I was born into a church-going family with a mother who ran the Sunday School in the village Church of England (C of E) church throughout my formative years. As a teenager I aspired to be ordained. By 21, I had stopped attending church. Why? It was probably part of growing up and becoming my own self and a, then, unconscious recognition that the Church was like a parent in that it gave me its way of being within its meta-narrative. I had to find my own way and story in order to live a life of integrity.
For the next thirty years I had no discernible spiritual development as it would normally be described. However I did grow as a person with one major break which showed how slow and incomplete that growth was. I divorced my wife. After a few years I married Bridget who was a newly born-again Christian. I joined her as the same in a church that pursued a commitment to Word and Spirit. My connection to the God of the Church, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit grew in stops and starts over the next 20 years or so, by which time we had moved house and were members of a Word-based church that barely acknowledged the Spirit.
Miserably I dragged myself to church every Sunday with a lack of joy and came out even more downcast. Then the penny dropped. I was trapped, again, in the organisation’s way of being, believing and its story. Not only did I not believe what was being preached every Sunday and mid-week small group, I had become convinced that I was being asked, even explicitly instructed on one occasion, to accept and adhere to a fallacious fourth century and medieval construction of the Church. It was in conflict with modern theologians and scientists. To stay in that church and the Church I would have to give up being me and remain as a miserable pew-filler. Bridget and I left that church and the Church.
We found the Woking Quaker Meeting some four years ago. What is more significant, I found a place where I could be and grow spiritually, free of the imposition of a man-made God and ‘His’ man-made strictures as to how to be and what to believe.
As I understand it, there are five Quaker ‘principles’ I am encouraged to live by: Truth which is a fundamental element of living with integrity; Simplicity in all things especially spiritual, where I have come to know that I cannot know and to trust in the Love that is the Ground of Our Being; Equality, which throws a spotlight onto the social, political and economic inequality of our society; the Environment which has led to tangible changes in the way we live; and Peace with which I am less than comfortable as there are times when we have to fight to defend a free society, where we can live an abundant life of service, against authoritarian powers that seek to impose control over us and remove freedom from us.
These last two paragraphs explain why I am so at home spiritually and relationally in the Woking Quaker Meeting right now and expect to be so in the foreseeable future. I am not “A Quaker”. I am a human being who is trying to live in a way that connects with the Love that is the Ground of Our Being and to spread that love to all with whom I connect by being consciously kind and loving. I still have a long way to go!!
I was christened (in those days you were christened, rather than baptised) by my grandfather, a rector in the Church of Ireland (C of I), who, I believe, was christened by his father, also a Church of Ireland rector. However, due to a surfeit of compulsory church attendance at her boarding school for clergy daughters, my mother was not a regular church attender. She did though often refer to the family’s Quaker connections, about which she had heard from her grandmother, who played a large part in her upbringing. My father, in spite of a Church of Ireland upbringing, described himself as agnostic. I was though, intermittently sent to Sunday school. In the segregated educational system in Ireland, we had three classes a week in ‘scripture’ and in senior school took the annual synod exam. with papers on the Old Testament, New Testament and the various services laid out in the Book of Common Prayer. I was confirmed at 15, a year later than most of my contemporaries, because I did not feel ‘ready’.
My first job, in N. Ireland in 1972, was an important influence. It was the height of the Troubles and the antagonism between Protestant and Roman Catholic was huge. Even in the office in which I worked the one Roman Catholic member of staff only had to turn her back for there to be snide remarks. I became increasingly convinced that people of different faiths should be looking for what they had in common, rather than focussing on their differences. Even more significantly, when I left home I did not attend church initially but, after marrying and moving to London went once to the local Church of England (C of E) church, where after the low church but formal practice of the C of I (to emphasise the difference between Irish protestants and the majority Roman Catholic population), I was shocked by the use of incense and acolytes. Moving to Woking eighteen months later, I attended the nearest C of E church, but was equally repelled by the extreme evangelical tenor of the services, the general unfriendliness of the congregation and the failure of the vicar to do parish visiting, especially to new people in the parish. My grandfather had visited all his parishioners three times a year (though to be fair, even with three rural parishes in the West of Ireland, he had a vastly smaller congregation, and as most people were involved in agriculture on their tiny farms, they were at home to be visited at any time during the day, unlike commuter Woking).
