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My journey from Pentecostal Christianity to reason, happiness, and love

A life story by John Collins

In this searingly honest and moving account, retired software engineer John Collins tells how, from the age of 16, evangelical and “charismatic” Christian belief, made him a very weak person. He describes his violent father, a mother who terrified him with her description of hell, a dishonest business partner, delusional and manipulative church leaders, a “demonic” girlfriend, and how some Christians view non-Christians as “an inferior form of life”. In his mid-to-late forties, he started to question some of his fundamental assumptions, including the existence of God. The companionship of a dog called Foxy helped him to reflect on some of life’s biggest questions and, at the age of 67, he finally found the love of his life. john's story is considerably longer than our usual articles but we hope you will enjoy his dramatic story. Tying in with this month’s theme of “community”, it raises disturbing questions about the nature of some churches. Most of the drama takes place in a triangle of towns in Hertfordshire.

I was born in Manchester on 15th December 1951. My first school was a private Christian school called Kingsmead which closed in 2020. Apart from the bible stories, of which there were many, I don’t remember much about church or religion at that time. I don’t think my mother went to church, or if she did, she didn’t take me. My father, who died in 2003, never did until the last few years of his life. I do remember from about that time my mother telling me about hell and the dire consequences of spending for ever and ever there. It terrified me then. Perhaps it did the job of bringing me into line. But it haunted my thoughts for many years even after I discovered my mother never believed it herself.


In 1958 we moved to Jesmond, which is a suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne, a city in the Northeast of England. It was at this time that religion started to enter my thinking. My mother went to St George’s Parish Church, Jesmond, a so-called “High Church” or Anglo-Catholic church which included Roman Catholic traditions such as confession of sins. My mother had a very dark secret in her life, for which I suppose she felt she had to atone. I didn’t discover all the details until after she died in 2010 at the age of 98. I was stunned to discover that she had apparently deserted her first husband and left him literally holding the baby, my half-sister Sue (not to be confused with two more Sues in this story!). They got divorced in the 1940s and being “the guilty party” was seen then as akin to having a criminal record. There was much in the Catholic-style doctrine she couldn’t cope with but she stuck to it. She took me along to church with her, but my father had no time for it. It may be unreasonable to say this of the dead, especially one’s father, but he was a very nasty man and violent at times. I hope and believe that I am nothing like him.

I was sent to Newcastle Prep School where I was bullied continuously and the staff did nothing about it. The headmaster was a Mr Cockerell who got to know my parents. He always took my father’s side in the numerous clashes I had with him.

Boarding school

In 1964, at the age of 12, I was sent to Worksop College – a boarding school in Nottinghamshire. It was one of the most hellish experiences of my life. It was (then) an appallingly bad school with weak and incompetent teachers. There was much homosexual abuse in the school and whilst I wasn’t myself involved, a chance remark to my mother at Christmas in 1967 provoked an extreme reaction when she relayed it to my father, who gave me the third degree about it. It was certainly an over-reaction and he immediately moved me to Sedburgh School in the Yorkshire Dales. This was a better school, but with its heavy emphasis on sport, in which I have no ability or interest, I still had no place there. My father’s over-reaction haunted me. I’ve often thought it was a smokescreen for strange sexual hang-ups that he had.

My parents moved home again, this time to a village called Harden, near Bingley in Yorkshire. I never really got to know anyone there as I spent so much time away. During my last term at school, Autumn 1968, I shared a study with a guy called Gordon Prosser, who told me that he had become a Christian during the holiday. We debated much of that, and I found myself reading the works of C.S. Lewis. I became very interested in his writings, especially Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain. I couldn’t make much of Till We Have Faces although I now consider it to be his best book. I still like his writing style, and his logic appeals to me, even though I now begin to see some of the holes in his arguments. As a consequence of this, I gradually found myself moving towards a more positive Christian viewpoint.

Harrogate and Macclesfield

After leaving school just after my 17th birthday (I did my A-levels at 16), I got a job in Harrogate in Yorkshire. I met up again with Gordon Prosser and he introduced me to his circle of friends, all of them Christian. With little introduction, I found myself plunged into a routine of prayer and bible study. It all seemed terribly strange, and no one really explained anything to me, but I fitted in and conformed for a while. Even after I got another job, I used to go to Harrogate each weekend. Somewhere along the line I did “pray the sinner’s prayer” and “asked Jesus into my life”. In fact I probably prayed it several times, as nothing seemed to happen.

In September 1969 when I was 17, my father beat me up, blacking my eye, and threw me out of home. The pretext for this violence was that I had helped a friend move house all day and I was covered in dirt and sweat and needed a bath. My father had some strange notion about the immorality of having a bath at night, and on my insistence that I should have one, things became ugly and he insisted I leave. My mother did nothing to intervene. After staying with my Harrogate friends for a while, I got a job in Macclesfield in Cheshire. I spent many weekends with those people until university. Their friendship was genuine. I also got to know an evangelical Church of England vicar Brandon Jackson, later to be Dean of Lincoln Cathedral. I kept in touch with him over the years.

Cambridge and Warwick

To use the traditional phrase, I “went up” to Cambridge in September 1970, and whilst I can truly say I enjoyed my three years there, I now realise how much time I wasted. I undoubtedly put too many “eggs” in the academic “basket”. I missed out on a lot of activities I would have enjoyed and benefitted from.

Quite early on I was accosted and dragged into the Christian Union “CICCU” (the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union). This is (or was at the time) a very highly-organised group with representatives in every college and a central organisation. Bible studies and prayer meetings are arranged each week, and in my day there were “minders” to make sure you attended. Sometimes I got a bit rebellious and invented urgent things to do when the “minder” came round! However this all meant that I spent much of my time amongst those sort of people.

Much time and energy was spent debating “the work of the Holy Spirit”. The “charismatic” movement was under way at that time, and much heat rather than light was generated amongst the various proponents of the different viewpoints. Some said “you get it all at conversion” others that “you get various experiences later”. There was a ridiculous episode when two friends came to see me at different times. The first friend gave me a book, then the second came round, saw the first book, and gave me a book to counter the other book, then the first one came round again and I quickly built up two piles of opposing books, none of which I wanted to read.


After Cambridge, I spent three years at Warwick University doing computer programming. I got to know a fair number of people there, both in the Christian Union and outside in various churches I visited, but I never felt at home. I lived in Leamington Spa near Coventry, and went to a church there where I knew a group of half a dozen other people. They all ended up marrying each other, leaving me feeling a little isolated to say the least. The work at Warwick was more or less coming to an end, and I decided to throw in my lot with GEC Computers in Hertfordshire and moved to Hertfordshire at the start of 1977 when I was 25.

Moving to St Albans

For the first few months in Hertfordshire I lodged with a Christian family near Hemel Hempstead before moving to St Albans. Each weekday morning I commuted to Borehamwood to work and passed through St Albans, and I decided to buy a new flat there. Eventually, I moved to a maisonette (like a flat but with a separate front door) in St Albans, about a mile or so from the City Centre.

I started going to a largish Anglican church called St Paul’s, and attended a “home group” during the week. People there would occasionally talk about Christian “witnessing” at work, but I was never really comfortable about this idea. I always felt that the non-Christian “targets” were living better lives than I was. At heart I was pretty lonely I suppose. I’d never had a girlfriend or even come close. I quite frankly envied the lives of people at work who had families. The legacy of boarding school and Cambridge (which, at the time I was there, had an 8:1 male to female ratio) quite honestly haunted me down the years. But something happened to change all that.

