I tried to go to church this morning. In fact, I tried to go to two churches. I got up early, washed (yes, washed), put on my "go to church Sunday" best, got in the car and drove eight miles to a church I thought might be friendly. But when I got there I couldn't walk through the door. So I drived another eight miles to a church quite close to where I live. But again I could not walk through the door. This is by no means the first time this has happened. It's happened so many times that Mrs MP doesn't even bother locking the front door behind me as she assumes I will be back very quickly indeed.
It's difficult to walk into a church for the first time. I think it is actually even more difficult to walk into a church if you went to church in the past. When you haven't been going to church because the people of the church have hurt or abused you in some way it gets nigh on impossible. When, like me, the important people of the church have made it perfectly clear to you that they would rather you just disappear and not darken the doors of the church ever again it is one of the most terrifying things in the world, especially if you are a wimp like me. And, yes, they did make it obvious that I was out on my own. When the bishop of Newcastle ended my ministry he did not mention anything about my spiritual wellbeing after I left his employ and he certainly didn't get in touch afterwards. Nor did the archdeacon. I asked him much later why he hadn't been in touch and he told me that it was because he thought I might be angry. And the only one of my colleagues who invited me to his church was an evangelical. All the others, even those I regarded as my good friends, even those I still keep in touch with, were very careful not to mention the subject of where I was supposed to worship from then on.
When I was a parish priest I often came across people who had left the church for one reason or another (usually because of some perceived, often real, offense). I would always try and persuade them to return. But I never, ever expected them to just walk in on their own. If they showed any interest in returning I would arrange for some trusted member of the congregation to make contact with them first who would actually walk into church with them. In fact, if possible I would do that job myself as I had already formed a friendship with them.
When I went to see the bishop of Jarrow last Monday I asked him to send me to a church. He would have none of it (do bishops promise never to make a definite decision about anything, or answer a straight question with a straight answer, when they are ordained?) I had to twist his arm to give me the name of a church that might be appropriate and, even then, he would only suggest the Cathedral. (I like cathedral services but it's not church. A cathedral eucharist is a concert with a buffet at the end.) It was obvious that I was supposed to sort myself out even though I had made it perfectly clear that I was having huge problems about returning to church. Even though he had refused to give me the one thing that might have made it easier for me, his blessing by way of permission to officiate.
So, if there is anyone out there who worships at an Anglican church within a radius of about ten miles from Chester-Le-Street (the higher the better but free from misogyny and homophobia) and who is prepared to hold my hand, please drop me an email.