I am a Christian, and this page will have thoughts about my journey as a believer in Christ, God Incarnate, who came to save us from our sins and give us eternal life.
My faith journey - Episode One
It's impossible to pinpoint a time when I became a Christian. I hear testimonies where people can say "It was at this moment I became a Christian" and think how different it was for me. I always went to church at St Edmundsbury Cathedral and was a chorister there for a few years (until my geography homework at Culford School clashed with Choir Practice, but don't get me started on that!). I had a very serious and earnest belief, particularly in the command to turn the other cheek, so much so that, when I was 10 I was seriously bullied, but did not tell anyone. However, if someone had spoken to me about having a personal relationship with Christ, I wouldn't have had a clue what they were talking about. That passivity contributed to me developing clinical depression, and spending nearly a year trapped at home, on amitryptyline, a drug no longer recommended for children due to it causing symptoms of psychosis. This is an episode in my life I'll explore elsewhere in the blog another time. I then went to Felsted School , a boarding school where the bullying continued, but so did my faith journey. My housemaster was a Christian, and very keen to nurture our faith. We had a Christian Union, which was small when I first attended, but grew to the extent that we could have 100 pupils at meetings sometimes. They organised annual missions, led by an outside speaker, and one of these had a profound impact on me. I can't remember anything about the talk, but I do remember going back to our "Common Room" and bursting into tears for no apparent reason. It was then, I believe, that I started to appreciate that I could have a close personal relationship with Jesus, and that faith was more important than blind rule-following.
So there I was, getting the best education my not particularly wealthy parents could buy (Thanks Mum and Dad, you gave me so much!), getting bullied, and discovering a relationship with Christ. I remember one Christian Union meeting, sitting in a comfy armchair and being totally overwhelmed with a feeling of God's love tingling right though me. Already I'm beginning to realise that there is no one way to be a Christian. The beauty of Cathedral worship, the intensity of charismatic Christianity, the fervour of evangelical Christianity, all have a part to play. I'm very anti-labels, in church and mental health. Here are a few parodoxes that might describe me: Liberal Conservative, Tolerant Evangelical, Charismatic Traditional. This describes my faith and my taste in worship music, and to a lesser extent, my politics.
As my faith grew, so did our Christian Union. We went on trips to St Helen's Bishopsgate a wonderful church in the heart of the City of London, with vibrant worship, powerful preaching, and food afterwards! There was a great pianist there called Nigel Styles, who looked a bit like Howard Jones at the time (sort of blond mullet) who I found amazing - at that stage I could only play from music, but he was improvising this amazing flow of music. I met him again recently when he led a family weekend for my current church. Hairstyle has improved I'm pleased to say!
Alongside this more evangelical form of Christianity, I was singing in the school Chapel Choir, maintaining my love of sacred choral music. Our chapel was designed by the great church architect Stephen Dykes Bower who also extended the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds. His plans for the tower there have only recently been realised.
It was at this school that I found the two great refuges in my life - faith and music. The bullying continued, and at boarding school there's no escape, but I had the Christian Union and friends there, and I had the music department. with it's Steinway and Bechstein grands. I was still playing from music, but that was enough at the time. It was later that I learnt how to improvise and to let my emotions flood out through my playing. I had a great piano teacher, Christopher Wood, who looked like Mozart, and could play him aged 4. He taught me that music is not just about playing the right notes, it's about expression, of the composer's feelings, and also your own, through their composition.
After a year out, during which I travelled round Europe by train, once with school friends after leaving, once the following summer on my own (actually more fun and cheaper!) I went to Exeter University to study Theology. My University time was probably the most intense few years of my life. I met my closest friend, Hassan, there. After a few failed relationships, I met my wife-to-be. She was at Cambridge, but we met at the stunning Lee Abbey Community
At University the combination of sacred choral music and modern worship came together at Exeter University Chapel Choir where we had a full choir and a modern worship group. As can be sen from the picture, it was long narrow building with a very high ceiling, providing excellent acoustics for choir music and instruments like the clarinet, but not ideal for modern worship music, due to the long echo. This also posed problems for the organist due to the delay in sound reaching him in the loft. This chapel has an amazing feeling of space and peace about it and was one of my favourite places to go. There was an upright piano which I spent many hours playing on, or I'd just play the clarinet, luxuriating in the amazing acoustic, being surrounded by sound. Of course, if the clarinet squeaked I had to listen to it for another few seconds!
The Chapel also had a society, imaginatively named Chapel Soc, who met in a room in a building opposite the chapel. We had weekly meetings, followed by Compline in the Chapel and drinks in one of the student bars afterwards. I was President of this society for a year, and if this was a microcosm of the Church of England, I can see how stressful life must be for Rowan Williams (who preached at the Chapel once, as Bishop of Monmouth). I loved Chapel Soc, but committees are stressful, and I have tended to avoid them ever since!
Going back to Lee Abbey, and the roots of my improvisation skills. We had gathered round the piano in the main meeting room (the Octagonal Lounge) and were playing worship songs. I was playing the clarinet, and all of a sudden I found myself playing notes with no conscious idea of where they were coming from (they sounded okay too!) I felt that the Holy Spirit was inspiring me, playing through me in some way, and it was the most amazing feeling. I've not stopped improvising since that day, though recently, particularly on the piano, I've started to resurrect my classical skills! They lay the foundation for the improvisation, enable to play things without really thinking too much. It's all in there, at a deep level, but when everything comes together, which is not every time I play, then it just flows from some deep reservoir. This sounds a bit like I think I'm amazing but I don't think that. The glory goes to God and His amazing Holy Spirit.
The story of my faith journey at Exeter University has more to it, which will be in Episode Four, but that's enough for this instalment.