A brief affair with Sue – a Jehovah’s Witness

At work I was put next to and became friends with two people, a guy called Chris, and a girl called Sue (not to be confused with a later Sue!). Chris and I were invited to dinner by Sue and her mother and family one evening, and we had a pleasant evening. A week after that Chris was away and I found myself chatting to Sue at work virtually the whole day. I had to go out to a garage to have my car attended to and Sue (quite wrongly) came with me and we continued to chat whilst I was waiting in the garage and after we got back. The chemistry between us was electric. Then, quite suddenly, Sue told me about her and her family being Jehovah’s Witnesses. I knew all about them and how “wrong” they were. I felt like an umpteen thousand volt shock had gone through me. All that had been developing between me and Sue suddenly disappeared. Indeed, Sue said “Don’t you fancy me any more now I’ve said that?” and I mumbled something incoherent. There followed a long and interesting few months in which I found myself arguing finer points of theology with the JWs. Chris became a Christian, Sue left the JWs and married someone else, and I wondered what had hit me.

“Speaking in tongues” at an Elim Pentecostal Church

The experience at work shook me out of my complacency. It seemed to me that the Anglican Church I belonged to was far too complacent. I needed to join a church which was more “aggressive” about its faith. After visiting three or four local churches, I joined a new Elim Pentecostal Church. It was led by a young pastor called Ian Meredith and his wife Shirley. I was to stay there for about three years and make a good few friends. Whilst there I finally, reluctantly, got into the “speaking in tongues” thing which, incidentally, I can still do, even though I no longer believe in any of the theology behind it. One guy I got to know quite well, but never really regarded as a friend, was another Chris. He was a person of very strong opinions and sometime later he became an “elder” in the church, a promotion I never really agreed with and which was to have profound consequences. A happier friendship was with a very personable and attractive girl called Dawn who ran an arts studio near the cathedral in St Albans. This became an informal meeting place for many people inside and outside the church.

Dales Bible Week

In 1978, the church went up to Dales Bible Week, a huge charismatic festival held near Harrogate in North Yorkshire. The speaker was Bob Mumford from the US, who strongly peddled the ideas of “shepherding” or “discipling” other people. We were also introduced to Alan Vincent, the leader of a church in a village called Bedmond between St Albans and Hemel Hempstead. At the festival there was a palpable “class distinction” between people like me who had to sleep in muddy tents and the “big cheeses” who addressed us each night wearing their neatly tailored suits. On our return to St Albans, we started to have a lot of visits from Alan Vincent and his people from the Bedmond church. I was still in touch with Brandon Jackson, the Anglican vicar from my Harrogate days. He was a little alarmed to see me involved with the Dales Bible Week people and he counselled me strongly to “be on my guard”.

Expelled from the Elim church on trumped-up charges

The relationship between the Elim Church and Alan Vincent’s Bedmond Church faded over time. Perhaps the Elim church hierarchy didn’t approve of it. In 1979, a guy called Steve Dennett joined the Elim church, together with his wife Leonie. Steve was strongly into a “prophetic ministry” and spent much time talking about prophecy to those who would listen, many of whom congregated in the art studio place run by Dawn. He was a person of very strong opinions and he too was rapidly promoted to be an “Elder” of the church. Early in 1980, he prophesied that everyone in church would be “shaken” that year – a prophecy which actually came true. Shortly afterwards, he fell out with the pastor Ian Meredith, and left the church.

A couple of months afterwards, I bumped into Steve’s wife Leonie and she invited me to lunch the following Sunday. It turned out that she and Steve had joined Alan Vincent’s church in Bedmond, and were happy there. They encouraged me to join them that evening to listen to Terry Virgo, founder of Newfrontiers – an influential network of charismatic evangelical churches. At the end of the service Steve introduced me to Terry with the words “This is John Collins. He is intending to leave the Elim church and join this one”. I’d said absolutely nothing to this effect, and I was aghast. He must have thought that I was some kind of zombie. Steve and Leonie also told me that they had a “special calling” to help the single men they knew – of whom I was one.

Steve and Leonie told me their side of the story regarding the row with the pastor Ian Meredith, which to a large extent involved the antics of his wife Shirley – one of the strangest women I ever met, heavily into “deliverance ministry” and who had seen fit to “deliver” me of all sorts of things over the years. I’m sure I expressed understanding of their point of view but I’m also sure I said nothing about leaving the Elim church.

Subsequently, however, things started to escalate out of control as I found myself between two churches. I did have serious doubts about the “deliverance ministry” at the Elim church and I wanted to talk to Alan Vincent at the Bedmond church. I tried to arrange a private meeting with Alan but Ian, the pastor from the Elim Church together with elder Chris insisted on being present. Not only that, but they also insisted on me giving them a lift. The meeting turned out to be the most dreadful imaginable. In front of Alan, I was accused of all sorts of immoral behaviour and of being involved in all sorts of crimes and problems that had taken place in the church, about many of which I knew absolutely nothing. I gaped like a goldfish, which Alan took initially as being evidence of guilt. Ian and Chris said that they were going to expel me from the fellowship in view of my alleged misdeeds. Alan said that he would see me later about what had been said. We had gone to this meeting in my car, so I then had the distasteful task of taking my more or less triumphant accusers back home. The temptation to stop in the middle of a country road and tell them to get out and walk was a strong one.

Later the same day I saw Alan again and he said that, having reflected on the afternoon’s events, he had come to the conclusion that there was no truth in any of the accusations made against me and saw no alternative but to “receive me into” his church. A week or so later, I received a letter from the Elim church saying that I was formally expelled and must have nothing to do with any of its members. This was to be enforced strictly: even when I returned some borrowed books to various people by calling at Dawn’s art studio and leaving them on the doorstep with a note, this was deemed to be a violation of the injunction. To put the record straight, I should add that some four years later, pastor Ian Meredith came round to see me and unreservedly apologised to me for what had happened.

“Intense spiritual warfare”

Alan Vincent’s church was split geographically, with people in the Watford area going on Sunday mornings to a newly-acquired church building in Garston (effectively a suburb of Watford) and those from the Hemel Hempstead area going to the original Bedmond church. Evening services (which all church members were expected to attend) took place at Garston. I went to Bedmond in the mornings as it was closer to where I lived.

I have to say that this heralded the most bleak and lonely period in the whole of my life. Smarting at the injustice done to me by the Elim church, and cut off from all the friends I’d had in St Albans by the ban put on me, together with the people from my new church living almost entirely in Watford and Hemel Hempstead, some distance from where I was living in St Albans, my life seemed very empty.

The church schedule was very busy with two meetings on Sundays, usually a meeting on Fridays, plus a mid-week home group meeting. I was commuting to London to work and, at least twice during the week, I gulped down a quick meal and drove half a dozen miles to get to a meeting. This didn’t allow me much time to think. But the days when nothing happened were silent and empty, so I turned up at all the meetings. I didn’t stop and think whether anything made sense. It filled the time and we were whipped up to think we were “soldiers” in a huge battle.

Alan Vincent used to rail at people for the poor attendance at the weekday meetings. Of course, not having had a “proper” job for ages, he was in a poor position to appreciate that people who had worked all day, perhaps with a couple of hours commuting each way as well, were not in a fit state to turn out to a meeting lasting most of the evening. Alan spoke at about 90 per cent of the meetings apart from Sunday mornings when he would alternate between Bedmond and Garston. He was a very good speaker, although he didn’t always get his facts straight. He always got the explanation of how an aeroplane flew wrong. The thrust of his message was that we were engaged in “spiritual warfare” against the powers of darkness and hence the importance of faith and prayer. This emphasis very much transmitted itself to the other leaders in the church and the whole attitude of the church was one of “intense spiritual warfare”.

Early in 1981, at a meeting during the week, Alan Vincent presented his picture for the development of the church in terms of “strawberry plants” with “runners” moving out and planting “living churches” in adjacent towns. He had an overhead slide of a strawberry plant with runners labelled “St Albans”, “Hemel Hempstead” and so forth. He envisaged that once planted, the new churches would separate from the original and be the source of new plantings in the future.

There was a large turnover of people and almost never a warm goodbye as people left for pastures new. It was always the result of a “personality clash” and only if you were close to the centre would you ever pick up even a hint of what the issues were. Former high profile leaders were effectively erased from history. It reminded me of those old Kremlin photographs where the line-up photographed a few years ago is retouched so that the heretics no longer appear. The staggering thing is that people went along with it all.

Work and my business

In the second half of 1980 I went into business (in software engineering) with the brother of a Christian friend. His name was David and, despite being a church leader, he was the most dishonest person I have ever met. More than one person said of him: “if you shake hands with him, count your fingers afterwards.” However, at the time it seemed a way forward to start my own business. But instead of my having 50 out of 100 shares, he set the company up so that I only had 50 out of 1000 shares, and he forged my signature on documents agreeing to this. I wasn’t to discover this for over five years. This dragged on until late 1985, when I finally managed to escape his clutches. 1986 got off to a huge start for me. I started my computer software company, Xi Software Ltd, which was to be my business life for the next 28 years. It was pretty successful, but I so longed for someone I could trust to work with me and help me.

A hellish relationship

From 1981 to 1984 my life was empty, apart from work and the church. All the men in the church were married and I had little in common with them. No one particularly spoke to me and I had to fend for myself most days. I had a continual tussle with my initial home group leader, Steve, who complained about me to the leader of the St Albans church, and they came round one day to “deliver me from spirits of loneliness”. I now think “What a joke!”. I just needed someone to talk to! Painful as this period was, it would be incomplete without an account of the hellish experience I had in a relationship with a woman called Jane. I first met her in 1984 when she joined me at my house for Christmas and what became my most difficult relationship began. In many ways she was an obvious person for me to be with. She was quite intellectual in some ways and we were attracted on a certain level. To many people in the church, she was an answer to their prayers for me. Unfortunately, however, she had a “split personality” and was given to the most incredible fits of intense anger. When she had particularly strong outbursts of anger her whole face and voice changed in a way hard to describe. It would not be hard to see why “demonic” could be applied to that. Yet her public persona was quite different. She was very different whenever other people were around, changing dramatically, in face and voice, as soon as we were on our own. Only one or two people who knew me very well could tell that something was wrong and even they didn’t say until later.

She was also incredibly paranoid. If I had a conversation with someone out of her earshot, she would later put me through the third degree in her determination to elicit anything I might have said about her. Numerous times I begged her to go, and a couple of times I drove her out of my house forcibly. The whole episode stretched through until September 1985, when she finally left. It must seem strange to people that I somehow put up with all this, but for someone who’d never had a girlfriend before, there was nothing to compare it with. It was hard not to believe that somehow the problems were all my fault, as she contended – after all, that was the message I’d had for so long at the church. She said I’d never meet anyone who’d have any time for me and I suppose I believed that. One of the funnier aspects of this episode is that she monitored what I ate to an incredible extent. She would harangue me if she thought I’d eaten too much, which was most of the time. I remember the constant hunger I was in: my weight plummeted to the lowest it has ever been and I’d have dizzy turns if I stood up too quickly. In an attempt to stave off hunger, I kept a huge bag of peanuts under the spare wheel of my car and a huge block of cheese hidden in the garage. I cannot describe the relief when she went, although I was sure that I’d never trust any woman again. About four years later I learned from neighbours that whilst I was out doing software consultancy work, she had been “entertaining” a man at my house.

