Methodism to Humanism – a 60-year journey

I was born into Wesleyan Methodism. On my mother’s side there were Methodist ministers going back for generations, one was President of the Conference which is the Methodist equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury. My maternal grandmother was a formidable and gifted woman who when quite young would preach outside factory gates  warning the workers about the evils of drink. When she came to stay my parents hid the sherry!

For complicated reasons my grandmother and I, just 3 years old, went to Canada at the outbreak of war to live with relatives in Montreal. We always attended C of E church on a Sunday but I was allowed to take my own reading books. I had to say my prayers every bedtime which was one way of holding my parents and siblings in mind even though I could no longer really remember them.

After the war and my return home I soon went off to boarding school. A most unusual school with very liberal views about our freedom to worship or not if we didn’t want to, and as we got older, we were allowed to go to any place of worship in the city of Bristol as long as there were 2 of us.  

My Sunday treat was to go to Evensong in the magnificent church of St Mary Redcliffe and stay on after the service to listen to the organ voluntary. I was deeply moved by the music, the building and the familiar words of the service but I cannot recall that I believed in what I was saying. It was an over powering experience of aesthetic beauty and wonder with the added excitement of being a teenager out in the big wide world.

A significant  proportion of girls at my school were liberal Jews and my first visit to my best friend’s family home  took me into the heart of Golders Green.

After university I spent a year in the US and being short of money I spent my 3 week holiday driving from New York to San Francisco delivering cars from city to city. I went with 5 other foreign students and I now cannot remember why this was so, but we were hosted by church organisations in every city.

In Salt Lake City we stayed with a Mormon bishop and his wife and family who took us to their Temple and an impressive welfare centre where people unable to be properly employed were ‘paid’ in food and rent. It was really hard to accept that such charming, intelligent and hospitable people along with  almost every other resident in the city could believe such complete nonsense as The Book of Mormon.

In another city we went to a Universalist church where people from different religions worshipped together.  I was very impressed by this one experience and when I returned to the UK looked in vain for a Universalist church. Instead I found the Unitarian church and an elderly and wonderful minister who I came to admire and love.  He married me and David but was happy to let us write our own  service.

Leaving London and starting a family saw the end of my vague religious searches.

All my life I have sung in chamber choirs performing mainly church music from Medieval times to the 20th century. I have sung in many cathedrals, large and small parish churches as well as secular buildings and have taken part in numerous Anglican services.  I long ago realised that I believed not one word of the liturgy but I could be deeply moved by singing glorious choral music in magnificent churches. The 9 pm service of Compline in a candle-lit Tewkesbury Abbey takes some beating as an overwhelmingly beautiful aesthetic experience.  I didn’t need to believe – I was just profoundly moved and grateful to be part of something so uplifting.

I can’t now remember how or when I found out about Humanism but I joined the BHA and Oxford Humanists in about 2003 and with profound relief felt I had finally found my true home.

Penny