Friday, 14 June 2019

31. Broadgate Spiritualist Church, Coventry

This Sunday being Father’s Day I thought it would be nice to have a chat with my dad. Spend some time together to catch up on news and compare notes on books and cricket. 

The problem with this idea is that my father died almost thirty years ago. By a quirk of fate, last weekend marked the point at which I have now lived more days than he did. I’m now older than my dad. Now that would be worth talking about.

Those of us in the living world have been communing with the dead since time immemorial. Many religions - Taoism for one - still hold it as an essential part of daily worship.

Spiritualism offers perhaps the most overt claims to be able to bridge the gap to the afterlife for you; it’s not just the religion’s USP it’s its entire reason for existence.

This is - so says the wording above the door - the Spiritualists National Church. Inside there are no ministers, no religious trappings and little in the way of church goings-on. There are plain chairs, a hand-written sign asking for our £2.50 donation and a raised podium instead of any altar. It’s less like a church than a church hall really and the turnout of barely a dozen people coated up against the June downpours doesn’t help to dispel a fairly gloomy atmosphere.

Before the service starts I’m given a pep-talk about the value and values of spiritualism. In the company of three other souls who have come here for the first time, I learn such diverse nuggets as how the church doesn’t believe in Jesus as there have been plenty of mediums before and after him, how the church committee is formed and that we all have a coloured aura which our guide is able to see. Mine, she tells me, is yellow and orange. She feels that means an open mind and a willingness to learn. She asks me what orange and yellow means to me. The MCC I tell her, probably scuppering her ‘open mind’ theory in an instant.

The service proper starts with two songs and I find myself singing Rod Stewart’s Sailing to a backing track. It’s a slightly absurd start but not wholly out of keeping with what’s to come. We get a prayer, but that’s the only faintly religious element present.

There is a rather tired stereotype of the spiritual medium experience; a smooth-talking fairground faker preying on the desperate hopes of the naive and terminally credulous. The experience which fills the next hour and a half, I have to say, does nothing to shatter that image.

In the hands of the visiting medium - Daniel, from Leicester, who looks like an estate agent - the information coming from the spirit world is invariably hazy and rather indistinct in its aim. He wonders if anyone knows someone called Mary in the spirit world. Or if anyone had a male figure in their life with brown hair. Woefully inaccurate stabs and generalised drivel follow at a steady pace always delivered as if searched from some indistinct middle distance just above all our heads. It strikes me that I’d back myself to be able to do this without a shred of training. Nobody from this world or the next tells me otherwise.

And then suddenly it is with a degree of dread I realise he’s looking straight at me. He has in mind, he says, a woman of small stature. Not tall. Quite old. With her arms crossed. My grandmother, he wonders? Stunning I say (to myself). I can’t trust myself to hide my lack of belief in this so I let him flounder on until he picks on someone else.

There’s no worship here, only a disappointingly meagre showmanship. I can’t even report that the experience was life-changing for anyone else. There were no truly enlightening moments. 

The dead are always with us all the time. They’re in our thoughts and our memories. They’re in the special places we go or the daft, sentimental traditions we keep. They’re in the way we think and act and, as we get older, they’re there in the face that stares back at us from the mirror. We can reconcile ourselves to their failings, thank them for their love and come to terms with their absence and our loss any time we like. We just have to think. Perhaps if everyone searching for lost communication had the support and help they needed to realise that, there would be no need for rubbish like this.

In the end a perfect vision of my father does appear. But it’s not in the words of Daniel as he acts his oily part on the stage. It stems from a memory I have of my dad and me standing side by side in a church desperately trying to stifle our laughter about something. I can’t remember the cause but it was one of those moments when you are linked by the complete inability to control your body-shaking laughter. You can’t even look at each other for fear of starting the hysterics again. And I know that if he were to appear in flesh beside me now that he’d find this whole pantomime as batty and risible as I do. So perhaps he is speaking to me after all.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

30. Leamington Baptist Church

According to reliable sources there are 1,372 coffee shops in Leamington. I may be exaggerating, of course, but if there’s a town to rival Leamington when it comes to places to get your daily caffeine fix, I’ve not been there. Among the dozens of possibilities are the big high-street chain names plus a huge range of independents offering different themes, varying ambiences, contrasting furnishings and so on. And all claiming to offer the best coffee around.

