The days I first believed...

How one man grew into his belief

I have no memory of my baptism as an infant, when my parents and godparents renounced evil on my behalf, repented of their sins, turned to Christ and promised to foster the faith I had just received.

From the next phase, attending Catholic Mass with my mother when I was a little boy, I have three abiding memories. One is of the little illustrated book I used to read during the service, showing Jesus and John the Baptist playing together as young boys in Galilee. Another is moving seats away from the stink of dog-do on the heels of the man in front, which he kept clicking together as he knelt. The last is saying “Thank you” to the priest in response to his “The body of Christ” upon receiving my First Holy Communion. Polite, and in one sense profoundly correct – gratitude really is the appropriate heartfelt response to Christ’s sacrifice – I was supposed to say “Amen”.

As a bigger little boy, it was time for a more adult commitment to faith. I was confirmed at 10 years old. My abiding memory from this day was sticking up my hand when the bishop asked us what came down on the day of Pentecost. Out of a cathedral full of candidates, he chose me to answer and I told him it was a dove. Wrong again! It was in the right ball park, of course - the answer was tongues of fire. Both the dove and the fire are manifestations of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, apart from, yet one with the Father and the Son, Jesus.

According to Catholic doctrine, confirmation is seen to complete Baptism and mark a person as a Christian with the seal of the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of adoption that makes us cry to God as our loving Father, rather than as a distant deity.

Yet, I didn’t see the tongues of fire the disciples saw at Pentecost. I didn’t hear a rush of wind. From that point on, I remember engaging with the scriptures read from the pulpit. I remember letting the teaching affect my decisions and behaviour. Every night I prayed sorry, thank you and please. One evening, during a difficult period at school, I felt a powerful, reassuring presence of Jesus in my room as I wept and prayed. Yet still, I turned and drifted away from God throughout university.

Upon arrival at Ephesus, almost 2000 years earlier, the apostle Paul met some disciples who had accepted that Jesus Christ was God. When Paul asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed, they said they didn't even know there was one. Remarkably, I had a similar blind spot until I eventually attended an Alpha course in 2002, and I learnt about the Holy Spirit and rediscovered my relationship with Jesus.

I have no doubt something spiritually significant did happen at my confirmation, but it wasn’t until I spent some serious time as an adult surveying my sinful life, surveying a broken world around me and surveying the cross of Christ, that I believed again and turned towards God wholeheartedly, vulnerable, repentant and genuinely grateful.

At this point, as he promised in the Old Testament book of Joel, God poured out the Holy Spirit into my heart. Again, there were neither fire nor birds, but this time, as I turned to him with the correct response, I received an overwhelming assurance of my Father’s love for me. I often think of this moment as his kiss of life to me and I haven’t been the same Christian since.

Adam is a worship leader at New River Church, Islington, a non-denominational, charismatic Christian church of about 40 people. He has a degree in physics, a PhD in neuroimaging and is a member of the electro-indie rock band Personal Space Invaders.
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder