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Saturday, 1 October 2016

Journeys from Christadelphia to orthodoxy: Guest article by Dave Ellis (Part 1 of 2)

Walk into the Light

This is the story of my life growing up in and eventually leaving the Christadelphians. The title is from an Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) album, describing the short journey from the doorway onto the stage, and is appropriate in a number of ways, as you may see as you read through the article. The journey is quite long, and there is a lot of detail, so I have done it in two parts. Here is the first:

In the late 1980s and early 1990s I spent six years working in the Planning and Project Management Office for British Telecom in Nottingham. I had already left the Christadelphians by then, but had one of those “significant moments” which stand out and remain in the memory from that point onwards. My colleagues and I kept tropical fish in a tank in the office, and one day introduced a crayfish into the tank which made quite a contrast to its normal inhabitants. A couple of months later we arrived for work one morning to find the crayfish absolutely stationary in the middle of the tank. We immediately thought the worst and decided that we had wasted our money! Then one of us saw some movement behind some ornamental rocks in the tank and began to realise what had actually happened. This became a steep learning curve about tropical lifeforms!

A crayfish isn’t a vertebrate, it has an exoskeleton, pretty much like a suit of armour. This outer layer of protection doesn’t grow, but unfortunately the rest of the crayfish inside does! Eventually something has to give, and quite amazingly the crayfish manages to pull itself out of its suit of armour and grows a new one. It is quite an incredible achievement, because crayfish have a large number of joints in their legs and in their body, so it has to pull its body out of the exoskeleton, squeezing its flesh through all the narrowed pinch points at the joint of each limb. I still haven’t found the actual exit point which the crayfish used to actually get out of its old suit of clothes, and I’ve no idea how it didn’t leave any bits behind! But all of us in the office were astounded at what it had managed to do, with comments like “How did it get out of that?”

At that precise point the thought came into my head “How did you get out of that?” I am sure that this was a prompt from God because my mind immediately went to what I used to be like only a few years ago. A second thought came; “If you were to meet the old Dave Ellis, would you recognise him?” This is one of those “Eureka!” moments because I realised just how big a change there had been in such a relatively short space of time. So this is the story of my journey, of my life growing up in the Christadelphian community, of how I became the way I used to be, of how God has changed me into how I am now, and of how leaving the Christadelphians was a major part of that process.

Unlike many people who have left the Christadelphians, I didn’t leave because of doctrinal reasons, even though the issue of the day was the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, brought to prominence by the Charismatic Renewal in mainstream Christianity. Having said that, I didn’t have any major doctrinal differences at the time, as you might have imagined I would have. Neither did I leave because my faith drifted away, as is the case with so many others who have left. Instead, because of what I had experienced of Christian living within the Christadelphian community, I began to ask questions of the movement, because what I saw and experienced didn’t line up with what I read in the Bible. The contrast became even more marked as I began to meet Christians from other denominations. After all, the Christadelphians supposedly had “the truth”, and we were always being reminded that other denominations were in error. So why did I see more Biblical Christianity in how these people lived than what I saw being demonstrated by the “sole custodians of the truth”?

I was born into a 3rd-generation Christadelphian family with an older sister and a younger brother, and grew up only ever knowing life within the Christadelphian community at the Derby (Bass Street) ecclesia. In family life, both my sister and brother were quite strong personalities, and as is often the case in these situations, I tended to keep my head down as there was no room for a third strong personality in the mix.

The nature of my early childhood is marked by my first ever words, which weren’t “Mummy” or “Daddy” or something similar that you would normally expect. My first words were “Oooohhh Day Day!”, which was baby-talk for “Oh David”. It turned out to be the phrase my mum and dad would choose if something had gone wrong, implicating that I was involved in the going wrong of whatever had gone wrong! It also suggests that the phrase was used on a very regular basis.

The reality is that I grew up knowing little else other than criticism. It didn’t seem to matter what I did, or whose instructions I followed, the result was always the same, that I was wrong, or that I had done it wrong. Certain nicknames seem to hurtle my way on a regular basis, such as “You haven’t got much hayzem jayzem”, “Hello, gormless”, “You are like a fart in a cullinder” and “You are like a man I’m aunt to”. I still haven’t figured out what that last one means! It might not surprise you to know that I grew up with very little confidence, self-esteem or self-worth. This is very often the case with a person lacking in confidence, as is being socially very awkward and clumsy. I would often walk into things and trip over them, being nicknamed “Bumble Foot” as a result, which only made things worse.

