Despite scepticism from her family and her own doubts about what she believed, seven years ago Claire Stringell became a Christian. She explains how finding faith has changed her life…
My parents are Christians, so I went to church as a child and was confirmed at 14, but it didn't run very deep with me. When I left home at 18 to go to university, some of my peers got involved with the Christian Union, but after going to church a couple of times in my first term, I never went again. I certainly wasn't a Christian between the ages of 18 and 45.
Going to the carol service at our local church in Nottingham before Christmas has always marked the start of the festivities for me and my partner. Seven years ago, I was horrified to discover that the church wouldn't be holding a carol service that year. I hated the thought of losing the tradition so when we saw a carol service advertised at another church nearby, we had to go. It's a beautiful 12th-century building and the minute we went in, we loved it. The church was packed and I liked the vicar, Simon, straightaway. He had a great sense of humour.
Worship and wineAfter the service, he said: "If you'd like to know more about what we do, you'll find some cards on the pews. Why not come and chat over a glass of wine in the pub?" I was shocked, because in the Methodist church I'd attended as a child, worship and wine didn't mix. However, I like a drink and I found myself picking up a card.
The following Tuesday I joined nine other people in the pub. Simon talked briefly about why Christianity is important to the world and explained how faith had changed his life.
I found him very charismatic: he was lovely. Over the next few weeks, we all met again. Some of the group were oddballs, but among them was a girl who worked for the BBC. She'd become interested in religion while she was filming Songs of Praise and she wanted to find out why the choristers were so committed. She and I were both at the 'but isn't it a load of rubbish?' phase and we became friends.
There was no blinding flash or anything like that, but something made me start going to church once a month. My daughter was due to leave home to go to university, and although I didn't feel upset about her imminent departure, maybe I needed something to help me cope with the sense of loss.
So for a year, I occasionally went and sat at the back of the church. Although I liked it, I didn't find people especially friendly. Churches can be very cliquey. The old ladies were nice, but most people didn't make a special effort to include me. Simon was very welcoming, but he wasn't pushy. There was no hard sell.
Religion made me question my workEach time I went to church I felt a deep sense of warmth and calm. And although I didn't feel as if I belonged to it yet, there was obviously a really strong community among those involved with the church and I felt drawn to it. I've always worked full-time, so although I've got good friends, I've never been part of the school gate community like other mums.
As I felt more drawn to the ethos of the church, I started to question the work I do. I teach English to adults and I was working with very privileged people who could easily afford to pay private tuition fees. I realised I wanted to get involved with a broader range of people, so I decided to search for an alternative way to earn a living. Gradually, I was becoming less ambitious and more concerned about helping people than I was about my bank balance.
Within just a few weeks I'd quit my job and found work in a very different setting, teaching English to immigrants and asylum seekers. The work was demanding and stressful. I was spending my days with people who were coping with very difficult circumstances and I went way beyond the 'teaching English' remit, but it was very fulfilling.
Getting to know the churchBecause my interest in the church was growing, I decided to do the Alpha course, an introduction to Christianity. One evening a week, along with 17 other people, I went to the church. We had a meal together – cooked and served by regular churchgoers – and the vicar read sections from the Bible, which we then discussed in small groups. I met a couple of people I really liked and I started to feel part of the church community. It's not a happy-clappy church. It's a warm, friendly place.
When my Alpha group finished, the vicar asked whether those of us who'd bonded really well would like to be part of a new home group. Home groups are very common in the Church of England: a small group of Christians meet once a week and sing a couple of hymns, have a chat about ethical issues and end with a prayer.
Two girls I'd become friendly with were also keen to join the group, so we started going together every Tuesday. It was great: the atmosphere there was really warm and most members of the group were very committed Christians. They were a real mixed bag of 20 normal people in normal jobs: young, old, with and without children.
It's hard to be a Christian in BritainI was still on the edge of faith, because in our society, the prevailing attitude is: 'you've got to be bonkers to believe it'. I've often thought how lovely it would be to live in a society where believing is normal. In large parts of the world, faith is the most natural thing in the world, but it isn’t in Britain. It's hard to be a Christian when you're aware that it makes you seem a bit odd. So I didn't feel able to jump in with both feet.
My parents were thrilled when they discovered I was going to church, but two of my teenage children gave me a lot of stick about it. They were quite negative and would say things like: "She's found Jesus." I managed not to let it upset me too much, but I could have done without it, especially at a time when I wasn't totally sure and I was still exploring my beliefs.
My daughter has been very supportive. Her view is that if it works for me, it's fine by her. My partner is agnostic rather than atheist, and he, too, has been very supportive. He shares all the major Christian festivals with me.
My faith was growingOnce, I mentioned to the vicar that taking communion means a lot to me. Soon afterwards, out of the blue, I received a letter from the bishop to say that I'd been appointed as a communion steward, to serve the wine. I was really chuffed to be given that honour.
Serving communion gave me a real sense of belonging, but I still drifted in and out of faith. Sometimes I'd pray at home and then I'd stop for a few weeks, usually when I was busy with other things.
Then I met someone whose experiences gave me pause for thought. Working in education, most people tend to be very left wing and socialist in outlook, but certainly not religious. In my new job, however, I was working with one guy who was a committed Christian and he told me that his whole life had changed when he found faith. He used to drink too much and everything was going badly for him, but religion made a big difference to his life. He told me one day that his boss in a previous job had asked him to falsify some documents, and he just said, "No, I'm sorry, I don't do things like that." He was very moral, which I really liked and respected. He believed it was Christianity that had changed him.
I believe in miraclesPrayer really can achieve amazing results. The first time I really prayed for something was when two of my asylum-seeking students were going to be deported. I was really bothered about it and I went to court for them. I prayed and prayed about it. Eventually they got leave to remain and were allowed to settle in England. And I thought: maybe there's something in this.
I wanted to do more for the church so I decided to run a fair-trade stall. I feel it's really important to give people a fair price for their produce. However, although I'm moving towards faith, there's still scepticism there, so I prayed to God. I said: "If you want me to do this, send me a sign." When I turned on my mobile phone there was a text from the leader of the home group, which read: 'Don't fool yourself by just believing the word: put your faith into action'. That was exactly the incentive I needed.
Another time, a friend's daughter was very ill with anorexia and I prayed there would be a way out for her. She's recovered. Of course, lots of people – my family included – say these miracles are coincidence. But as the Archbishop of Canterbury once said: "When I pray, coincidences happen. When I don't, they don't." Many Christians have prayer lists and really can help others by regular prayer.
Religion has made my life harderI face a lot of ethical and moral judgements that wouldn't have bothered me before. That's why I stopped teaching wealthy students and went to work with asylum seekers. I couldn't do that forever, though: after four years I had to leave because I was emotionally exhausted by it.
I used to be ambitious, but now I try not to be quite as pushy and put others' needs first. I've become aware that the world's not just about me. Now, I care less about my career and more about my soul. I haven't changed dramatically but I'm just beginning to try to ask God for help first, not last, which is what we're taught in my home group. Being a good Christian is a lot more important to me than being rich, famous or successful at work.
It's difficult to describe how it feels when God speaks to me, when He's trying to tell me something. It can be direct, like the text, or it can be just a feeling in my heart that tells me which direction to go in. A gut feeling.
And all I can say is, when you get to that stage, you just know that it's true. You can't prove it, but other people in my home group and at the church have all experienced funny little miracles, just like I have. I pray about things that matter, but not about every silly little thing: I don't ask God to make sure I get a car-parking space in the centre of town!
“Do you really think there’s an old man up there with a white beard?”My stepson asks me this question. No, I don't believe that there’s an old bearded man in the sky, but I do believe it's possible to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And I believe it's possible – even probable – that God will give you guidance if you ask for it. But people go into church and ask God to help them when they have no relationship with Him. Sometimes He does, but like anyone else, He prefers you to have some belief in Him.
I find Buddhism interesting; I do have some sympathy with it. But as I've read the Bible and attended church more, I've come to feel that Christianity is the right way for me. I feel you get a more personal relationship with God than with other faiths.
I know people laugh at us but it doesn’t embarrass mePerhaps I had a slight feeling that something was lacking in my life before, but I wasn't unhappy. In fact, I was born optimistic. I've had a few hard times but I've never suffered from depression. My religion makes me feel that there's a reason for things; it makes me want to help people and it makes me happier.
I haven't experienced a dramatic flash of enlightenment, but in the last couple of years, my faith has grown. A friend from church has helped me to see that Christianity can change your whole life. As she says, it's no wonder people who only go to church now and again don't feel a connection with God. You can't have a relationship with anyone if you don't spend time with them and God is no exception. You have to open the channels. In order to have faith, you have to have a relationship with God.
I go to church at least twice a month. The Tuesday night meeting is also important to me and I don't like missing it. It's great. I love the warmth, the friendship and the shared belief. We take refuge in it because we all know that the outside world is somewhat hostile.
I used to feel embarrassed to admit that I believe in God. When I first got involved with the church, I never told anybody where I was going on a Tuesday night. But now if someone asks me to do something on a Tuesday, I'll say, "Sorry, I can't: I'm going to my church." I have no problem saying that to anybody. And if they think I'm a bit odd, that's fine. I'm not embarrassed by it at all.
Religion has changed my prioritiesI'm not perfect. I still buy clothes on a credit card and still feel guilty about it, but having faith has changed my priorities. In this secular society we're not taught to listen to anything other than our own desires, but I'm more thankful for what I have these days. I give a small amount to the church every month, but I feel guilty that it's not enough; I should be giving more.
I've found that I'm prioritising my religion now. I'm beginning to make choices that show it's an important part of my life. My friend suggested I try something called 'daily bread', which is when you read a small excerpt from the Bible each day. I find it very helpful.
I don't mind when people who don't believe in God celebrate Christmas, because it's part of our culture. But when you are a Christian, Christmas and Easter mean so much more.
At home, I've got a cross on the wall and a couple of religious pictures and icons, and sometimes I pray there. I also pray when I'm walking by the river. Walking can be very meditative when you listen. The trouble is, we're all too busy and that gets in the way of faith. Sometimes when I'm walking, I thank God for my life, and I feel a real sense of warmth.
Whether you’re religious or not, it’s worth considering some of the most well-known Christian precepts: Love one another and Do as you would be done by. How can that be bad for the world?
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