During childhood, Winton finds Sundays ominous and melancholy. Even as the end of the weekend approaches, he and his family are gearing up for yet another exertion: the Sunday evening church service. Instead of a relaxing Sunday night, ahead lies the evening gospel service followed by the Fellowship Tea—a chance to deliver the Good News to newcomers.
By framing his Sunday night activities as distinct from what one would typically expect from the end of the weekend, Winton sets up the idea that his family was out of the ordinary, and their churchgoing habits didn’t align with the behavior of most of their neighbors and friends.
Tim’s family stands out for its devout habits—frequent churchgoing is no longer a common practice in Australia in the sixties. And even the label given to them as a “twice-on-Sundays” family falls short of their actual frequent attendance at church and Sunday school. Each Sunday morning, they round up the neighbors’ kids and take them to the church. Being kept from the beach, especially on a fine weather day, is grounds for mutiny, but the kids comply partly because Tim’s dad is a police officer.
The neighborhood kids’ compliance with the Winton family’s churchgoing implies that Winton’s father holds a great deal of clout in his community. This scenario suggests a strong contrast between the general Australian public and their preference for the beach, and the Winton family’s strict adherence to their church’s schedule.
Sunday school begins with a sung chorus which starts sleepily but eventually corrals the children into a unified, energetic force. The endorphins from the singing buoy the kids through the rest of the service, which features dry analysis and spiritual criticism.
The singing at church is able to wake up and enliven the congregation, implying that music is a tangible force that binds a community together. This is an idea that Winton will return to later.
For Winton, the stories in the Bible are “imaginative bread and butter.” The stories from the Old Testament, though morally confusing, are most exciting, but the Jesus-centric stories fuel his righteous spirit. He tunes out during the prayers but rejoins in the singing, which is like a balm after confronting moral dilemmas all service long. At the end of Sunday school, Tim’s father drives the kids back to their homes and returns in time for the 11:00 service, when the singing begins again.
Winton sees Bible stories as laying the most basic groundwork for his imagination. His attraction to the confusing Old Testament stories is echoed in his deep yet puzzled attachment to 2001: A Space Odyssey—it seems he’s attracted to stories he can’t quite understand, whose values don’t quite line up with his own.
The hymns, prayers, baptisms, and communion precede the sermon, upon which churchgoers judge the quality of a service. Winton experiences the sermons as things he must survive physically and mentally—tests of the spirit more than inspirational speeches. After the service, the Winton family eats a roast dinner before setting out for family visits.
Just as critics judge works of art, the church congregation passes judgment on the quality of a sermon, suggesting that a church service is itself not totally estranged from secular art. This comparison is strengthened by the fact that Winton feels he must survive a sermon just as he must survive anything else arduous.
At Tim’s mother’s parents’ house, Winton and his immediate family are considered strange for their devout religious habits. One Sunday, his grandmother berates him in the kitchen for his family’s behavior, before offering an apology in the form of a wrapped chocolate. After the visits, the family heads back home to eat before heading back out for the evening service. The evening service is more upbeat, serving a younger audience, and features an extended altar call which usually results in someone “surrender[ing] … to Christ.” Winton finds the Sunday of church services and other commitments more demanding than a day at school.
The fact that Tim takes the brunt of his grandmother’s irritation reminds readers that, as the eldest child, he’s expected to be more involved in the leadership of his family than his siblings are. It also contributes to the harrowing nature of a full Sunday schedule in the Winton family, in which Winton must experience a vast array of emotions and attitudes from haranguing to worship. There’s a suggestion that church must be survived, or else it’ll beat you—or win you over, as in the altar call.
Because Australia is so irreligious, Winton feels that he grows up in a counterculture: the church is like his family. Though his fellow churchgoers don’t interact with serious literature or culture, church is his “introduction to conscious living,” where people are constantly interrogating the point of life. Looking back, Winton realizes that the church community was in many ways much more progressive than those outside of it. As a churchgoing boy, he begins to understand what it means to be a part of civil life. Church is his introduction to “politics, high language, story and music,” and it encourages love in actions—helping and being active in the community while the rest of Australian society seems more focused on pragmatic and concrete progress.