Pledging huge amounts of money to the church

Towards the end of 1981 a disused school building in Bourne Valley, Hemel Hempstead, was leased by the church until July 1985 for a new Bourne Valley Community Church and a Christian school. The church had promised to vacate the building then, but reneged on the promise. The Council, which owned the premises, was less than pleased about this, but granted a final year’s extension on the condition that the parents of the schoolchildren were informed and told to make alternative arrangements after July 1986. I don’t believe that this message was ever passed on. The Council did make clear that the church could bid to buy the premises along with anyone else. Gradually the message was conveyed that a huge amount of money would be required. As the months wore on, Alan Vincent became more and more shrill about raising money for the school. Some of us became increasingly convinced that there was no way the school could remain in the hands of the church, but any dissent was squashed. Alan announced a system of “pledges” to raise money for the school premises. The idea of the pledges was that forms were given out to all the church members and they would be encouraged to “pledge” a huge sum of money for them to contribute to buy the school building. It was astounding how many people signed up to the “pledges” and signed for enormous sums of money. I pledged nothing, totally convinced that the school would be lost. I persuaded anyone who asked me about it not to sign anything. One young lady told me how she’d been thinking of buying a car but wondered whether she ought to be giving money to the church instead. I spent a considerable time persuading her (successfully as it happened) to get a car. Almost immediately the “pledges” were called in and some people had to sell their houses and move into rented accommodation to raise the money they had committed to. Stalling for time, Alan eventually claimed that “The elders have come to faith that God will give us the school”. The school premises remained occupied until the Council got a court order to remove the school and the church from the premises. The events were featured in the local papers and any goodwill the church and school had in the local area was destroyed overnight. The school building and land were rapidly sold by the Council to a developer for ten times what the church had imagined in its wildest dreams it would go for. As for the people who had made “pledges” and had them called in, in some cases selling houses and so forth, the money collected was never returned. Sometime later, the tax authorities caught up with the way in which the school had been financed and the church narrowly escaped prosecution.

The church falls apart

What was amazing to me is that, after being proved so dramatically wrong over the school and without a pause, Alan Vincent launched heart and soul into his next pet project. He started to introduce the concept of “city churches” and “city elders”, “area elders” and so forth. All a massive hierarchy with you-know-who at the top. He preached about how “God was insisting” on the city/area church system and hierarchy. By this time I had really lost all faith in him, as had others. I tried to ask in public: “Why should we believe you are right about this when you were proved so catastrophically wrong about the school”, but I was prevented from doing so.

In December 1986, I visited the leader of the St Albans church, Pete Byers, at his house. As I was arriving, I was surprised to meet Alan Vincent just leaving. I learnt from Pete that he was being thrown out of the church. He had opposed the notion of the city/area church setup for about a year, but had finally dropped his opposition to it. However that wasn’t good enough for Alan, who wanted Pete's wholehearted support for the project, which in conscience he couldn’t give. I was horrified and stunned by this. The following day, a Sunday, I went to the St Albans church where Alan Vincent explained how and why Pete had left the church. He said that Pete had determined to go, that they had tried to dissuade him, but, “deceived of Satan”, he had insisted. A single girl, an unmarried mum, who’d known Pete well, suddenly jumped up and said “Isn’t he even coming to say goodbye?”, and got the reply “We wanted him to but he wouldn’t come”. Someone else jumped up and publicly accused Alan of lying, and the whole situation got really messy, but we were all sent home.

Thoroughly disillusioned with the lying, lawbreaking, and some very dubious theology, I decided to leave. I did write to Alan expressing as clearly as I could my reasons for leaving but I received no reply. As 1987 unfolded, Alan was forced to leave the church. He eventually moved to San Antonio, Texas after handing over the reins to his son-in-law. He died in 2020. In some of his published sermon material he claimed the school fiasco was corruption at the council rather than a simple matter of someone else making a higher bid.

Janice – a “real” girlfriend at last

After the hellish experience with Jane I more or less gave up the idea of any kind of relationship. I vaguely stuck with a crowd of people from Welwyn Garden City who had left the St Albans Church at the time of the departure of Pete Byers, going to their meetings in a hall there. One occasional visitor was a lady called Janice, who was a neighbour of one of the leaders there. She had recently been widowed, and had two youngish children. She was a very different person than anyone I had been used to. She wasn’t a Christian although she was friendly with people who were. Suddenly I found myself in what I saw as a “real” relationship for the next four years. I learned a lot during my time with her. People have asked whether that included one particular kind of education, and well, yes it did. This isn’t an entirely irrelevant point to what followed.

