I Went on a Course to Find the Meaning of Life

A man leaps across a deep gully.
A man leaps across a deep gully.

I was crying in the basement of a hotel in Eastbourne. Through some intense emotions, I thought; I’m overweight, I’m in my thirties, and I’m crying.

I must look ridiculous.

It was definitely not part of the plan for my life or this weekend.

There were thirty or forty of us gathered in the hotel basement. Some other people were crying as well but most weren’t. A small number were engaged in, what is called, speaking-in-tongues. At least one person was lying on the floor, vigorously shaking, apparently at the behest of a supernatural force. The remaining people were either standing solemnly or they were members of staff or volunteers supervising the day’s activities; praying, assisting and talking to the participants. In a sense, we were all praying. The purpose of this gathering was to ask the Holy Spirit to fill us with its presence and to make everything okay.

I definitely wasn’t okay.

Stood there, sobbing with my head in my hands, dimly aware of the strangeness of this situation, a lot of things were running through my mind, chiefly this: ‘How did I end up here?’

Welcome to the Life Course run by St. Mary’s Church, Marylebone.

Let’s go back a few months. It’s 2015, I had finally moved to London. I had always wanted to live here but various things had kept me in various other places. However, I was here at last in the big bad capital city and I was loving it. I had always felt the pull to move to London and wondered if it would work. It had. Life was exciting and I felt great.

I had been living in Cambridge and going to a church there that I liked. The sermons were thoughtful and reflected that the world and life are complicated, as are the people in it. Faith may give us insight but it doesn’t make things simple. I met some incredibly tolerant, thoughtful and open-minded people.

I hadn’t been a Christian for very long. In some ways, I wasn’t sure if I was a Christian at all but I was definitely on the spectrum. Once I was on board with the idea that there might be a God, it got really challenging — Christianity and going to church.

If God does exist, I think he’s a loving God who doesn’t share the sexual norms, mores and priorities of 21st-century social conservatives. Aside from believing in a God, I wasn’t sure what else myself and other Christians had in common.

But the stereotype I had of Christians was, to a good extent, wrong. As I said, I met some incredibly compassionate and tolerant people. It was a good church. My nebulous cloud of faith was slowly starting to take form and change my view of life and, well, change me.

So I had moved to London but just didn’t quite get round to finding a church. After a few months of having my Sunday mornings to myself, I thought it’s time to go to church again. It can be difficult to keep God in your life without having other people who also believe in God in your life. You drift, bit-by-bit and you can drift a great distance.

To some extent, I had taken a leap of faith about the existence of God. I had been waiting for the day when I would decide whether I believed that God did or did not exist, but I realised that that day was never going to come. I believed, on balance, more in God than I didn’t and at some point, you’re in or you’re out. I was in, with all the doubt and problems that come along with that. I honestly don’t understand people who either completely believe or don’t in God — how can anyone be so sure? I would be a terrible fundamentalist. Very occasionally, people tell me why they don’t believe in God and why I shouldn’t too. I have to say to them, ‘Yeah. You seem to have pretty good reasons to not believe in God. I think about those kinds of things every day.’

But because I choose to believe that God exists doesn’t mean I believe everything people say about God, including from the people who claim to have no doubt whatsoever. Life is hard and I’m unsure as to how much God interferes in our lives on a day to day basis. Why would God look after people who believe in him more than people who don’t? Does He answer prayers — if so, when bad things happen to people is that because people didn’t pray hard enough? I can’t believe that. I don’t claim to have all, or even most, of the answers and I’m highly sceptical of those that do.

Anyway, I needed to find a church. I did a bit of research (googled ‘London churches’) and looked at various church websites. I wanted an inclusive, modern church. St. Mary, Marylebone’s website caught my eye. There was nothing about people going to hell and the whole site seemed bright, modern and like… they got ‘it’. I wasn’t sure what ‘it’ was, but they seemed to have something. I’ll give it a go, I thought, and to St. Mary’s I went. What’s the worst that could happen?

St. Mary’s is located in a large, beautiful building not far from Baker Street. I walked in and I couldn’t believe how packed the room was. There were hundreds of people there and young people at that. Rows and rows of people in their late teens, twenties and thirties. We hear that the number of people going to church is declining and how young people aren’t interested in religion. Well, that didn’t square with what I was seeing at St. Mary’s. The pews were packed and people looked distinctly normal.