It was only after having my first child and finding resistance to having her christened because I was not a regular attender that I began to attend more frequently. I never warmed to the style of preaching or the emphasis on being ‘saved’ but felt it important to attend a church in the area in which one lived. My children from an early age, resisted attending church and I never insisted. Gradually, over 30 years or so I became more involved: house group, helping with a Saturday children’s activity group, coffee rota etc. Concurrently I found the preaching of successive vicars more and more extreme, and repelled by the negativity I heard about same sex marriage, and the conviction expressed that churches would be compelled by the government to hold same sex weddings even if the congregation found it repugnant, I decided to look at the responses to government consultation. There I found that Quakers were in favour of same sex marriage and had plans to hold them in their Meeting Houses if there was a demand.
That led me to explore the Britain Yearly Meeting and Woking Local Meeting websites and send off for the introductory pack on offer. A few weeks later, on 14th February 2012, I attended my first Quaker meeting in Woking. For a year I attended Quaker meeting and the local C of E on alternate Sundays, and finally made the decision to transfer my allegiance permanently - a decision I have not regretted. On informing the vicar of my decision his comment was that ‘to leave the Christian Faith entirely and to join the Quakers was a huge step’. Obviously, I quickly put him right, quoting George Fox ‘I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition’ and pointing him to Advices and Queries (A&Q) 4.
I have heard it said that people have many contacts with Quakers before they attend a Quaker meeting. In my case it was at least six. Firstly as I said, it was my mother telling me of her grandmother’s positive views of Quakers, their integrity in business and their role in the Friends Ambulance Unit in particular and our family connections to the Friends in Mountmellick in Ireland. And I was very aware that many of the biggest firms in Dublin were originally owned by Quakers – Jacobs’ biscuit factory, Pims, the department store, Bewleys the famous chain of coffee houses and Lambs’ jam making firm. Then at college, one of my closest friends had attended Leighton Park School, though a Methodist by upbringing. For eight and a half years, before I retired, working for an advice charity, I shared an office with a birthright Quaker, and two others of different faiths, which often resulted in lively discussions about religion. He produced a copy of A&Q once to illustrate some point, which struck me as a thoroughly sensible little book even then. His deeply reflective approach to problems and his willingness to engage with a particularly non-communicative volunteer from another charity we had with us for a month once, all impressed me greatly.
When I retired in 2010, one of my first activities was to transcribe the three journals (commonplace books, rather than spiritual writings) left by my great grandmother. In there were a good few references to Friends, including one I have used from time to time ‘Remarked at a Friends’ meeting “The prachin was very indifferent but the aitin couldn’t be bet”. That led me to research the family’s Quaker connections and I was surprised to find how early (1790) the last person in a direct line had resigned his membership, but how long the family had kept up connections with Quakers – three of my great grandmother’s siblings being buried in the Quaker burial ground in Mountmellick between 1938 and 1952.
WHEN I was a child aged ten(ish), it somehow dawned on me that if I were to follow certain rituals it could alter outcomes. I vividly remember applying this concept to the West Ham v. Fulham FA Cup Final. I was a West Ham supporter, and I was convinced that, if I could maintain a round of tennis-ball volleys against the wall on the side of my house (I forget now how many now), my team would win.
It is this insignificant act — or, more importantly, my belief about the act — that I can pinpoint as the first demonstrable evidence of what was to become obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
By the way, West Ham won, as I recall, which means that it worked!