For most of my life I held my parents responsible for the situation. It was only after my mum had passed away, and while my dad was in his last years, that I found out that they had both gone through far worse than I had ever experienced, even though I am still having to walk clear of the scars that still remain. They had been through much, much worse than me, and in many ways my scars were simply the outworking of their own, much deeper scars. I pray that I have not scarred my own children because of what I and my parents went through. Sadly, I remember going to see my dad while he was in his last few days, and after waiting for nearly an hour while another visitor was with him, I finally went into his room, but he was too tired to see me. This is perfectly understandable, but it meant that the last conversation I had with my dad was being told to go away and come back some other time. Sadly it typified family life, as my parents seemed to have plenty of time for everybody else, my brother and sister and their families included.

This is the baggage I took with me as I launched myself into social interaction with Christadelphians as a child, and it led to the inevitable results. In many ways, my family experience was mirrored in the Christadelphian community. So all the being sidelined, left out of things and being belittled and ridiculed were there just like being at home. So, for example, when it came to the Sunday School play I only ever got bit parts, often hidden away offstage, while my peers got all the plum roles. Even when there weren’t any parts to play on stage, instead of operating the lighting or PA system (such as it existed in those days), or even MC’ing the event, I would be hidden away out of sight. The only time that changed was when I was given the part of Abraham to play, but that didn’t give me any help with self-confidence. Let me tell you why - I had bought one of those silicon head masks, the sort that go over the whole head and come complete with hair and everything. They are quite realistic, apart from the fact that because they are covering your own head including the hair, they make your head look abnormally big. So there was I, in my early 20s, onstage with a whole load of 6 to 8-year-old children. You could say that that is an excellent depiction of Father Abraham, apart from the fact that he had this huge head and everyone in the audience was giggling and laughing.

Even from an early age I kept getting into trouble at Sunday School, but not because of bad behaviour. You know when you read the Bible, a word or passage can stand out to you and to me this was quite normal when doing my readings. I took it to be God speaking to me, because that’s what the Bible says He does. However, I was forever being told off for “reading between the lines”, and told to “stick to the basics”. It meant that Bible stories were merely accounts of historic events, with each one having a point or lesson to be learned, rather like the “moral of the story” you get from fairy stories and children’s fables. The notion that God couldn’t make a Bible story directly relevant to the here and now either never occurred to my Sunday School teachers, or wasn’t allowed to occur. This same attitude continued on into discussion time at the Bible class when I was old enough to go there. Looking back, getting told off for things which God was clearly showing me was confirmation of God’s intimate involvement in my life, rather than Him being just somebody we read about in a book.
I could give a whole catalogue of events throughout my time with the Christadelphians, but “if every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written”! (John chapter 21 verse 25). This quote is John explaining why he wrote the Gospel record, and I am “re-appropriating these words! In the light of this, I will just give a few examples.

The ecclesia had a very strong Youth Circle, such that it drew people in from a number of surrounding towns and cities, some travelling up to 30 miles to attend (not great distances in terms of Australia or the USA, but quite a long journey for good old Blighty). However, we were approaching one of those demographic phenomena that occur in closed communities, in that we were running out of young people to bring into the CYC, while existing members were growing out of it, going off to university or getting married. So numbers were falling, and the current leaders felt it was time to hand over the reins. The Arranging Brethren tended to oversee the group with rather a heavy hand, so bringing young people in from outside wasn’t successful at all, because we knew that our mates would simply find it all too dull and boring.

The changeover was actually going to be very straight forward, it seemed, as the existing CYC secretary was going to be replace by his younger brother. However, the younger brother wanted a vote rather than a straight handover, and asked someone to put their name forwards so that we could go through the motions of having a ballot. I was talked into giving my name, and actually produced the ballot sheets, but was told in a phone call the following Wednesday that the secretary in waiting had decided to pull out, leaving me high and dry holding the hot potato of a dying youth circle! I should have immediately withdrawn my name, as it is blatantly obvious that I had been set up, but my lack of self-confidence meant that I meekly accepted the inevitable.

I set about the new task with gusto, organising the programme for the next 6 months. I was asked by the youth group to do a series exploring well known phrases and sayings which the world uses, and putting them into their Biblical perspective. Good idea, I thought, so the opening phrase was going to be “What on earth are you doing, for heaven’s sake?” The Arranging Brethren criticised it as being “too worldly” (that was the whole point, of course), and insisted the title be “What are you doing on earth?” ………. ………. Spot the lame duck title! As a result I ditched that series, and just did the daily readings on the dates which had consequently become free.

