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Friday, January 28, 2011

57. Growing up in Coburg: an acute case of religiosity

Growing up in Coburg is a series of autobiographical reflections.

I was born in 1943. In the 1950s as I grew through my adolescent years I was much affected by religion. I had an acute bout of religiosity. I could blame my mother; not that there is any point in that, as she has been dead for two decades now. It is 40 years ago today Sergeant had taught the band to play. Like Harry Joy, Peter Carey’s character in the Bliss, I had always wanted to be good. I loved God and my country, I served the Queen, and cheerfully — and sometimes not so cheerfully — obeyed my parents, teachers, and the law.

I became involved with the Methodist Church when I was 12 or 13; by the time I was 17 or 18, it was the focus of almost my whole being. At 13, I attended Sunday School; I also joined the youth club. We would meet each week on Friday night. Each weekly meeting of the Youth Club began with games and activities. And there’d be brief devotional activities. We would do good; I remember spending hours at the North Melbourne Methodist Mission, packing food hampers for the poor people and the derelicts of the city. I started attending church camps – especially the Methodist Boys’ camp at Ocean Grove. By 15, I was attending week-long summer schools and Easter camps. Then there was M. Y. F. A. Saturday night, a monthly rally of Methodist young people from all over Melbourne. We would fill the Melbourne Town Hall or the Wesley Mission — 3000 young people, coming together each month for entertainment and prayer.

It is difficult to explain to people who have grown up in such different times just how powerful and engrossing all of this was. In part I was attracted to the camaraderie. That was me in the late 1950s: an only child, desperate for attention and affection, desperate to feel part of something. And in those days, the Methodist Church was something!

By the time I was 15, the church had become the major focus of my life. I taught Sunday School, attended church services morning and night on Sundays, and went to youth club on Friday night. Every Christmas holidays and Easter I attended church camps. Most of my social activities were related to the church, or the youth. Later I also became involved in Bible study groups and Theology class which prepared people from lay preaching.

I was only 17 when I gave my first sermon, and for six years or so I preached from Methodist pulpits. I became the youth club leader, and a leader of Boys’ camps, Easter camps and summer schools. At one stage I gave some thought to becoming Minister of the church.
For a lonely, attention-craving poor boy from the narrow streets of Coburg, the camps were incredible: a hundred or more boys, sleeping in tents or dormitories for a week, involved in sports and other activities – races, cricket matches and swimming and surfing. And mixing with leaders — exciting young people, people who would go on to make their mark in the world: people like Gill Freeman, who would later become a leading innovative educationist; Ken Williams, who became the head of Welfare Services, dealing with delinquent boys; Denham Grierson, who later became a leading Minister and theologian. The camps brought me into contact with dozens of men in their 20s and 30s who stood out as models, people I longed to emulate. Henry Gay was probably the most influential of all of these on my life. Henry was perhaps the zaniest in person I’ve ever known. He would have been in his late 20s or early 30s when I met him. He was not a Minister — in fact, he worked as a programmer for a radio station. But he was funny; he could produce a joke at the drop of a hat; he wrote plays and sketches that had the boys at the camps rolling around in laughter. He was irreverent and everybody loved him. I remember on occasion when he emerged from the kitchen with the cook; the cook was holding a cauldron of soup. “All right,” said Henry, “I want you boys to bog into the soup, just like the cook did when he made it.”

In the 1950s the Billy Graham crusade came to Melbourne. Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Myer Music Bowl to hear this charismatic preacher. His message spoke powerfully to me, and hundreds like me. He asked disturbing questions: what am I doing here? What is the purpose of my life? How can I live a good life? He spoke to the insecure, vulnerable, shameful, lonely child in me.

To coin a poor phrase, sex had reared its ugly head in my life, and I was much tormented and sorely tempted. I felt as though my life was simply a battleground for the forces of Good and Evil. I struggled with the constant temptation of sexual thoughts. I prayed to God to give me strength. In these more enlightened times, when masturbation is seen for what it is — a normal, even healthy activity, that virtually everybody enjoys, it is difficult to understand the moral discomfort the act brought – to some of us at least.
I had tried very hard to be good – I went to church, to boys’ camps, participated in Bible study classes; I do good deeds and immersed myself in the church and its activities; I preached in the churches around Coburg. And at the same time I battled with the inner demons of sexuality and selfishness. In 1960 I was School athletics champion at Coburg High School; I competed in the interschool championships; in 1961, I gave up athletics because I believed that the competitiveness I felt when I competed was unchristian.

Human nature being as it is, it was inevitable that sexuality would triumph over religiosity. I lost my innocence – irredeemably I thought at the time - in the briefest of encounters — symbolically, in the long grass at the back of the car park of the Methodist Church. That was the beginning of the end of my religiosity. I came to believe that Christianity was too unreliable a crutch — it didn’t deliver the peace and calm and strength that it claimed. Not that I launched into a life of wild sexual activity; far from it – that would have to wait for another 15 years.
I remained a Methodist preacher until I was 24. My final sermon — an experimental, open discussion/sermon — concerned Christ’s admonition: love thy neighbour. It was a sermon about the Vietnam war, in which I argued that such a war was contrary to Christ’s teachings. The congregation — predominantly Liberal voting middle-class people – took the opportunity I gave to the congregation to speak their mind, and they took issue with me. They felt the church was no place to bring politics. So ended my lessons in a religiosity, religion and the church. For the next few decades I would be a fiercely agnostic critic of the church and critical of all its actions.

What I have discovered in more recent years, however, is a growing sense of a spiritual dimension to life. I have read much literature to do with Buddhism. I am highly sceptical about the notion of reincarnation, and I do not believe in a supreme being dwelling in heaven somewhere, who created the heaven and the earth in six days. But I do believe in the notion of life as a journey, a journey on which we can only seek answers. I like Sheldon Kopp’s suggestion: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. I am sceptical about much of the brouhaha surrounding New Age activities; I don’t accept that the Moon entering the 7th house at the moment of my birth is liable to have any influence whatsoever on the colours I prefer, or the opportunities I should awaken to on Thursday. I just don’t believe that the universe could be bothered paying much heed to this lowly conglomeration of carbon atoms and water that has borne my name for nearly 70 years, and that will – sooner or later – cease to cohere. But I do believe that life, our life, is precious, and that our planet is worth saving for my children and their children. And some of that belief comes from my early years as a Methodist. These days, though, I wouldn’t be a Methodist quids!

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