CHURCH GOING GONE
Post-it note left on Mari Prichard's copy by her daughter
Short extract from Chapter one
An interview with Brian Mountford
Why did you write this book?
My life has spanned a period of immense social change. I became a priest in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ when the Church was enjoying the back-end of a post-war revival in religion; now, fifty years later, 52% of people in secular Britain say they have ‘no religion’. I wanted to describe how this fascinating story evolved.
Also, in trying to strike a blow against mortality, I wanted to get my life down on paper. My life was in my head, known only to me, and I felt that by writing about it creatively it might become more meaningful and permanent. When I die, I want my ashes scattered to the elements. The mind – the essential me – is a miracle of imagination and emotion made up of the hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen of my body. Maybe now some of the elusive spirit is contained in the pages of this book. Virginia Wolff said that in biographical writing ‘odd details and vivid scenes’ are ‘moments when the wax figures begin to move’. I hope I have achieved that.
For a long time, I have thought theology, or thinking about God and the implications of faith, is best done through narrative. Stories rather than abstract ideas. That, besides, is what the Christian gospels in the New Testament do.
Some would say ‘Church Going Gone’ is a provocative and negative title. Why did you choose it, given that it might offend the very people you want to read it?
I really struggled to find a title. I could have called it ‘The Life of Brian’, I suppose, but it is so much more than my life. Initially I called it simply ‘Church Going’, after Philip Larkin’s 1954 poem of that name, with the intended play on the ideas of church attendance versus the demise of organised religion in Britain.
But those who read my first draft said no one’s going to want to read a book about going to church, so I tried to spice it up with the addition of ‘Gone?’ You notice I added a question mark. I was accused of timidity and cluttering the page, so I removed it. And there we are.
Provocation is a good thing, and, in the book, it is something I argue the Church should go in for more enthusiastically.
Who's it for?
For those who like a good story laced with a bit of humour.
Although it’s about a Church of England priest and his doubts and faith, it isn’t specifically a religious book. I try to show how religion affects us all whether we believe in it or not. It is for anyone interested in what it has meant to live in the second half of the 20th century and the first fifth of the 21st.
It will be of particular interest to those wrestling with faith, whether from a positive or negative point of view. That is to say, it should be of interest both to the person who wants to take a fairly conventional religious position, but finds themselves constantly tripping over archaic dogmatic views, and also the sceptic raking over the ashes of the idea that God is dead.
Both the story and the essays at the end will fascinate many more people than actually go to church.
What is it about?
London’s Bayswater in the Sixties, outer London childhood in the Fifties, Cambridge in the Seventies, suburbia in the Eighties, and Oxford after that.
It evokes the culture of the Church of England from a Barbara Pymish portrayal of curates, to the Church’s ambivalent role in multifaith society. It discusses vocation, sex and relationships, morals and politics, God, the meaning of life, and the relationship between doubt and faith. A central idea is that the abandonment of organised religion has not eradicated spiritual interest or questioning.
I could say it’s about me; but it’s also about you.
Within hours of receiving my sacred commission in St Paul’s I learned that the ‘cloth’ invited ridicule as well as respect, although in this case benign ridicule. On the positive side, clerical garb at least made one’s role unambiguous. And it assured people who saw you in it that you would probably be reasonably agreeable towards them, which encouraged people, variously sad, lonely, or just plain scoundrels, to sidle up and unburden their souls. This was particularly true in pubs where I discovered many drinking men welcomed the idea that the Church wasn’t always locked away in a private ghetto of religiosity, but could be there in the midst of everyday society, just like Jesus getting bad-mouthed for mixing with publicans and sinners. If the priest can drink with us, we are somehow redeemed, and not such bad guys after all.