Of course a coffee is a coffee is a coffee... At the risk of outraging the true connoisseur, the range of drinks is more or less the same wherever you go and the price won’t change by that much from shop to shop. So you have to wonder what makes people loyal enough to go back to the same one time and again.

My morning tea (somehow the over-brewed syrup which passes for coffee these days never sits well with me) is taken at the same place every day. I go there for a combination of reasons, the quality of the teabag tea not being among them. I like the comfy chairs, I appreciate the light classical music they play and I enjoy the fact that they recognise me and always welcome me. It’s also pretty much the closest to where I work and opens early enough for me to get an hour’s worth of reading done. 

Coffee shops are in my thoughts today because I’m wondering if there’s a similar selection and loyalty process at work with churches. This morning I’m at Leamington Baptist Church and, although there’s plenty to explore on my first ever visit, I’m tempted to wonder what’s different, what could you find here that you wouldn’t find somewhere else.

This church is modern and very large. Its rather forbidding brick mass hides a very light, very high central space which is currently painted the kind of orange that marks out the brave when it comes to choosing paint. It’s not an overwhelming turnout this morning given that it’s Pentecost and that’s a key date for the Baptists. But there’s a splendid range of music on offer.

The church has a splendid looking organ in an alcove and we start with a 19th century hymn suited to its chapel sound. The church also boasts a splendid band and we turn to them for three modern songs. Perhaps it’s an indication of the age of the congregation but the hymn is sung with considerably more volume.

Then it’s time for the talk, and it’s here, for me, that the morning’s spiritual beverage begins to taste a little bitter. 

Disjointed and bereft of clear purpose, the presentation leads us through a clutch of bible verses read out on the spot by people directed from the front. There’s a Powerpoint backing on the big screen - images and phrases not fully-connected to the message that’s coming across and, as is so often the case with these things, utterly disrupting whatever flow the speaker intends to achieve. There’s an unease to all of this.

It seems as if the speaker’s experience the previous evening of getting up before an open mic poetry evening is a challenge to be passed on to the rest of us whether we like it or not.

In this spirit we are then urged to turn to the complete stranger next to us and share a moment from our youth or childhood when we experienced some kind of trauma. I’ve had more than my fair share of this cod trust-therapy over the years. My drama years have been full of it. I still have no idea what makes some people believe that their bald, untutored instruction to ‘lose all your inhibitions’ will succeed where countless professionals have failed. I have no firm reason to trust or not trust people I meet in a church, nor they me. But I would no more expect the person next to me to open up about some ghastly formative episode than I would expect them to trust me to give financial advice or a haircut.

Nevertheless, the brave soul who comes to sit next to me attempts to relate a story about worry and uncertainty in younger years and for a moment I’m genuinely concerned I may be about to become party to an awful secret I shall have to take to the authorities. I’d like to think that, as far as my family and friends are concerned, I’m a decent listener and someone who might offer reasonably sound advice. But I’m nobody’s instant confessional and I’m inwardly thankful that the speaker’s unstoppable desire to make the point she’s been leading up to, cuts across any chance my confessor has to conclude her tale.

Left feeling uneasy and distrustful at all this, I take the only course of action I can really take. I quietly leave. 

In the end where and how you choose to perform whatever worship you wish to perform is all down to personal preference. A more enjoyable style of music here, a charismatic leader there and so on. Proximity and convenience play a huge part too, as does habit. As does trust.

Ultimately my less-than-satisfactory experience this morning doesn’t matter a jot. I shall simply move on to the next coffee shop, and I shall take with me the thought that your favourite is often arrived at simply by it NOT being that place you swear you’ll never go again.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

29. HOPE@motofest2019, Coventry

Jesus, says the Bible, rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey. Seated upright and allowing the beast to pick its careful, ponderous way through the dusty streets. It’s an image which has long been central to the gospel stories of the young and provided many artists with inspiration. 

Just pause for a moment and replace that tired old donkey - willful and unreliable - with something a little more prestigious, something that will make a statement, tell everyone who you are. Sitting atop a painstakingly-polished Harley Davidson with its chrome catching the brilliant sun of the holy land perhaps. Or behind the wheel of this jet black Aston Martin maybe even with the hood down and the heads-up display offering real-time Jerusalem traffic updates.

You can be excused thoughts like these surrounded by very expensive pieces of metal at a motoring festival and, given the nature and theme of this morning’s service, perhaps even justified in thinking them.

Coventry Motofest has been running for six years or so, closing the streets and filling the city with noise, and Sunday morning sees quite a few churches close their doors. Not, as you’d imagine, because they can’t compete with the noise, but rather to join together and take their work right into the heart of the city and its festival. This is not just Sunday worship, this is HOPE@motofest2019.

This morning’s service is conducted from the main entertainment arena stage sandwiched between a couple of fast food stalls and a converted London double decker bus now advertising a splendid range of aspirational gins and over-priced artisan crisps. From behind the stage come the sounds and the flashing neon lights of the Wall of Death. Make of that what you will.

The congregation are variously ranged on the grass or taking advantage of a few handily-placed deckchairs. The humid weather has brought many in shorts but the gathering clouds mean a few umbrellas are also in evidence. 

The service sheet for today features songs and talks as well as prayers and a blessing all conducted against the background of the festival. And what a full-throttle background it is. Not twenty seconds can pass without the shrieking roar of a revved-up engine flying past on the ring road racetrack. In between the engines you can hear any of a hundred stalls blaring out pulsating music, the noise of fairground rides, overexcited PA announcements and, of course, the noise of tens of thousands of people shamelessly enjoying themselves.

Confronted by that, worship has to be loud and the band and speakers give as good as they get. The songs are anthemic, stadium numbers. Once you get beyond the edge of the arena they probably sound like all the other musical mush pumping out of the festival. Thankfully at this time of the morning the gin bus is not yet picking up passengers and the fast food vans are mainly supplying the obligatory morning caffeine burst.

Festival director James Noble provides the link between the petrol-head excesses all around and this particular part of the event’s high-octane programme. In a disarmingly honest testimony on the stage he talks of his faith and the trust he places in God to protect and nurture the city. He even quotes chapter and verse on one of the inspirations behind the whole thing. There is, he says, a parallel between creation and the creativity of a city which designed and built itself right to the forefront of the motoring world and still has a part to play. 

The prayers from the stage which follow are tailored to the city and its motoring industry. That industry has a lot to be thankful for over the years, but equally finds itself in a position where prayers can genuinely be offered for its continued recovery from some catastrophically low times. 

This is very much a meeting of the secular and the church. It could come across as a rather forlorn and doomed attempt by various churches to take their quiet message of hope into a very noisy, alien environment. Or a concession given by the organisers with one eye on filling up a slack part of the line-up. In fact it is neither. It’s a full-on celebration.

Perhaps the lesson here is that the people of the city are also churchgoers and are also workers in the car industry. There’s no hard borders between the things which make Coventry what it is and that’s what’s being celebrated. The Kingdom of Heaven, announces the man on the stage, is just like a motoring festival with everyone coming together whether they be car lovers, music lovers or just the inveterately sociable.

For me the relentless combination of screaming noise, engines, crowds, fried food and diesel is no vision of heaven. Quite the opposite. So I don’t linger long before heading back to my suddenly rather unexciting car.

I keep my eye out for some of the more unusual sights though. And if I were to see Jesus roaring round the ring road on the back of a ton of gleaming chrome and leather, I would take it as a sign that Coventry, and its churches, have got the balance for this morning just about right.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

28. Church of Scientology, Birmingham

Every generation has its own cult religion to be lampooned and feared in equal measure. Simultaneously scorned for holding daft views based on crackpot thinking yet cast in the role of bogeyman for leading innocent victims away from their homes and their sanity. 

