I come from a non-religious family. I was struck at junior school by the impact of prayers and hymn-singing, I used to think that God was speaking in the low rumble of everyone's voices combining together in the Lord's Prayer. At senior school I was befriended by two Christians, they invited me to youth club and Sunday services. This fuelled my searching, though it was a fire and brimstone evangelistic tract that provided the decision-making influence and I became a 'born-again Christian'. I devoured the Bible, reading it from cover to cover. There was no induction programme for new Christians, and development was very much a DIY affair, there would sometimes be heated disagreements about particular beliefs, the 'end times' featuring in these unproductive discussions. Unlike most people I studied RE at O level, the only one of around 360 in my year and later the only one studying at A level, my explorations, searching and struggling was different to my Christian peers. I was a blend of liberal and evangelical, my RE teachers were liberal. A change of minister at my church led to a more hard-line, Calvinist, church environment, he had studied theology at a liberal college and rejected liberalism in all its forms.
Unsurprisingly, I decided to take a degree in Theology. As it was a Presbyterian college I encountered many Welsh Presbyterians (Calvinists) and attended a very Calvinist church, I became a 'Calvinist' feeling that it was like a second conversion. Yet I was still struggling, I pushed Calvinism to its limits, becoming attached to the doctrine of double predestination. This struggle was part of my studies too - every liberal challenge had a fundamentalist response. But I wasn't learning much, I was too busy rejecting everything. Eventually I realized that this couldn't go on, why study in order to reject? I also found strict fundamentalist beliefs stifling, I didn't see that fundamentalism had much to offer. I then had a third 'conversion' to liberalism and began working on this with similar earnestness, I even got a couple of liberal-minded articles into the Church newsletter.
Leaving university, and Wales, was a move to a very different religious landscape - less religious choice and I could also no longer belong to an evangelical church. So I ended up in my first church with a liberal minister. However, having made this journey there seemed to be something missing - no prayer meetings, no Bible study groups. I started up a prayer meeting at the church, and Bible studies, but this was a very quiet period where I coasted along spiritually for quite a few years. Encountering Alpha, or the style of the group leader, was a real shock to the system, rigid again, questions not encouraged and some answers not liked. I began to feel like a troublemaker just for having a different view, things got very heated in a discussion about spiritual healing. A few like-minded souls had similar experiences, we decided to create our own alternative to Alpha. Inevitably I ran most of the sessions and we ploughed a very radical furrow - John Spong, a series on Bishop David Jenkins' 'Free to Believe', 'post-evangelicalism', other faiths. When we had a Buddhist speaker in 2001 we thought we'd invented inter faith!
I developed an interest in other faiths, especially Islam, after first reading the Qur'an in 2000. I found that the experience was rather like reading the Bible, there was a different style, but definitely the same genre and an experience of deep reading. It did not feel coincidental that two years later I was seconded to the Archbishop's Christian-Muslim Initiative. What I hadn't expected was the presence of open Evangelicals committed to Christian-Muslim engagement, and so after a long break I began to reconnect with evangelical Christians. It was no step at all to see Muslims as, in some ways, similar to evangelicals (I have never intended this as negative to either party, though I think it has been taken that way) - devotion to prayer and scripture, strong conviction about the very Word of God, passionate beliefs, gathered religious communities, independent places of worship. Since those early days I have attended dhikr (chanting) sessions at the mosque, been at the very heart of the observance of Ramadan - on retreat in the mosque, during late night prayers and all night recitation of the final sixth of the Qur'an - and organized our own Christian-Muslim retreat with chanting sessions (Christian and Muslim) and Quaker-style worship.
In some ways I have remained evangelical but sustained by liberal querying and exploration. I have formed good partnerships with evangelical colleagues and in my own church which have enabled successful collaborations. However, I have not gone back to the evangelical places of my youth and told them how it is a liberal outlook which has enabled me to maintain my faith or that I am very much at home with another faith that would not be very welcome in those places.
Julian Bond is the director of the Christian Muslim Forum