The lasting influence of St Michael le Belfrey

On a bit of a whim this morning I trawled Spotify for some of the spiritual music that I’ve found helpful and comforting over the years. My search led me to this video, which I listened to with conflicting emotions.

If I had to pick one person whose influence shaped my college years and early adulthood, it would be the British evangelist David Watson. I was at York University from 1978 to 1981, a time when the church where he was Rector, St Michael Le Belfrey, was a powerhouse of evangelical renewal. I was converted within a week of arriving at York, a ripe apple just waiting to be plucked off the tree. It’s no co-incidence that tha catalyst was Graham Kendrick’s song Paid on the Nail,  an anthem to our complete unworthiness when compared to the infinite love and sufferings of Jesus Christ. But, at the risk of sounding unduly cynical, if it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else.

I was so needy – for family, for connection, for boundaries, for meaning. My family life had failed me completely and I was launched on a confusing and frightening world. Sexuality, above all, terrified me – the very idea of becoming physically intimate with another human being,  so the chaste, emotionally febrile fellowship of the Christian Union was the ideal environment for me.

There was much at St Michael le Belfrey that was deeply appealing – especially glorious, powerful worship that inspires me to this day, the beauty of the Anglican prayer book wedded to the genius of Andrew Maries in creating sophisticated melodies that could perform emotional open heart surgery on you while convincing you they were entirely spiritual (Incidentally, a secular equivalent that has had a similar effect on me more recently is Murray Gold’s work on Doctor Who – I’m trying to resist the temptation to sneer that at least he’s more honest about what is going on). St Mike’s was a beautiful building filled with mostly young people on fire for the Lord and singing their hearts out. I will never forget the absolute joy of walking into the city of York at sunset on a Sunday evening, the Cathedral bells ringing, with a group of student Christians. I went on missions in the summer vacation, serving quiche to tourists we’d dragged in off the street. The people, the friendship, the music and the beautiful setting conspired to give me many rich and wonderful memories. The YouTube video brings them flooding back.

Nevertheless, I think St Mike’s did me as much harm as good when all things were considered. In 1984 David Watson died of cancer and my faith took a painful hit. How could God do such an awful thing to someone who had served him so faithfully? By then I was in much less happy personal circumstances myself, struggling to make my way in a lonely world after graduation without any backing from my family.

I just didn’t get it. David Watson was still relatively young, full of life and charisma. Why had God let it happen? Many years later, a member of the team who’d gone on the road with him in those years showed up at my church and said crisply, “Well, of course he’d get bowel cancer. He didn’t look after himself. You should have seen the way he ate.”

I can see now that there are certain people who are utterly addicted to pouring themselves out on the alter of their convictions, who don’t look after themselves and often, directly or indirectly, put huge pressures on others. I can also see that the communities they head up often implode under the pressure of their contradictions, and tend to survive only be implementing some fairly draconian procedures to stop people thinking for themselves. But I’m looking back now with the perspective of thirty years. At least half of that was spent either at St Mike’s or a church that resembled and admired it in many ways (perhaps less so now than when I was an active member of the fellowship).

In 2000 I had a midlife crisis of sorts. What was fundamentally going on was that the real me was screaming to be let out of its evangelical straitjacket. There were catalysts – Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, which gave me a version of atheism that managed to retain a sense of the sublime, my then-rector’s deeply unpleasant stance against gay people, and my children’s questions as they grew up. Most of all, I knew at some gut level that it was either the church or my marriage, though it was never said in as many words. I chose the latter and have no regrets. But I can still remember sitting in a park several miles away one Sunday morning, overwhelmed with tears of grief and guilt because, for the first time in 14 years, I was not in church.

Since then I have studiously avoided anything spiritual, deeply afraid of getting sucked back in. I am no longer the rootless, dependent person that provides such easy fodder for a certain type of Christian fellowship. I still live in the parish where I stopped worshipping 14 years ago, and work at the church school. People tell me it’s changed and suggest I give it another try. But I can’t help reflecting on the series of marriage break-ups that have ripped through the set of Christians I used to hang out with, and the irony that my relationship with a “non-Christian”, the subject of so much anxious prayer and censure at the time, is the one that has survived. Or that when I was mentally ill, the Church sent two amateur counsellors to advise me, and one of them was in the throes of splitting up with her husband (Of course, they didn’t tell me that at the time).

I now find myself, in middle age, missing that spiritual dimension to my life, particularly when depression hits me and I can’t sleep. I feel certain stirrings that might, eventually, lead me back, most probably to the Society of Friends, since their silence and lack of dogma deeply appeals to me, and the Quakers I have met over the years have generally impressed me with their honesty and spiritual discipline. I still feel deeply allergic to most of the manifestations of organised religion, particularly the more evangelical wing of Christianity.

But watching that video was a strange, and very emotional experience for me. I could see what drew me in, and a part of me wanted to protest that, like the cake in Portal, it’s a lie. That promise of peace masked many years of emotional turmoil for me. I don’t know if, even now, I could separate the good from the harmful in it. It would be like trying to eat leavened bread without the bubbles in it. An odd simile, I know, but the Christian church is full of bread and wine symbolism, and sometimes the unproved dough is exploding over the rim of the mixing bowl. Now I think I prefer it quietly contained, but still adding life and fragrence to the whole.

And herein, as they say, endeth the lesson.

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9 thoughts on “The lasting influence of St Michael le Belfrey

  1. I too went to college in york 1978 -1981 and spent my three years there at St Mike’s. I arrived as a christian so that part of my story is different to yours.
    Now…I no longer believe a word of it, but find the songs strangely warming. I left the church after 47 years and dont regret it for one moment. I too can see the pull it had and to many millions still has, but for me I realised that once I sat and gave my whole faith, beliefs and life serious thought, the pieces no longer fitted. I am now free. I make my own decisions and use my own moral guide, which is, strangely, very similar to the one given to me by christianinty! I no longer feel obliged to think or act a certain way, but live my life at peace with myself. I never realised quite how constricted my life was as a christian. After 47 yrs I could fimally think for myself. Take care and thank you for your post which I stumbled on quite by accident.

  2. What a lovely comment. It sounds like we’d agree on quite a few things. Maybe we met in Jimmy’s Fish Bar one Sunday night all those years ago?

  3. Thank you for your article – which I found challenging and thought-provoking. Again, I stumbled upon it quite by accident. The late David Watson’s influence on me was only in terms of his writings – my university Christian Union days were spent some distance from York: in Scotland at St.Andrews. Although my Christian convictions have largely remained unchanged on fundamentals since my student days and have taken me both to some years of Christian service in South Asia and into parish ministry, I cannot help but be challenged by some of your points. I think you state important things about integrity in the way things are handled, about sensitivity and care, and about the danger of a group focus on someone’s personal charisma getting in the way of people thinking individually for themselves.

    I do speak as an evangelical who will not agree with all your perspectives on even some of the issues represented. I did, however, find many of your comments helpful – and want neither to misrepresent them nor to patronise.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. The fact that this particular spiritual practice wasn’t a fit for me in no way detracts from the fact that I’ve known many sincere, committed and thoroughly admirable Christians in the Evangelical tradition.

      Sadly, there’s now another tragedy for the Evangelical community to come to terms with – the suicide of Rick Warren’s son.

  4. A lot of the issues raised in this blog are addressed in David Watson’s book, “Fear No Evil”. He wrote it while he was dying of cancer. Yes, tragedies happen and they happen to Christians as well as everybody else.

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