Anyone of my age would remember the Moonies. The Unification Church under Sun Myung Moon had all the right cult attributes. Or so I recall, although I’d have to head for Wikipedia to flesh out the few things I can generally claim to know. Not letting details get in the way of rampant scaremongering, any sort of contact with the Moonies would - to my impressionable teenage mind - inevitably mean losing all your possessions, never seeing your family again and being forced to take part in a mass-marriage on the pitch of some cavernous football stadium in the far east. 

I’m perfectly prepared to accept that there were genuine victims of such cults and their stories are undeniably harrowing. But the combination of religious ritual and the control of a strong leading personality always seems to add up to terror and snowballing mistrust on a crazy scale.

If you had to identify who today has picked up the Moonies’ baton it could well be the Scientologists. Many of those who I’ve told of my choice today have joked about never seeing me again. The church is founded on a set of defining texts created by a pulp fiction sci-fi writer, their celebrity following inspires plenty of controversy and - crucial to their critics in this country - they look and sound thoroughly American. Even the introduction to ‘Birming-Ham’ on the website is more Hollywood than Hall Green.

The Church of Scientology in Birmingham is a massive place in every sense of the word. It’s housed in a vast building with a fine columned entrance and impressively-manicured grounds. The car park is large and, although it’s fairly empty when I pull in on a Sunday morning, suggests numbers are confidently expected.

I’m here this morning, hopeful - though not confident - of attending a morning service, as a result of a phone call I made in the week. If you care to browse the organisation’s website you can find a wealth of information about what the church is proud of, what it supports, how it is relevant to you - but not a single mention of when you might be able to attend a church service. Not finding the information I wanted I picked up the phone and, following a rather stilted, evasive conversation, put it down very little the wiser. The church, according to the woman answering, likes people to come and take a tour round the information centre and talk with one of its welcomers, but she was not sure they held anything like a service I could attend. She was most keen to learn my name and couldn’t hide her unease at whatever she perceived my motives to be.

Nevertheless the welcome, at the very hotel-like reception lobby desk, was warm. I had to fill out a card with my details and a few profile questions including wanting to know how I’d heard of the church - odd that from an organisation which presses its global status in heady figures of members, countries of influence, churches established and so on. Why would I NOT have heard of them?

Still unsure if there will actually BE a service or not, and whether I would even get to see it, I spend time in the Information Centre where a battery of big touchscreens are on hand to play any one of hundreds of videos on any subject I might like to explore. Bit by bit these build up a picture of Scientology. It’s clearly a religion backed by a pulsating backing track and one in which everybody - and I mean everybody - has perfect teeth. I have nothing against the perfect world of corporate video-making but it can pall after a while. There’s only so many times you can watch sets of perfect teeth smiling at equally well-dentured children watching high-definition raindrops on perfect leaves, before the danger of cynicism becomes overwhelming.

I’m particularly struck by a video profiling the religion’s founder L Ron Hubbard. Any faults the man may have had in his life have been glossed over to present a man who is better-read, more highly-qualified, more resourceful and shining with moral worthiness and probity than anyone who has ever existed. Bigging up the figurehead is nothing new of course, but I find myself wondering what would have happened had he ever met that equally over-praised leader Kim Jong-Un on the squash court - omnipotence in the otherwise mortal can frequently lead to absurdity.

There’s still no sign of a service and the clock has gone past the time I expected something to happen, so it’s back to the screens for more on how L Ron Hubbard’s words have cut crime or defeated the scourge of drugs or cured the psychiatrically vulnerable depending on which set of perfect teeth is talking to you. I prepare my excuses for a departure.

But then suddenly a surprise. I’m informed that Sunday service is about to start and I’m guided through to the building’s impressive modern chapel. It’s a very strange atmosphere though as there are only a dozen other people there, all of whom seem to have arrived together and are on chatting terms with my telephone answerer and guide who is now clearly about to take her first service. She directs rather than invites her congregation to sit closer and then haltingly reads the creed followed by the sermon - an article by L Ron - before introducing (no surprises here) a video to watch on the big screen. A hasty prayer, a quick parish notice and it’s all over, barely ten minutes in duration. I watch as my fellow attendees head out of the chapel door and back up the stairs to whatever offices or places of study they have evidently been coaxed from. I’m absolutely certain this ‘service’ has been constructed and performed entirely for me. I’m not sure what to think of that. It’s touching in a way but also bewilderingly naff.