I got a cup of tea and sat down at the back. There was a lot of singing and I mean a lot, even for church — we’re talking about 45 minutes of singing. People weren’t overly friendly but I put that down to it being a big church, and a church in London still having that London thing of people being more stand-offish than in other places.

So I went to St. Mary’s for a few weeks. The sermons were okay, a little unchallenging I thought, but they didn’t mention how some people with certain lifestyles were going to hell and they did talk about forgiveness and how God is a loving God. Over those weeks, I heard many, many times, about the upcoming Life Course.

St. Mary’s’ Life Course has been adapted from the famous Alpha Course. The Alpha Course started in 1977 but it really took off in the 1990s when Nicky Gumble took it over. Since then it’s been active in dozens of countries and thousands of Churches. The Alpha Course is there to discuss the big questions of life and give people their first taste of Christianity.

The Life Course is run by St. Mary’s a few times a year and it lasts for 8 weeks. I turned up on the first Wednesday and I was assigned to a group. I met the group leaders, two very nice and friendly people who had been on the Life Course before and who had been going to the Church for some time. I also met the other members of our group. Over the next two months, I would get to know some of these people really well. We had something very nice to eat and a bit of small talk before all gathering to hear a talk by St. Mary’s vicar, John Peters. After the talk, we would all gather in our groups and chat about that week’s talk.

This continued for around six weeks, each Wednesday, we’d chat about our week, our lives and our thoughts about God, spirituality and almost everything else. We had some incredibly deep, thoughtful and honest conversations.

Over the weeks, the numbers attending slowly dwindled downwards. Not so much in our group. I’m not saying that’s because of me — but you have to wonder. Anyway, they were a good group of people, I thought that then and I still think that now.

It was only looking back that I realised at some point, the conversation went from ‘What’s out there — hey, maybe there’s something?’ to ‘There definitely is a God and He’s like this’. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this; St. Mary’s believe in certain things and they are free to tell people all about it. But it is disingenuous to tell people we are all here exploring the big issues when we are listening to a Christian theory of existence and a particular type of Christianity at that in a planned, laid-out structure. It’s not a big conversation — it’s just designed to seem like one.

The groups serve a particular purpose. Within the groups, debate and discussion are freewheeling and can go all over the place but that’s where it ends. All the dissent is contained within the groups. Next week we turn up and hear the next instalment of the church’s belief system. No matter what is said or asked by attendees, the Life Course carries on its trajectory and you can sign up to it or leave. And the majority of people do leave, week by week numbers dwindle downwards.

But I didn’t leave. I love a good debate and a good meal, and I enjoyed the group discussion if not the weekly talks. I also overestimated my mental toughness and how sure I was of my own beliefs. But the process of people leaving week by week leaves behind a rump of people who… are more pliable, even if they don’t think they are. People who to a greater degree, accept what’s being said and people who may be inclined that way but now see an awful lot of people agree with what’s being said. Each week, the people left are closer to each other in their beliefs and the median opinion shifts in the direction of St. Mary’s. The Life Course is a masterpiece of how to manage dissent.

All through the first six weeks of the Life Course, we were frequently told about the weekend away in Eastbourne. “It’s going to be amazing folks”. The weekend away is described as like the Wednesday evening catch-ups but spread out over a whole weekend away from the hustle and bustle of London. It’s also a chance for us to get to know each other. It was that.

What I heard, over and over again, was how awful the hotel was and how funny it was. A kitschy type of place. And the Saturday evening event was always really fun. Fun, fun, fun, awaited. John Peters told us, the volunteers on Wednesday told us, people at the Sunday service told us and they had all been to Life Course before, some more than once. A weekend of theology, philosophy, discussion about the big stuff of life, plus food and drink. What could possibly go wrong?

We left from Victoria station and got to Eastbourne and the hotel. The hotel seemed kind of okay really and not that funny. Over the next couple of days, a lot of things occurred to me and one of them was how snobby people can be.

On the first night, some of us went out for a drink. I spoke to people from my group and some new people. All was well. There were a couple of talks on Saturday and then people started talking about a session in which we could receive the Holy Spirit. Now, this is where it gets a bit tricky and a bit hazy as well. I can’t remember the point where it was formally discussed or even announced that we would all gather in a basement and ask God to enter us and transform us. We just kind of drifted into it.

The session was as voluntary as the whole weekend away was and as the whole Life Course is, but all the language used made it very difficult to not do it. Over and over again, the language used was about how all-powerful God was and how we need to open up to him. What would God want you to do? Why not take a risk? What’s the worst that could happen? And it was all so gradual until it wasn’t. We were suddenly all in a room and we were asking for the Holy Spirit to fill us and make everything okay.