Christian homophobia

About this time I had a party and barbecue at my house, and a number of people from the Welwyn church came (a group of people from Welwyn Garden City, near St Albans, had created a “split off” church). I invited the neighbours but in the end only two women who lived opposite, Chris and Ros, came. A couple of the ladies from the church saw fit to “witness” to them without much success. After the neighbours had gone, the ladies who had “witnessed” to them expressed the view that they were lesbians. This was, apparently, the reason why they were unimpressed by their “witnessing”. A few weeks later Chris and Ros invited me to dinner, and they cooked an excellent Chinese meal. They made a point of showing me all round the house. Whilst I wasn’t any expert and I’m still not, it really didn’t seem to me that they were, for example, sleeping together and I didn’t think there was anything in it. It was then that I found out about what had happened three or four years ago about Jane (the woman with the split-personality) “entertaining” a man at my house whilst I was out. Chris and Ros didn’t tell me so much as ask me “Who was that man, he looked like an airline pilot?”, and were astonished when I didn’t know anything about him. A day or so later, I told one of the ladies who had “witnessed” at the barbecue at my house about this as she had known Jane quite well, but she said emphatically that they must be lying, repeating that she was sure they were lesbians and I should discount whatever I heard from people “living in an immoral relationship”. This has always struck me as so strange. Would they not accept that 2+2=4 if a lesbian said it? Would they not have their car repaired by a gay man, or a divorcee?

It was after this that I left the Welwyn church. I really wasn’t at all happy with the way things were going. They were getting incredibly emotional, with “gifts of the spirit” and “falling over” (a spiritual or emotional reaction during worship or prayer which causes people to fall to the ground), mostly at the behest of a guy who professed to be a full-time evangelist, despite his children being out of order and on probation. I also felt I was leading a bit of a double life due to the “education” I had acquired at the hands of Janice. It all came to a head on 15th December 1988 (my 37th birthday) when two of the leaders had a go at me. The gist of what they said was that “something is wrong”. I insisted that nothing was, but they wouldn’t accept it. I made up my mind not to return.

So I more or less stopped going regularly to any church. I still, for some reason, “believed”, but everywhere I’d been had “gone to bad”. I knew some people who went to a small Anglican church near St Albans – St Mark’s in Colney Heath – and for a few years I went sporadically, but I never “signed up” as a member. I did get to know some of the people in one of the fortnightly home groups. But there was turmoil of a different kind to come.

Towards the end of 1992 my relationship with Janice fizzled out after she met someone new, and I was on my own again. In some ways I was better for having had a proper relationship – I had, in every sense of the phrase, lost my virginity. But in other ways I was worse off as there was, again, a big “hole” in my life.

As the business took something of an upturn, I was able to get about a bit more and meet a lot more people in the “real world” outside the Christian scene, and in August 1993 I met Sue. She had been married before and had a daughter. All a bit of a culture shock for me, but Sue and I were married on 1st July 1994. In retrospect, the word “rebound” probably applies to this marriage, but we were together for 25 years.

After Sue and I were married, she stayed at her old home back in London during the week and came up to see me at the weekends whilst her daughter was finishing school. I still went to home group meetings every other fortnight but that fizzled out fairly soon after I moved to Welwyn Garden City in late 1995. If you’d asked me, I would have said I was a Christian, but it was not a topic that ever really came up with Sue all the time I knew her.

Young Earth Creationism and fundamental doubts

It was around this time that I learned all about “Young Earth Creationism” from the TalkOrigins website. I was aghast! I'd never really appreciated the full enormity of this before. Young Earth creationists believe that the Earth and the universe were created by God relatively recently, within the past 10,000 years, as described in the book of Genesis. I discovered that this was the unspoken assumption of so many of the people I'd known. I still “believed” but there were questions that bothered me, such as:

  1. Why does God, who is supposed to disapprove of untruth, rely on his servants lying to achieve his “ends”?

  2. Why did God leave so much evidence of evolution there to disprove what “his word” is supposed to say?

  3. If his chief servants are supposed to be in daily touch with him, why does he never tell them that they are going down the wrong path – and in his name too?

But it still needed the “paradigm shift” of asking the question at the bottom of it all: did God exist at all?