It’s all a bit awkward as I leave with my guide still offering to answer any questions I may have, but I’ve seen all the videos I need to see. It’s hard to see Scientology as I’ve experienced it today answering life’s great questions, or any questions come to that.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

27. Friends Meeting House, Warwick. May 19, 2019

Why do we go to church? It’s not a rare question to ask, I know. I’ve pondered it many times over the years. It’s a question people have asked of me when they read this blog.

But today I’m asking it of myself in a slightly different way. I’m less concerned with the word ‘why’ and more interested in the ‘we’. To put it another way, WE generally go to church together and do church things together, and I’m wondering why that is.

It doesn’t happen in every single faith, of course. My admittedly limited experience of Chinese temples seems to show people going on their own, when they want and carrying out a very personal and completely individual communion with the Gods or with their ancestors. Many churches, Catholics ones in particular, have areas set aside for individual prayer or confession.

But for the most part, going to church is a collective activity. It’s observed at an appointed place and an agreed time. I guess one of the reasons for this is that we want to share with others. Hearing other people saying the same things we do helps to underline validity. By saying a traditional creed you are, in a sense, making others a witness to your beliefs while simultaneously serving as a witness to theirs. It’s as if collectively we’re all looking round reassuring each other that what we’re doing isn’t mad, isn’t absurd or unique and makes sense.

There’s very little such openly-expressed confirmation at a Quaker meeting; it’s as long way from the ‘all singing together’ feel of other denominations, hence my first question. I have been to a Quaker meeting once before, many years ago. Although it’s a distant memory I can recall enough to know what goes on. And if I can’t, there’s a very helpful leaflet written specially for those attending for the first time. It tells you what will happen - or, more to the point, what won’t be happening. Having sat in silence diligently reading my leaflet, it’s a full five minutes into the allotted time before I realise we have started. 

There are around people twenty at this morning’s meeting in Warwick. Eyes are mainly closed as far as I can tell, heads bowed. There are so many different layers of silence. This silence is stronger than respectful hush of a doctor’s waiting room, deeper than the quiet that falls after someone’s said something inappropriate. I’ve been among tens of thousands of people observing a minute’s silence in a football ground and always been struck by how such a potentially noisy gathering can suddenly be almost invisible through its silence. It’s the same here.

My leaflet helpfully suggests a few things I might like to ponder given the space and time to think by this collective silence. I try, never having found it a difficulty to fill my time with theoretical meanderings and slowly coalescing ideas. But,of course, my mind wanders too. Yesterday’s cup final, the ebullient excesses of last night’s Eurovision spectacular, this morning’s early car boot bargains and so on. I begin to wonder whether others are doing the same. Alone among creatures we have the ability to grasp the likelihood that other people have minds too, and all the random, extended virtual worlds that go with them. When it comes to their thoughts on this morning’s meeting and its wider significance I have absolutely no idea what they’re thinking. And with no creed to recite, no collective shared liturgy to rehearse I have no way of knowing.

Quaker meetings stay in silent contemplation until someone decides to share a thought he or she feels would enhance the understanding in the room and advance us further. We have three such interjections this morning; one encouraging us to use our thinking time wisely, one reporting on historical points from a recent meeting and the last paying proud tribute to the musical offerings at a concert. To me they might seem unfathomably random, having no conceivable connection. But to each of their utterers they stand as natural conclusions to whatever road their thoughts were travelling. This, in turn, gives me something to think about and, in doing so, makes me see this silent exchange as every bit as lucid and natural as any conversation I’ve ever had.

After more reflection we’re joined by the children, who have been involved in their own activities elsewhere. They arrive full of energy but settle instinctively into the silence of the room, giving themselves over to their own thoughts. I’m struck, as I often have been on these travels, by the way young minds are content to accept as a perfectly rational norm, traditions, practices and behaviour we adults frequently have difficulty taking on board. Thinking about that fills my mind for a while too.

