I was expelled from Sunday School when I was 8.
My parents had moved from one side of town to the other and I had likewise changed Sunday Schools. Neither my mum nor dad was a church-goer. I suspect I was packed off to Sunday School each week to give them both an hour’s break from at least one of their offspring.
I quite liked my original Sunday School. It was run by two ladies who seemed positively ancient, Victorian refugees in the Swinging Sixties (not that there was much swinging in the northern English town in which I lived.) They had us sing a lot of songs about Jesus and we stuck pictures of him in an exercise book. These two activities were acceptable in my sight, not because of their Jesus content but because I rather liked singing and sticking things in books.
The new Sunday School had none of these moderately pleasurable activities. Instead, it focused, week after week, on hammering home to little groups of 7 and 8 year olds that Jesus had died for them on a cross and had then come back to life. This, an earnest young woman or frightening older man would tell us, was for real. Now, while I watched Doctor Who on TV (the original) and read Superman comics, I was under no illusion that these were in any way real. I knew they weren’t, and I also knew that the equally far-fetched Jesus story was also made-up. And it wasn’t anywhere near as good.
Despite what the earnest young woman and the older man told us, my undeveloped 8 year old brain just couldn’t accept the weird story of a man who came back to life to save me from something they were calling ‘sin’. Sin, they explained, was all the bad things I’d done that upset God. Now, if I was honest, I did occasionally do things that upset my mum – I once peed up against the wall in the back lane and that upset her a lot – but I couldn’t really see how anything I did could upset God so much he’d need to send his son to die on a cross ‘in my place’. None of it made any sense.
I took to asking the earnest young woman questions about it, not out of a need to know, as I recall, but out of mischief; I seemed to know intuitively that she wouldn’t know the answers. Why did God get upset? How did Jesus dying make him happy again? What had it anything to do with me when it all such a long time ago? (I knew it was a very long time ago because we’d learnt all about the Romans in real school.)
Sometimes the young woman would ignore my questions. Other times she would attempt an answer, but these made so little sense that I took to behaving very badly, disrupting the little group whenever I could with silly horse play. She retaliated, eventually, by bringing in the frightening older man to tell me off. To no avail. I still couldn’t take any of it seriously, and continued to play up.
Before long, my parents received a letter in the post, informing them it would be better if I didn’t attend Sunday School any more. They seemed disappointed – they’d be losing their hour’s peace – but not particularly surprised.
The point of my telling this story is that I wish I had listened to my 8 year old self. He seemed to know instinctively that all this Jesus talk – this Christian ideology – was nonsensical. I didn’t listen, however, and ended up, after joining a particularly evangelical YMCA in my teens, falling for it hook, line and sinker. I seem to remember that a sexy young American evangelist played a part in my conversion. (Plus, he had stickers! See above.)
Evangelicalism consumed my life from that point on, influencing crucial life choices and leading me to suppress who I really was. It would take me thirty years to break the chains and escape.