How the “sandcastle of faith” was washed away

I wish I could say that what followed was me being inexorably led along a path of pure logic. Such habits of thought, especially ones developed over nearly 50 years, die hard. I take comfort from the fact that many others have found it equally hard. “I was wrong” are probably the hardest three words to say in the English language. Strangely enough, it was getting a little dog in 1999 that finally triggered it – a Japanese Shiba Inu called Foxy. I’d been taught that animals don’t have souls yet within hours it became clear to me that my dog had a personality and as much of a “soul” as I had. And he had to be taken on walks which gave me more time to stew over troubling questions. It was as if I was sitting in a deckchair on a beach reading a book, having built a huge sandcastle. The tide was coming in and every time I looked up from the book I noticed that some of the sandcastle was washed away, finally the top disappeared and then that was washed away, leaving just a lump in the sand. A couple more waves and even that had gone. It was a bit like that with my faith. I’d take the dog out and I started to notice that I no longer believed in something I’d believed in before. I was just left with the tenuous thread of “experiences” to contend with, a few times in my life when I really thought God was moving. It was actually a TV programme on “false memory syndrome” which convinced me of the subjectivity of those experiences. It was demonstrated just how easy it is to convince people, by hypnosis and other means, of the reality and indeed importance of totally fake events.

So in July 1999 I decided that I had to take a grip on myself, say that there was no way it all hung together and that I was no longer a Christian. It wasn’t an easy step to take. It was denying everything that had gone before in the previous thirty years. I said a final prayer, “If you’re there and I’ve got it wrong, show me by the end of the month”. I waited out the month. There was silence. So as from 1st August 1999, it was all over.

The strange thing is that I felt I was stepping out on my own, without a crutch at first, but then my confidence rose. Maybe the contradictions and general doublethink had been bugging me subconsciously all the time. I’d never felt particularly comfortable about “sharing my faith” as a Christian. I’d always felt it was judgemental of people who at heart I felt inferior to. Yet suddenly I was on a par with all sorts of people. Although I see it now in Christians I meet, I hadn’t realised just how the attitude prevails that non-Christians are viewed as “an inferior form of life”.

So that is how I come to say that I have “grown up” out of the belief system which has been part of my life for so long. I just don’t believe it any more. I wonder more and more how I ever did accept it all. It certainly made me a very weak person.

I wish I could say it was plain sailing after that. Foxy passed away in September 2011. A few months before, we’d gone to the vet with him and a couple came in with their dog – and left without him. The lady was in floods of tears and was still sobbing in their car when we left. I thought “fancy being that worked up about a dog”. However a few months later we took Foxy to the vet again, and later that day I found myself in floods of tears. I’d loved him without realising it.

I’d married Sue on the rebound, and after 25 years things got worse and worse. So it was curtains in July 2019 and I moved out. I soon met someone else, a lady called Jac. She proved to be the best friend I ever had, helping me move and all through the process with Sue – and she came to be a whole lot more. For the first time in my life I discovered what it was like to utterly love someone who loved me so much I could feel it. This was to culminate just before Christmas 2019. We attended a Christmas concert and were seated in the front row. There was a card waiting for me, signed by all the cast members, in celebration of my recent birthday. I was stunned. Jac smiled at me and said “I love you” and held my hand. I felt content enough, but then one of the singers sang a solo, “When you wish upon a star your dreams come true” from Pinocchio and the thought hit me “This is the moment in my life I don’t have anything to wish for, no dreams I need to come true”. I had gone from all those years of loneliness as far as it is possible to go on this planet. I didn’t know until then that you could be in floods of tears out of happiness, much less that I ever would be, but that is exactly what happened to me there and then, front row and all. I later wrote and apologised to the singer, who not only wrote back saying I didn’t need to apologise, saying the story was lovely, but the following year, during the lockdown version, she sang it again, publicly dedicating it to me. I’ve always thought that moment was the very happiest of the whole of my life and I’m sure I’ll always say that.

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