Last week I caught up with one of my closest and longest-standing friends. We met for lunch at his house and I enjoyed his fantastic cooking in his fantastic garden. It’s always a bitter sweet experience for me meeting this friend. In lots of ways we are very alike — personality, interests, politics, taste in music, values and sense of humour. That’s all save for one regard. He is a convinced atheist. I am a Christian priest. That has actually made our friendship hugely valuable. I am the priest I am today thanks to working with this man for over eight years and reshaping my faith in the face of his robust yet compassionate questioning. It was quite a crucible!
So it’s not bitter sweet because I’m harbouring some disappointment or resentment about his convictions not being the same as mine. It’s bitter sweet because sometimes as I travel to meet up with him, I am slightly anxious about what it’s going to be like when we talk about my work.
I needn’t be. He’s always gracious and gentle, though sometimes I can tell that he’s working quite hard to refrain from explaining why I am a mentalist!
He can kind of cope with what I do all the while I pursue my quaint delusion in a way that doesn’t get in anybody else’s face. So maybe I was a little more anxious than normal as my mission work has really started to bear fruit and I am definitely getting in people’s faces.
But when I explained about the open spirituality work I’ve been doing in schools and even about the more creative worship we’ve been engaged in as a congregation alongside the people of Somers Town he seemed to be genuinely intrigued — approving even.
‘That all sounds really good to me,’ he said.
I think the idea of encouraging deeper reflection on life through hands-on engagement with visual and material art was something he could connect with and see value in, even if it is motivated by religious impulses that he thinks are bonkers.
So if what I’m doing is inoffensive to an atheist, does that mean there’s a problem with what I’m doing. I guess that for some of you that’s an issue. But for me it’s not. For two reasons. First because this particular atheist is a thoughtful friend whose judgement I value. Second because if people are required to adopt a religious conviction that they find problematic before they can access the sessions I run or the worship of our community, how will they ever be able to find the space to reassess their view of that religious conviction?