John Peters talked about how some people have reacted in the past when the Holy Spirit has entered them. A range of things apparently happened from visions or messages from God to speaking-in-tongues to breaking down and crying. You could say he was preparing people for how they should act.

Now no one goes to church because everything in their life is going well. No one thinks, ‘Hey, my life is pretty good. Let’s make it even better! Let’s get me some religion!’ People go to church because they always have, from being children, or because they are searching for something — because they are broken, and they are want to be fixed. I think everyone on that course that made it to week 6 was, to some degree, desperate to be fixed.

I thought about whether to take part. It’s like you are standing on the edge of a cliff. Everyone’s telling you to jump and God will catch you. God is great. He’s all-powerful. He’s all-loving. He wants you to jump. He has caught people before. He can do anything. He can take away all the pain and the hurt and the past. That’s what St. Mary’s is offering. You just have to believe enough.

It is only when you are at the bottom of the cliff, battered and bruised with a couple of spiritually broken legs, that you think, maybe jumping off cliffs is a bad idea. Maybe God doesn’t want you to jump off the cliff and that the people who said ‘jump’ are, well, wrong.

So I jumped or at least I tried to. I asked the Holy Spirit to transform me. I put it all before God, all the pain, all my doubt, all my shortcomings and mistakes. All my hurt. I asked God to take it all away. It was pretty powerful. I stood there and I cried. I didn’t encounter the Holy Spirit. I just felt very upset. A childhood, and a lifetime, of pain, poured out.

The rest of the Saturday was a bit of a blur. There was the evening entertainment. A slightly surreal event in which there was a quiz and challenges and seemed to be centred around how hilarious John Peters was. A few people were dazed and everyone was pretending a few hours ago we all hadn’t been through this very odd exercise.

On Sunday another similar session took place. I tried again but I felt pretty dead. Then we all went home. There was a service that evening. I didn’t go. I was exhausted and I didn’t have the energy to put together all my thoughts, much less express those doubts to an entire congregation though I was tempted. I was told that at the evening service, some people who went to the Life Course stood up and told everyone about what an amazing, transformative weekend they had just had. None of the considerable doubts people had had over the weekend that were talked about, were passed on to the congregation. No one spoke about how they thought they had wasted their weekend. No one talked about the incredibly traumatising experience that they had just had.

Yet again the congregation was given an uncritical testimony about how amazing the Life Course was. I wonder how many new people thought that evening, ‘this Life Course sounds interesting. What’s the worse that could happen?’ Meanwhile, many of the weekend’s participants are scattered across London, bruised and battered.

It was some of the keenest people that got up to speak at Church. Reaffirming to the congregation what they already believed. Literally, preaching to the converted. For any newcomers, the seeds were planted — maybe they should go to the next Life Course. I thought about all the people who had had an experience of the Holy Spirit on the weekend away. It was all of the keenest people and frankly the easily impressed and the most gullible. If before the weekend began, I had had to guess who would have claimed to have had a vision or a message from God or even have the Holy Spirit make them speak in tongues, I would have been spot on. It was none of the sceptical people, it was the ones that already believed.

Over the next few days, I thought about what had just happened. It occurred to me that those painful issues, that came up over the weekend, I had pretty much dealt with. Not completely but pretty much. But they had all came out again. Perhaps I had not really dealt with them but I don’t think so. I think the Life Course brings all the deep stuff out, whether it has been dealt with or not. It occurred to me, how even more devastating the weekend could have been if I had been dealing with unresolved issues. For many people over the weekend, this was the case.

It’s not that I don’t believe in the Holy Spirit or its ability to transform people but I don’t think it’s magic that comes when anyone at St. Mary’s clicks their fingers, instantaneously transforming people. It’s tempting to believe that, but change and peace don’t come so easily. But many at St. Mary’s do believe it. Every week, people have visions and messages from God. The Holy Spirit shows up and gets people to speak-in-tongues or gives people words or images that they pass onto the congregation. Maybe it is God. Or maybe people believe it so much, that they are fooling themselves. Someone once said, how convenient it is that God shows up every week in buildings where everyone believes in him. Where’s God in the train carriage of non-believers?