All jolly harmless, one might think, and I guess that would be true if that was where it stopped. It is only now, looking back, that I can see that such rituals were an unconscious attempt to suppress feelings of anxiety. This became more evident when I started applying the rituals to things of deeper concern.
My earliest recollection of this is applying the tennis-ball ritual before a family road trip. Not yet a teenager, I was worried that there was a chance that, by undertaking a long road-trip, we might have a car accident. I can trace this to a Play for Today on BBC1, in which I had watched a happy family driving in a car, listening to “I can see clearly now the rain has gone”, crashing headlong into an oncoming vehicle. It was entirely logical, therefore, that I should do everything in my power to prevent such a thing happening to my family, and the obvious means immediately at my disposal was the tennis-ball ritual.
My mum, dad, and sisters were involved with the local church, and I tagged along sometimes. It dawned on me that, rather than the tennis-ball ritual, prayer could be the means of ensuring the safety of my family. To a Christian not suffering from OCD, this might seem perfectly normal — praying for loved ones is a regular practice for most Christians. My OCD twist, however, was to pray a certain number of times as a repeated mantra, and my number was five. I’m not sure, now, where five came from, but it remains with me as my significant number to this day.
At some point during my childhood, the ritualistic praying stopped being just a positive “added extra” and started to take on compulsory characteristics. My thought process went like this: I want my family to be safe and well; it is my responsibility to do what I can to ensure this, i.e. perform the rituals; if I don’t do the rituals, and something bad happens, it will be my fault because I didn’t do the rituals, i.e. I hadn’t made the effort to ensure their safety and well-being. Even now, this has an inescapable logic to me.
In my teenage years, I took it all to another level. I was not interested in going to church for regular services, but I was still using the prayer ritual as my safety net. My brainwave was to visit the locked-up church every Sunday night, when it was dark, and stand just outside in the shadows to do my five-times prayer ritual. This would variously apply to different topics, depending on prevailing circumstances: family being safe during an upcoming trip; girlfriend not being accidentally pregnant, etc. I have to admit to being very nervous as I write this, for fear of a of a spiritual backlash against the breaking of a sacred bond.
This was a ritual that I kept up for years, often supplemented with daytime visits (not when services were on, of course) to churches in the City of London, where I worked. When asked by a work colleague about my frequent City church visits, my cover story was that I was trying to visit all of the churches in the Square Mile out of historical interest.
Inexplicably, my anxiety and rituals petered out after I got married and moved to the United States for a few years. They resurfaced with a vengeance, however, on the birth of my first child and subsequent return to the UK.
My concerns began to centre on cleanliness. Leaving the house for work in the morning became a struggle, and, even at work, I would arm myself with disinfectant wipes. For a period, I even started wearing white cotton gloves. The fear of contamination took over my life. Importantly, my OCD rituals were entirely constructed around the possibility of my “contaminating” anyone else rather than the other way around.
Somehow, the added responsibility of having a child had triggered an illogical but deep-seated belief that I was a bad person, and that the things that I did — or did not do — could adversely affect other people. The transition from childhood / teenage rituals that were designed to avert catastrophic events or ensure positive outcomes, to adult rituals designed to prevent “contamination”, can, in my opinion, largely be ascribed to the AIDS awareness campaign run by the BBC in the late 1980s. The slogan “Don’t die of ignorance” stoked the fires of OCD.
It was at this point that my life descended into nothing short of managed chaos. I discovered that alcohol was a pretty effective way of buying myself temporary relief from my OCD. I would wake in the morning in sheer terror, and, 12 teetotal years later, it is the memory of that that keeps me sober and my OCD at a manageable level, so that it does not really interfere with my everyday life too much.
In recent years, my reflections on OCD had taken on a new, theological dimension. After being baptised at the age of 53, I became a Reader, and I am currently pursuing a divinity degree.
