I have rather attacked the Church of England in my last column, but know I do so with affection. I feel I have licence to attack it given I have lived in it so long, despite not being a Christian. To illustrate my immersion in this hallowed institution, here is what a typical Sunday for 9- to 15-year-old me would involve: 

8:30am: Driving to church through the most geographically empty area of England (as certified by OS Maps). In the car I would be wearing at least four layers, knowing the church to be pretty nippy, and carrying a box full of Mission Praise books.

9:05am: Setting out service sheets and lighting candles before running away to the back of church when the congregation arrives. Then, the big moment: selecting my pew. Pew-selection is a vital craft, one requiring many years of honing. The pew mustn’t be dusty, or victim to ceiling-leaks. It must be far enough away from the Action that I can go about my business, but still afford a view of my mother beetling about at the front of church. Crucially, it must not have dead mice in it. I added this criteria after one pleasant day when I was tuckled into my pew, listening to Cardi B. I had just begun to revise a case study of Nigeria’s economy when I looked to my right – a solid, rigid mouse was lying elegantly on the floor. I rapidly informed my mum of this travesty, who comforted me briefly before remarking that she found a pigeon in the church boiler recently and disappearing into the vestry. 

9:30am: The service begins. Do my physics homework, play Doodle Jump. Cheeky sing-along to Shine Jesus Shine. 

10:30am: The service ends. Retrieve several biscuits. It is here that the aforementioned omniscient Joan tells me where I went on holiday six weeks ago, how impressed she is with my performance in Biology, and asks if I know her son. 

10:40am: Tidy the many Mission Praise books.

11am: Mum locks up. This actually takes seven years. 

11:30am: Drive home. Analyse the service while hurtling down a single track road. Last year, on the way back from Midnight Mass, we hit a badger. A bad way to celebrate the birth of Christ.

11:45am: Home. Probably soup. 

Clearly, I am a rural CofE veteran. I have been surrounded by vicars for so long that now, I can smell an Anglican coming. Last term I went to an interfaith talk in my college’s chapel where I spied six, I repeat SIX, tall, balding, white men with circular glasses, well-groomed beards and dog collars. I know all Anglicans don’t look like that (the vibe: slightly self-deprecating, interested in brunch ‘as a phenomenon’) but in this situation they were distinctive. I spotted them by intuition. I sat there watching, thinking, I KNOW YOU. You have meetings in my house.

Ok, seriously, there are many things I’ve learned from my church immersion that I think would be harder to learn otherwise – many more skills than ‘spot the Anglican’. The main thing is the playfulness with new, exciting words that I think is natural if you’re sat with the Bible all the time. I think it also gives you an appreciation for just how much time can be spent on a single text, how many differing conclusions drawn from it, argued about, reconsidered; how many sources, languages, editions, and dates. 

I present a parable. 

A teacher told me about one of her pupils who was abnormally good at analysing literature. She asked the pupil why she was so good at it – had she done anything differently to other students? The pupil thought for a while, and the only thing she could think of was having to read and analyse a Bible passage with her brother and dad every Sunday lunchtime. Then, the teacher asked me why I was good at analysing, and that was the main reason I could think of: sitting, relatively bored in church every Sunday, mining every metaphor, allusion, making tangential links to pop culture, and, using the methods to alleviate boredom that my granny had taught me, counting all the ceiling tiles, their joins, the windows, and the pews. 

That wasn’t a parable really, I just thought it would be fitting. I suppose that sort of proves my point: that listening to so many types of stories, genres and songs introduces you to so many ways of conveying meaning. 

This has led to me being frankly BRUTALLY judgemental of a sermon. But also an English degree. Win-win!

One of my favourite things to do is parody the Biblical style. I know this isn’t terrific for blasphemy reasons, but once you’ve heard a 90-year-old man read John 1:1 in a Yorkshire accent, with deep solemnity but (counterproductively) absolutely no cadence, it is ripe for mockery. We have left the land of reverence and landed in silliness. The fact that it’s so repetitive and self-clarifying doesn’t help either. Many amusing adaptations are possible, such as: 

In the beginning was the Biscuit and the Biscuit was Delicious; Chloe came as Witness to the Biscuit but was Not the Biscuit; she Ate the Biscuit as witness to her Stomach and the Majesty of the Biscuit.

It’s rather exciting, this giving random words capital letters and seeing what it does to a sentence. So far in my life, I have enjoyed playing with the forms and language the Bible has given me, widening my literary eye – not interrogating the Bible for meaning (yet), but how the words fit together. Words that are amazing and confusing, imagery so striking and so old that I am amazed it is a NIV Bible sitting in my hand, when it has lived alongside the people it describes. 

My friend likes “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” but I prefer the John I have just mocked: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. The Word??? Something I am so fascinated by but will probably never understand?? Derrida, eat your heart out, they’ve written a masterpiece.

The Bible is just so big; containing so much, pointing to so much, written and read by so many people over so many years. This has all felt so reductive, my appreciation merely a whisper without years of knowing and faith. I can’t do it justice – of course I can’t, it’s the Bible. It is a delicious text, a sachertorte of books created over many years, in many languages, that we can merely nibble at. Thanks be to God.