The time passes quickly and we’re suddenly shaking hands as the meeting reaches an end. Notices are given, new visitors and invited to introduce themselves and news is swapped. It’s a very supportive, highly respectful community. Afterwards I have a moment to compare stories with a woman whose circuitous spiritual journey brought her to Quakerism over a decade ago. Not having a creed to say, she believes, allows her to stay true to her faith but leaves her the wiggle room to find her own way within it. 

I feel she’s right. You can’t really argue with a religion which offers you something to think about and then has the confidence and good grace to provide you with every opportunity to do that thinking.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

26. St Michael, Baddesley Clinton. May 12, 2019

Other people’s traffic stories can sometimes be a bit tiresome, just something you have to listen to and remember to provide the right combination of empathy and sympathy. Many work days and social gatherings begin with this  accepted ritual.
It’s rare to find the same thing at the start of a Sunday church service; most people only have a short distance to walk rather than a car journey to make. But today is different thanks to the combined efforts of some 17,000 cyclists. 

The annual Birmingham Velo - a lengthy circular route through the countryside south of the city - passes right by the front door and brings with it road closures and frustration for many. I’ve had quite a traffic story just to get here. Trusting my luck down a series of increasingly narrow and twisting roads, I’m turned back on three occasions by high-vis stewards. On the fourth occasion I decide to trust the road signs that say I’m only half a mile away. I put the car as far onto the verge as I dare and set off walking. There’s a path through the woods and the day is so glorious that whatever frustration and stress I may have had has dissipated by the time I arrive at St Michael’s.

The church has a proud history of its own but has become - in the eyes of many weekend visitors at least - part of its illustrious neighbour, the Baddesley Clinton National Trust estate. It has links to the estate obviously, and boasts a very smart pictorial guide to show it. There are coats of arms, plaques and a very fine stained glass window - just the sort of things the National Trust faithful lap up while downing the cream tea.

I’ve come here to enjoy the special Bluebell Service trumpeted on the website. My march through the woods may have cut it a bit fine on getting here, but I find I am sadly a fortnight late for the blooms. Partly due to the cyclists and partly due to the fact that the climate seems to have shifted forward, the church decided to move the date. Never mind. There’s a lovely postcard of the church surrounded by a sea of blueish purple and for 20p I’ll settle for that.

The service - led today by a Reader - is a very sparse affair. The congregation numbers five. The traffic is blamed, of course, and I wonder if the excitement of the final throes of the race for the Premier League might have proved too tempting for some. Either way it’s an odd affair. At times like this I feel very sorry for those delivering a service when the attendance is as obviously disappointing as this. I find myself trying to be supportive through smiling and - as the risk of being spotted mentally wandering off is so high - concentrating as hard as possible.

It’s very quiet though - not helped by three unfamiliar hymns and some sung responses a little too unexpectedly intricate for me to busk. I feel for the Reader whose carefully prepared sermon on the lessons to be drawn from today’s Gospel passages is heard be roughly the same number of people as when she read it through at home.

Outside in the sunshine there are thousands of people of all ages and states of fitness all turning the pedals and counting the passing miles. For many of them the road is one which will lead them to a longer and healthier life. 

While they are busy prolonging this life, those trying to settle their place in the next life are being outnumbered a thousand to one. Perhaps that is a measure of the task the church faces to win back the multitudes. I’m not sure how you’d ever redress the balance. More bicycle racks perhaps.

It’s  a very small service and, at well under forty minutes, it’s also one of the shortest I’ve attended. Suddenly I’m back out in the bluebells and, with the road closures blissfully lifted, I have a relatively clear route home.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

25. Gurdwara Sahib, Leamington. May 5, 2019

Build it big. If you had to sum up the appearance of the Gurdwara Sahib on the southern edge of Leamington it would, perhaps, be in those three words. This is a huge building. High, wide and undeniably solid. Beautifully designed and constructed and set in its own acreage of rolling car park. This really is faith done large.

As a member of the local press I remember this temple being planned, built and opened. I also remember the building of the sprawling out-of-town development it sits in - a collection of truly nondescript retail units, family eateries, roundabouts and a bowling alley. All of which makes the objections to this startlingly beautiful, skyline enhancing temple all the more daft. 