Before the weekend away and the basement, I was pretty sceptical about the people at the Sunday service with their visions and words from God but I just went with it. Who was I to tell people what was true or not, and I think a part of me wanted it to be true. At the Wednesday meeting after the weekend, people were asked if they wanted to say anything. This was the only time that this happened. So I spoke and said I thought it was… not true. The Holy Spirit hadn’t entered people. I was the only one who was anything other than enthusiastic. A good few people came up to me to tell me I was brave for saying that. I think for some people I had broken the spell. It was all crap. God isn’t sending visions to people. At the weekend away, people may have spoken-in-tongues but that wasn’t God. It’s just not true.

But it was only after the Life Course ended, the deviousness of it all occurred to me. The problem with the Life Course is that it uses peoples’ innermost fears to hoodwink them to believe a certain set of ideas. Of course, people get to believe whatever they want and to try to convince other people, but the Life Course is simply deceptive.

There were two more weeks of the course, even less well attended than the earlier ones. And that was it. People were cut off. You could go to the church for all the use that was, but no-one really cared. St. Mary’s is a place where people are interested in their connection with God and how to save themselves.

I tried to talk to John Peters about it, more than once, but he literally wouldn’t speak to me. I could say a few things now but there’s probably little point to that. All I’ll say is he doesn’t seem to be interested in other people’s views. Which would be fine, but when you subject people to this kind of experience, the least you could do, the very least, is listen to some feedback. The only interaction he seems to be okay with his the fawning reverence he receives from people decades younger than him.

But the Life Course is successful. It runs a few times a year at St. Mary’s and while most people either aren’t interested or are scared off, it snares enough people every time to add some extra backsides to fill those pews — course by course, year by year. And when some newcomer comes in, they look at all the people in the room and think there must be something to this place — look how many people are here. There must be something to this place…

But I wonder how many participants in the Life Course never come back to St. Mary’s, perhaps never come back to God at all. How many people have been put off God because of their experience? Some people I had seen for the first six weeks didn’t come back after the weekend away. I hope they were, and are, okay but I will never know.

It’s reprehensible for St. Mary’s to pretend the weekend away is a bit of a fun jaunt. John Peters said that they don’t tell people about what will actually occur on the weekend away because then no-one would come. Perhaps they wouldn’t but the people attending have the right to make that decision and they would be more mentally prepared for the weekend that lay ahead.

It’s even more reprehensible to bring up these deeply traumatic issues in people, with no kind of support afterwards.

At some point, it occurred me to that the whole thing, is a bit, and I can’t quite think of a better word, but cultish. A new way of thinking is gradually introduced, so gradually you don’t really notice it. It all seemed so normal and reasonable and from such shiny happy people. At the beginning, you’re just asked to accept the possibility that perhaps, maybe, the Holy Spirit interacts with people in this way. What have you got to lose?

I met some of the people from my group a few months later. They seem to have changed. The free-wheeling debates that we had had on the Life Course were no more. They had signed up to what St. Mary’s was offering and they were believers. I remember challenging one of the people about something they had said and they looked nervously at a more established figure who had been at the church for some time, who just had an impassive look. Week 1 of the Life Course seemed long ago.

I remember talking to someone a few months after I first started going to church, back in Cambridge. ‘I’m selfish.’, I said, ‘I’m just doing this for myself’. ‘Of course you are’. They replied.

No one goes to church because of other people. You go for yourself. You go because of the pain and because of the hurt. You go because you want to be saved. You’re afraid of dying or you’re afraid of not living. You’re selfish and that’s okay, we all are. You ask God for forgiveness, you come to accept it — that you’ll always be a bit selfish. But over time you realise it’s all about other people. That a life given to God is a life given to other people. By giving away your life, you get your life back. I’m not there yet, perhaps I never will be. But I can see a glimpse of it and that’s where a life of faith is lived.

I think people at St. Mary’s are there for themselves. St. Mary’s may have hundreds of people in their congregation but for a church of that size, how much work do they do in the local community? What service do they offer people? What are these people doing for anyone else? St. Mary’s is self-help dressed up as faith. Maybe it will last for people, but I wonder how what St. Mary’s offers will stand up to what life inevitably throws at people?

At my last Sunday service at St. Mary’s I looked around the room. Just like my first service, it was full of people, bright and shiny, in their twenties and thirties. I had never felt so alone.

After the Life Course, I thought long and hard about whether I could live a life with God as part of it or as a part of a church. I eventually found another church. Someone described it as ‘Church for grown-ups’. I like that. I got baptised and I am dealing with the challenges of life and of faith.

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