On Sunday 28th September, Natasha Gardiner, Simon Green, Sonia Bowen-Perkins and two members of St Mary’s Church in Twickenham, were confirmed by Bishop Paul of Kensington, in a joyous and profoundly moving Confirmation service.
The ceremony emanated warmth, love and support as well as providing a time of quiet reflection for the whole congregation about the commitment we have made in our lives to follow Christ. It was the culmination of a dedicated course led by Joe. The discussions touched on why we found ourselves on this journey and helped deepen and clarify our understanding of all aspects of the church and faith. We all described the sense of comfort and belonging derived from sharing our belief in God. Joe addressed any doubts, went back to the beginning and explained anything we were struggling with or had never
quite understood about the Bible and the Church. In his sermon, Bishop Paul talked about how each of us has a purpose in God’s eyes, a dynamic path that is overflowing with abundance and creativity, guiding us well outside of a safe existence in our comfort-zones and nurturing us to be the best we can be.
Some personal accounts:
By Simon Green:
Since getting married at St Mary with St Alban Church in 2011, the journey to confirmation, for me, has been a natural progression of my faith. Through my wife there is a strong connection with the church, and it is thanks to her that I am blessed to be part of this wonderful community; inspiring, and supportive of my journey. Further to this, I am fortunate to have three wonderful Godsons that play a significant role in my life; reason enough to explore and strengthen my relationship with God.
Preparation classes were wonderfully dynamic and stimulating, offering a fantastic environment to talk openly about feelings, experiences and our understanding of faith and God. They highlighted, through the development of skills such as interpretation, reflection and prayer, how to become closer to God.
Confirmation is an important milestone on my journey through life; a commitment from me that will help cement my relationship with God. I will never forget the moment, nor feeling, when Bishop Paul annointed me and said ‘Be sealed with the gift of the Spirit.’
By Sonia Bowen-Perkins:
From as early as I can remember, I’ve had a curiosity in the Church and Christianity. Growing up, my appetite was whetted with attending Church each Sunday with my Mum, taking part in Sunday School, being a Brownie then a Guide and I attended Scripture classes when I was a bit older. However, into my teen years other interests took over and what other people thought meant more than it probably should have done. All part of growing up I guess.
In recent years, my interest has returned, again, part of growing up; caring about how I lead my life, understanding what my values are, learning what and how I can contribute more. All these matters have mattered more since having our first child last year.
Having a baby shines a whole new enriching kind of light onto absolutely everything and as well as being in awe of how truly precious life is, for me, it raised so many other questions about life and what is important.
Having previously considered being baptised, the time never felt more right than after having had our son. I was baptised earlier this year with him and so the natural next step for me was to be confirmed.
After my baptism my parents apologised for not having baptised me when younger, yet I was so grateful they didn’t – their reasoning was to let me learn more about my faith and then make my own decision and that’s exactly what I was able to do. My husband and I made the decision to baptise our son as a baby, we will bring him up in the Christian faith and educate him to make his own decision as to whether or not he wishes to confirm his faith when he’s older. The confirmation course, led by Joe, was so incredibly enlightening and thought provoking and I was pleasantly surprised that rather than assuming at the end of it we would be confirmed, it sought to provide us with a new level of understanding, to provide a safe environment in which we could ask questions and to challenge our views, ultimately for us to decide if, at the end of the course, we still felt able to confirm our faith. I did.
By Natasha Gardiner:
I used to carry around anger and hurt at the Church, at organised religion. I wanted to be anything but a sheep that blindly follows dogma. It felt like I was bashing against a door in rage at the lack of justice in the world. I didn’t want to be gullible, to give in to something I could not see or touch. But really I was knocking for an answer. All those years I wanted to belong to something, to plug in to the source. I was scrabbling around for some spiritual sustenance to find some inner peace.
One of the reasons for this was that God wasn’t on my side when I was little. Or so I felt. He’d taken my dad away when I was eight. They divorced and I hardly ever saw him again, perhaps once a year for an hour during the holidays. The God I knew was very disappointing and bore no resemblance to the ‘Father Christmas’ figure I had imagined he ought to be. We were not a churchgoing family, and in a spirit of liberalism my parents had decided not to have me baptised, leaving it to me to decide what spiritual path to take when I was older.
My Italian mother had run out of her Catholic church in 1950’s Rome, never to return, after a Priest had behaved abominably, asking her inappropriate questions in confession when she was 11. My English dad’s spiritual background was seemingly non-existent, his uncompromising East End childhood made him focus solely on survival and escape. My earliest memories of Christianity are the lyrics of Sydney Carter’s “When I Needed A Neighbour” at Primary School, combined with Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” mini-series on TV and a somewhat premature viewing of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at an Italian cinema, in 1974.