You can see this building from miles around. I often catch sight of it when walking the slopes of Leek Wootton golf course the other side of Warwick. It’s a huge statement. But it’s not a statement of threat or intent; it’s one of pride and welcome. And it’s here to stay. How long will it be, I wonder, before we no longer talk about ‘that huge temple down by Sainsbury’s’ but ‘that supermarket just opposite the beautiful Gurdwara’.

As in so many walks of life, size isn’t everything. It’s what you make of that capacity. I’ve been in many cathedrals down the years when the towering vaulted interior has provided a cavernous backdrop to fewer than a dozen people. Many’s the time too I’ve been in vast football grounds only a fraction full, or sat on my own in a whole stand watching county cricket. And as for theatres - I’ve witnessed audiences in single figures. Sadly, it must be admitted, often from the stage.

The building can be as impressive as you like, but if the people don’t come, the open spaces and imposing architecture can hang very heavy indeed. Not so here. I began to get a suspicion that I wouldn’t be alone when, still a way short of the temple’s huge car park, I was firmly invited to leave the car on a grass verge and walk the rest of the way. 

Inside, the place is packed and buzzing. As well as the normal Sunday morning gathering in the main hall, today sees the handing over of power to the temple’s new committee, bringing in even more to discover who will be in charge of what in the coming months. Oh, and there’s a also a full-scale wedding with a host of beautifully turned out guests going on. It’s testimony to the size of the place that the wedding carries on without any crossover of noise or people. I can’t think of many places that can boast that capacity.

The main hall is large and is filling up. A central aisle divides the men’s carpeted area from the women’s. Ours is a fine display of beards and head-coverings (obligatory inside), theirs a riot of fabulous colours. Nobody does colour quite like India. It is a literally a brilliant sight. There’s a bench along the back wall - the only alternative to sitting on the floor - but it’s already shoulder to shoulder. As are the spaces round the edge where you could sneakily lean back against the wall. I truly take my hat off to anyone over the age of eight who can sit cross-legged in apparent serenity for hour after hour. Ever since the days of school assemblies I’ve always found it absolute torture and I’m aware of having to shuffle about sticking out an arm in an attempt to stay upright and stave off the pain. Enlightenment may follow suffering, perhaps; I just wish I could suffer in more comfort.

Over the course of an hour or so, every space is taken up. There’s an odd informality to the morning as people come and go. We all approach the front and respect the holy book with a bow before taking a place on the carpet. The readings are observed and responses made but there’s little involvement required other than listening. The readings and the examination of their meaning and interpretation that follows then give way to the business of announcing committee names and roles. It’s a seamless transition from the holy to the secular and underlines that this is a community not just a congregation.

It’s a community in the wider sense too. As part of the proceedings a party from Myton Hospice steps up to receive a generous cheque raised by the Sikhs. I’m not the only non-Sikh here this morning. My guide is keen to point out that the Gurdwara also numbers Hindus and Muslims among those who regularly attend. I feel welcome throughout. Perhaps it’s just recognising a fellow back-sufferer but there are smiling invitations for me to shoehorn myself into the already sardine-like bench at the back. And no end of smiles accompanied by prayer hands and a bow. 

After the committee business we get music - always a bonus for me. Three musicians provide a very traditional soundtrack as - having observed closely what others do - I join a succession of people placing an offering by the band, and an offering and bow before the Guru Granth Sahib and then heading out to be offered food in the form of a warm sweet piece of karah prasad as I go. 

As a postscript, as I head home through the roundabouts and drive-thru burger joints I pause at some pedestrian lights to let a group of senior Sikh ladies cross. Catching eyes for a moment I try out a version of the nod and prayer hands greeting and I’m rewarded with three beaming smiles and laughter. It could be that I’ve struck an interfaith chord, but as I discover when prowling the salad shelves at Morrisons later, it probably has more to do with me forgetting to remove the bright orange head-covering I’ve accidentally wandered off with. A buffoon is clearly a buffoon in any religion.