
Fast forward to 2018, and aged 25, I had become a churchgoer, attending a service each week in which robed choristers processed through clouds of pungent incense. Here, within the walls of what had been a medieval priory and hospital, I witnessed the elevation of the gilded King James Bible above the priest’s head and listened to the sung Latin of the liturgy.
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It was Twitter, of all things, which had brought me to God. As my public infamy grew, my phone would go ping-ping-ping, as message after message flashed up with the vilest abuse, much of it dripping with homophobia. There were endless variations on me going to prison and what would be done to me there. I don’t know if these twitterers would have said the same to me in person, but this was the internet, the context was Brexit and so all bets were off.
As the saga dragged on, I lost friends, relationships and income. I felt isolated and helpless. There was a great deal of anger and shock over the referendum, which I understood, but it was strange, as a student from a working-class background in the north-east, to be in the public glare.
And so, for me, social media was a digital sewer. Yet, paradoxically, it also introduced me to Fr Marcus Walker, rector of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, just inside the City of London. It was Fr Marcus who would set me on a journey to God, for which I will always be grateful. I had followed him on Twitter for a while and enjoyed his takes on everything from history to politics – so when a friend suggested I attend a service at St Bart’s I did.
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This was an unexpected path. I grew up in Stanley, in Co. Durham, and, like a lot of people in that part of the world, most of my family were originally Irish and devoutly Catholic. My granddad’s family were Protestant and he used to go and sit in church sometimes when he was younger. But all this I only found out last year after he died: the family had all turned against religion long before I came into the world.
I had been curious about religion as a child, but my mother’s visceral reaction to my questions was enough to warn me off for many years. She had gone to a Catholic school that was, by all accounts, intensely pious and strict. Whenever I’d ask her about it, she’d tell me that religion was the root of all evil and not worth indulging.
I attended my first service at Great St Bartholomew’s one Ash Wednesday, having never voluntarily given up an evening to go to church before. Until then my experience with religion revolved around singing “Hosanna to the King of Kings” in an assembly hall, and sticking cocktail sticks into oranges at primary school once a year.
As I left with the ashen cross on my forehead it would have been the natural thing to rub it off and rejoin the crowd of office workers milling around me. But, and I’m not sure why, I chose to leave it on. There was something intensely powerful about that reminder and symbol: that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. I told a colleague about my experience and how surprised I was by my stubborn attachment to the ashes, and a few days later he gave me a copy of atheist-turned-theist C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
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This became my “Christianity for Dummies” guidebook; I had no real understanding of what it was about at all before that. But then, perhaps, as Lewis said, there is something to be said about that zeal of a convert, the power of finding Christ on your own terms, of accepting the love that only God can offer when you’re ready. Thus inspired, I took up Confirmation classes a few months later.
Then, last year, my grandfather passed away. He was my political and personal hero and when he died I was in a dark place; it was the Church that offered me comfort and meaning. Words are not empty things. The simple act of a parish community offering their thoughts and prayers through such a time of turmoil had a profound impact on me. I felt, for possibly the first time in quite some while, that I had found my home in London – a city in which it is easy to feel lost and alone. It occurred to me that I belonged to something much bigger than myself, and my Sunday mornings of prayer and reflection, followed by coffee in the cloister with my new church community, became a grounding experience that has done so much to enrich my life.
I was worried about what my mam would make of it, given her hostility to religion. But when she came down to London for the first time, she saw the support network that the Church had built around me. It was such a relief for her, because up until that point I think she had assumed that I was alone in the wilderness. Perhaps it also helped her deal with her own feelings about what she had experienced; she actually got a bit emotional after the service and remarked on how comforting it was to see so much love in that Church, to see me make my commitment to it, and the beginning of my journey with God. When I was baptised and confirmed, despite it being into the Anglican faith, my mother gave me my great-grandmother’s rosary beads.
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The Church is a great bridge. Each Sunday, I join with people of all political opinions – Left and Right, Leave and Remain. We share a common baptism that transcends our trivial divisions, differences that in the wider scheme of eternity are nothing.
I do worry that society’s loss of faith is one of the things helping to drive us apart. But while some people take great delight in the decline in churchgoing, I wouldn’t count on its fall quite yet. I think that in the not-too-distant future there will be a crisis of confidence in what we’ve replaced it with – a competition for likes and retweets instead of a sharing together of community and moral values. The signs are already here; there’s a reason why so many of my generation long for the perceived authenticity of politicians like Jeremy Corbyn or Jacob Rees-Mogg. They’re seen as the genuine article, the real deal.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s line that “God is dead” is often interpreted as an atheist broadside, but that’s not how I read it. He said: “God is dead and we have killed him”, and “we’ll never find enough water to wash away the blood”. That, to me, has a very different meaning. It wasn’t that Nietzsche was proclaiming it triumphantly, but rather lamenting a catastrophic loss of meaning. His words were prophetic, and especially to my generation – with our online, on-demand culture that can order a hook-up as a fast as a Chinese takeaway.
But meaning has been forgotten, not destroyed. It is still there to be found. I feel eternal gratitude to St Bart’s for helping me find it – and for rescuing me.