And yet, I had an innate longing and respect for God; a natural understanding that in truth, God couldn’t command us or direct us beyond giving us a choice. I was in awe of the beauty and wonder of nature, music and art and felt that there was some greater power at work in our magnificent world. I would always sneakily include a little flower that represented God, in the corner of pictures I drew in R.E. marking a personal link to Him.
As I got older a sense of disillusionment grew. I would regularly grill my poor R.E. teachers at Secondary School bombarding them with questions:
– Where was God when we needed Him?
– Where was Jesus when nasty things happened?
– Why was organised religion so intolerant towards homosexuality?
– How could it justify inequality towards women within its own ranks?
– How could it co-exist with Governments that condoned War?
– How could practising Christians behave in such un-Christlike ways throughout history?
When I didn’t get the answers I wanted, I closed myself off from the Church and became cynical like most of my friends. As an adult, I turned, in my pain, to self-help books from the promising ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ section in Bookshops. Throwing myself in to work and relationships for answers, I became a tourist of the mystical; meditating whilst inspecting the Runes, drawing the I Ching and practising Feng Shui in my one-bedroom flat in order to find my way; anything, but walk in to the parish church.
One book in particular, the ‘Road less Travelled’ by M. Scott Peck, directed readers who may have suppressed their desire to be part of a religion, to turn to a higher power for help. In the absence of belief, the struggle to find meaning led to much suffering in their lives. This made me think about whether a leap of faith truly was a sign of weakness; whether believing in spite of all logic and understanding and giving oneself up to a mystery was a betrayal of rationality.
Constant coincidences kept bringing me back to the same door. I fell in to jobs that directly confronted me with my inner conflict, almost as if I was being tested. One time, whilst struggling to find work as an actress, I found myself conducting a week-long children’s drama workshop based on “Where the Wild Things Are” at the Opus Dei Headquarters in London, of all places. Even more surprisingly, I ended up leading pilgrimages across Europe, as a favour to a friend, culminating with guiding for the Anglican Press Officer’s Annual Conference in Rome. At one point, I found myself helping with a service in St Peter’s Cathedral for a Catholic Congregation and walking in to the Sacristy. Here I was, the sceptic from South London, in the inner sanctum at St Peter’s. It was a wake-up call. I couldn’t keep saying that I was excluded from this world, that God had turned his back on me. I spoke with the priests and pilgrims I met about my struggle with faith and they were all very gentle and reassuring and didn’t push me. It took me a very long time to come down this path.
Around this time, a friend took me to a strange meeting in London, ostensibly a talk about ‘making and managing money’. Since we didn’t have any, it seemed a wise thing to do. However, it turned out to be for an organisation that peddled a system in self-improvement and wanted our money instead. Members of the group bullied us in to a corner late at night and attempted to willfully impose their beliefs whilst undermining ours. I was shocked at the strength of my core beliefs that I’d hardly known existed, streaming out of me, clear as a bell, defiant, with power and quiet confidence. I can thank this group for unintentionally igniting a flame within me. The framework was there, if only I listened to my own heart, or Jesus, talking through me.
Then by chance one day, a vicar near where I lived in Chiswick, saw me looking at the sign outside his church, when it was shut. He welcomed me and unlocked it. I was baptized there at Easter the next year (much to my mother’s contentment) and my husband and I were married at the All Saints Anglican Church in Rome; a perfect combination, reflecting a blend of our spiritual roots.
Opening up to faith, I am finding that there is such an abundance and wealth of power and warmth, love and understanding. It is there for all of us if we only reach out, to help us in the bad times; the dreadful times. God isn’t there to answer personal wish lists and the Church is a fallible man-made institution. Bad things can happen to all of us, but God is still there. Mistakes will be made, but we can pray for God’s guidance on how we can improve on what we’ve achieved. As Bishop Paul of Kensington said in his sermon at our confirmation, God wants us to be the best we can be.
I may never get all the answers I’d like to hear, or attain enlightenment in my lifetime, but I feel a sense of calm more often, and a tiny chink of light has entered my heart since I’ve been welcomed by the Church. It gives meaning and a sense of belonging to follow, serve and worship with others. I am learning to live as a Christian as I continue to the next stage in the journey. By joining the flock, I have not become weak but feel an inner strength from shared faith.
I now realise that I was the one who was holding the metaphorical door shut. Just as I have opened my heart to my husband and my children, letting go and giving in to the love of God is paramount.