We did go out and about quite a lot as a youth group, and I would go to great lengths to make sure that everyone had got transport to whatever event it was, and that no one was left out. As a result I got to memorise the phone numbers of everyone involved in the CYC. One of the things we did as a group was to form an orchestra - we actually called ourselves the Derby CYC Orchestra. In reality it was more of an oompah band, because it was just a random selection of people with an odd assortment of musical instruments! We would travel around to various CYC’s and sometimes to Fraternal Gatherings. We played three or four times at the Swanwick Youth Gathering, although the final time there my brother was prohibited from playing his drum kit. The reason given was that the drums would create a rhythm which might make our young people clap during the singing, and people who clapped would become charismatics! ……. I kid you not!

Another thing that we would do together was that we would go round to each other’s houses on Sundays after the evening lecture for “coffee and chill”. One night we were short of transport, and I was asked if I minded staying behind at the ecclesial hall, and wait for someone to come back and pick me up as I wasn’t able to drive in those days. I agreed because it meant that no one would be left out. All the CYC set off, and one by one all the adults went as well, with nobody offering to drop me off on their way, so I was left alone in the porch outside the locked front door. I waited for 30 or 40 minutes, but no one returned. My parents were taking my grandparents home and would be busy for another 30 minutes or so, leaving me no option but to set off on the long trudge home, in the pouring rain, without a coat and with no money for bus fares. So much for making sure that no one was left out! “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love, one for another”. Yeah, right!

The CYC would have a long weekend’s camping holiday every Bank Holiday, and one August we went off to our regular camp site in Wetton Mill, in Derbyshire. The theme of the weekend was “The Lamb of God”, with the focal point being a spit-roast lamb barbecue on the Saturday evening. We actually went to the local farmer/butcher to watch the lamb being slaughtered and partly being prepared for our barbecue. The barbecue had been highlighted and promoted for weeks before the actual event, and everybody was looking forward to it. As well as the 35 or so of us on camp, there would be a number of others coming up to visit us that evening because of all the publicity, and it was only about 25 miles or so from Derby.

A friend of mine had a Saturday job and was going to be picked up from the railway station by a couple on their way up to the camp, only they decided to set off an hour earlier, so they couldn’t pick Andy up. On arrival, they were asked “What about Andy?”, because they hadn’t told anybody of their decision to travel earlier. Everyone’s eyes turned to me. I was a keen biker in those days, and had a Triumph Trident T160V, which was quite a quick bike in its day, so I was most likely to bring Andy up to the camp the quickest. I set off on the quest, and after taking him to his  home to wash and change, we arrived back at about 7.30pm – only an hour after festivities were supposed to start. However, when we got back to this well promoted event with the promise of superb, succulent lamb roast, we found that they had started without us and scoffed the lot. Not a scrap of meat was to be seen. We were given a sandwich each, consisting of a slice of bread folded over, with a piece of lettuce, two slices of cucumber and a slice of tomato. And that was it. Talk about left out of things! If it wasn’t for the very strong attention of a couple of people, I would have just climbed back on my bike and gone home, and perhaps I should have done.

Back at the ecclesia, one Sunday evening the Recording Brother sat down next to me before the meeting started and began to complain about the number of times he had to do an exhortation or lecture at short notice because the visiting speaker had cancelled the appointment. This baffled me as I had been baptised for three years or so at that point and had never been asked to speak on a Sunday. I did speak at other ecclesias once or twice a month, and was invited to speak at the Bible Class and at the Mutual Improvement Class during the week. However, this was because speaking dates at these midweek classes were almost exclusively filled from within the ecclesia, whereas Sunday appointments drew on visiting speakers from all over the country. I did get to do one exhortation, and that was on an August Bank Holiday Sunday, effectively because nobody else was available, or more likely didn’t want to do it because it was holiday time. I even had to travel back to Derby from my holiday at the CYC camp on the Sunday morning to do it! (Note that this wasn’t the weekend of the notorious disappearing lamb roast!)

During that conversation with the Recording Brother, I asked him why a number of speakers I had heard at Youth Days or Fraternal Gatherings never seemed to come and speak at Derby. The answer that I was given was that they had “unusual views”, which puzzled me, so I “pondered these things in my heart”, as I had quite enjoyed listening to them and found what they had to say was very uplifting and had “life”. I started to organise youth days and managed to smuggle Nic Willis and Phil Hawkins in on that basis! They were well received at the Youth Days, but a friend of theirs from Birmingham, Neil Genders was eventually to have a marked influence on my life, even though I never managed to sneak him in to Derby!

(to be continued - check back in a few days for Part 2!)

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