It was suggested that I should write something about my ‘church background’ for people who don’t know me. It seems, however, that once I started to write, my ‘church background’ blog, it turned out to be a more detailed story of my life journey with Jesus. So, I shall do a briefer ‘church background’ in a separate blog and devote this one to telling the first part of my story or ‘testimony’
St John the Baptist, Blawith, where my Great Grandfather (who died before I was born) sometimes took services as a retired minister.
My Great Grandfather, Charles Woodhouse, his brother and father before him, were ministers in The Church of England so, it will come as no surprise that my first experience of church and Christianity was as an Anglican.
My Great Grandfather, Rev C J Woodhouse, giving my Granny away at her wedding. (St Nicholas, Wrea Green, Lancashire)
Rev Woodhouse’s daughter, my Grandmother was the person who first taught me how to pray. When Granny was babysitting, she would put me to bed, read me a story, then finish with prayers: ‘Our Father’ and ‘God Bless Mummy, God Bless Daddy, and God bless so and so, so and so and God Bless the cat”. When we stayed with her sister, my Auntie Tiddie, she also prayed with me in the same way. You would expect nothing less from vicar’s daughters. I remember these prayer times as happy and cosy events.
My mother wasn’t a regular church goer but when we stayed with Auntie Tiddie, we pretty much always went to church with her. Similarly, on holidays in the Lake District, staying with Aunt Elaine (the oldest Woodhouse daughter), we would attend the beautiful church in Blawith. (The picture above is from Churches Conservation Trust website.) I liked these visits to church: putting on a pretty dress and listening to the echoes of our voices reverberating around the high ceilings. I treasured the silence, singing hymns, the mystique of God, the vicar’s blessing hand on my head and most of all, I loved Jesus.
There were a lot of strong matriarchs in my extended family. I guess that’s what happens when you have five vicar’s daughters trying to be in charge! My parents divorced when I was small and because my father was far away in California, we couldn’t see each other as much as we would’ve liked. There was no email or internet in those days. Even international telephone calls were an expensive rarity, so communication was mostly letters and an exciting annual visit.
Feeling that my father’s position was sadly more or less vacant, I decided, when I was 8 years old, that my Heavenly Father might be able to fill the post. It was then that I made something like a ‘formal commitment’ to God, throwing my lot in with him. There was no gospel meeting no knowledgeable Christian friend leading me to Christ. Just little me announcing to God that He could now take care of me and that I would follow him.
From then on, I eagerly read my small King James Bible, enjoying its small glossy painted pictures of a white-robed Jesus in various poses. My mother was happy to take me to church if I wanted and when we couldn’t, I would ‘do church’ in my bedroom, lining up my dolls and teddies in pew-like formation and preaching heartfelt sermons to them.
By the time I was 11, due to my step-father’s work promotions, we’d moved around the south of England so often that I was rather fed up with saying goodbye to school friends every time we moved house. So my Mum suggested boarding school. I jumped at the idea. Lots of ‘jolly hockey sticks’ and ‘Enid Blyton’ midnight feasts filled my imagination. To my joy, we wore an ‘old fashioned’ uniform with a ‘bottle green’ pinafore and wonderful blue Edwardian-style ‘pinny’ over the top. When I tried on my new (in reality: second hand) uniform, I looked in the mirror and to my joy saw Mary Lennox from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’. It was just like dressing up in my dream costume for a school play! I couldn’t have been more excited.
Sport at my school wasn’t actually ‘jolly hockey sticks’, more like ‘seriously risky lacrosse sticks’ but I was not disappointed. Although not particularly sporty, I thoroughly enjoyed the “fastest game on two feet”, in spite of forever slipping in mud. Tackling was always passionate and, dare I say, rather excitingly ‘vicious’! Give repressed teenage girls the command to bash each others’ lacrosse sticks and anything might happen! I’m surprised there weren’t more injuries!
It was compulsory for all boarders to attend the local parish church. So, every Sunday morning, in a crocodile of bottle green hats and bear-like overcoats, we would file down the hill and into St Peter’s Church. The services seemed very long but I loved them, although I’m not sure the other girls were so keen. My boarding house always sat on the pews at the front under the watchful eye of our House Mistress or Matron. For the first time, I experienced the magic of ‘bells and smells’ in, what I now realise, were probably quite ‘high church’ services.
Canon Norfolk seemed everything a typical vicar might be: gentle, kind, smiling and sincere. I think he must have taken pity on us press-ganged pew-fillers in the front row because I remember, one Sunday, he went to great lengths to involve us by bringing a communion table forward, carefully explaining what was happening as he prepared the bread and the wine. You could tell it was a lot of faff for him to move and change everything in this way but I think he actually enjoyed it. I’m not sure how much of an impression it made on my fellow pupils but the fact that I even remember it now with such fondness, surely shows that it was worth it. That was probably the closest we ever got to a ‘family service’.
When I was 13, I attended Canon Norfolk’s Confirmation Classes at school. Gradually, over the weeks, the church rituals, Eucharist service, prayers, and most importantly Jesus became clearer and more wonderful to me. As a result, I happily confirmed my relationship with Father God and opened myself up to Him at my Confirmation, as the Bishop of St Albans laid hands on my head. It was a special occasion with a special ‘party’ back at school for the ‘Confirmed’ girls, a visit by Mum and other family members, lots of lovely cards from fellow boarders and a beautiful silver serviette ring. A happy day and an important milestone in my relationship with God.
To be continued in a later blog…