It is not only the strict ritualistic practices set out in Leviticus which have provoked these reflections but the whole concept of prayer itself, which seems to have a strong correlation to the “magical thinking” of OCD: i.e. my thinking about a loved one (praying) might have a positive impact on the circumstances of that person. The difference is the insinuation of a third party: God. This should remove the direct personal accountability associated with the magical thinking but, for those of us with OCD tendencies, nagging doubt starts to creep in: perhaps I didn’t pray enough, or in the right way.
Historical accounts suggest that this anxiety about the sufficiency of one’s religious practice — and resulting compulsive behaviour — has afflicted some of the heroes of the Christian faith. The concept of “scrupulosity” was alluded to in the 16th century by the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola, who wrote: “After I have trodden upon a cross formed by two straws . . . there comes to me from without a thought that I have sinned . . . this is probably a scruple and temptation suggested by the enemy.”
In Wikipedia, scrupulosity is characterised by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. It is personally distressing, objectively dysfunctional, and often accompanied by significant impairment in social functioning. It is typically conceptualised as a moral or religious form of obsessive compulsive disorder.
Among the prominent religious figures said to have suffered from it are Martin Luther and John Bunyan; and, in the 17th century, an Anglican Bishop, John Moore, gave one of the first public presentations of the condition, describing how “religious melancholy” made people “fear, that what they do, is so defective and unfit to be presented unto God, that he will not accept it”.
Buoyed by this public recognition, religious authorities and figures attempted to develop solutions and coping mechanisms. Indeed, this went so far as members of the Liguori Mission (associated with the Redemptorist Order) publishing the monthly newsletter Scrupulous Anonymous.
So, how do we discern between healthy religious practice and the pathological?
Consider four lines of thought:
1. I pray that God ensures the safety of my family.
2. I must pray that God ensures the safety of my family.
3. The manner in which I pray must be sufficient for God to ensure the safety of my family.
4. The only way that I can be accepted by God is to pray and perform rituals in a certain way.
My interpretation is as follows:
1. Represents normal faith-based behaviour.
2. and 3. are potentially manifestations of OCD.
4. is a clear manifestation of scrupulosity.
The question of whether scrupulosity is a separate condition from OCD (rather than a form of OCD), is an interesting one, as it implicitly leads a sufferer to seek different sources of “treatment”: religious guidance or psychological guidance.
If I am concerned that my praying has become a manifestation of scrupulosity, I am likely to seek reassurance from my vicar that it doesn’t really matter how I pray, etc. This act of seeking of “reassurance” is, however, a classic symptom of OCD, and is likely to draw the sufferer into a pervasive cycle of “reassurance-seeking”.
If, like most OCD sufferers, I am troubled by intrusive thoughts, the last place that I will want to seek help is from my vicar. Divulging these thoughts to anyone other than a trained psychologist — and particularly a vicar — is as anxiety-provoking as the thoughts themselves. So, I confide in my therapist, feeling momentarily cleansed and reassured that these thoughts are of no importance, and that I should learn to acknowledge, reprocess, and discard them.
Yet God knows that I had the thoughts, and so I must be a bad person. This is where the two paths of scrupulosity and OCD converge. For a sufferer of this condition, assistance is likely to fall between the two stools.
My solution lies in the concept of “handing it over to God”. This technique has been successfully used by Alcoholics Anonymous for many years, and is, of course, explicitly addressed in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” It has been helpful to me to see it as an act of faith, when faced with difficult situations, and I have a well-rehearsed mental conversation along the following lines: “So you claim to be a Christian? Well, let’s see just how strong your faith is by [doing or resisting] the particular action or compulsion.”
I can testify that a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and medication helped me to transition, in fairly short order, from serious debilitation to being fully and happily functioning in both my personal and work life. First diagnosed with OCD in 2002, when it was a little-known condition, it was my realisation that the power of OCD lies in its shame-driven secrecy which led me to co-found the charity OCD-UK to raise awareness of the condition.
Previously published in the Church Times 30/6/22
Updated 5 August 2021
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