Church provides Winton with much more than one might expect: debate, discourse, the discipline of self-reflection, and the drive to be active in his community. Though he feels like an outsider among his peers at school or in the neighborhood, it’s likely that this civic training lays the groundwork for his later activism, as well as his commitment to being a novelist even when the rest of society values productivity and profit over the softer values of kindness and creativity.
Tim’s parents converted to Christianity as adults and joined the local Church of Christ, which takes the Bible extremely literally. The sect is a “bare-knuckles, no-frills affair”: the prayers in the Sunday service are formless and improvised, there are no religious costumes, and baptism, more important than even weddings, is restricted to those old enough to decide it for themselves. Winton is baptized at age 12. The Sunday service follows a strict order of events and includes communion with grape juice instead of wine. Still, the services, though rigorous, are joyous and somehow casual.
Winton’s congregation takes each element of the church service very seriously, and their dislike for costume and aesthetic embellishments suggests that their priorities are honesty and simplicity. Here, there’s no room for action without intention. But rather than this creating a sterile, unfriendly atmosphere, it seems to allow the congregation to interact freely and comfortably with each other, implying that community building is just as serious an undertaking as spiritual worship is.
The congregation is made up of manual laborers and their families; the men wear their only suits to church. Though hardly anyone has much education or worldly knowledge, they’re hungry to learn and improve themselves. Just as in Jeanette Winterson’s novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Tim’s experience is of a group of people bound by camaraderie and kindness—people seeking “to liberate themselves and transform society,” just as if they’d been communists or members of a theater group.
Winton’s description of the congregation quietly suggests that their attendance at church is a kind of performance. The men wearing their only suits to church reveals that for them it’s a special occasion—a place to bring their best selves and make action happen in ways that aren’t possible in their regular lives. Church enables them to become fuller versions of themselves.
Winton realizes that faith depends on story, which is the vehicle for all theological teachings. He learns his favorite bible stories by heart. Church reveals to him the power of language through the written Bible and the spoken rhetoric—language only matched by Shakespeare, which feels strangely familiar to him when he reads it at school because its incantation matches the sound of what he’s heard in church. Debates in his Bible study groups teach Winton the power of single words—they spend ages debating words like “wine” and “demon.” He discovers that language is a kind of nutrition.
Winton’s realization of the value and potency of story is something he’ll carry with him long after he leaves the church. Though his church is a sparse affair, he’s still able to access the richness of language in the mystical words of the Bible. This no doubt influences his adult writing career.
Though at school, Winton feels that peers and teachers might ignore him, at church, people recognize him as a fellow member and treat him with patience. Certain elders become closer to him than his own grandparents, paying attention to his spiritual journey. At the age of six, Winton asks an elder to tell him how big his spirit is; the elder takes Tim’s hand and presses it against his chest. He tells him it’s about the size of his fist. This image stays with Tim. He’s moved by the patience and grace shown by the elder in that moment.
At Winton’s church, each member is valued, cared for, and taken seriously. This kind of respect is something Winton attempts to demonstrate in his own forms of worship later in life, like when he walks along the shore at low tide and contemplates the rich meaning of each living or once-living thing there. Church teaches him to commune with the things and people around him, to treat each one with great care.
Winton appreciates the kindness and community of the church, but amid the turbulent politics of the 1970s, its theology falls short of answering pressing questions on topics like the Vietnam War and gender equality. Winton notices the mindset of those in the church becoming short-sighted and inflexible, focusing on prophecy and conspiracy. The church transforms from a community fixture to an insular group. Meanwhile, Winton becomes what others in the church describe as “obtuse” and a “stumbling-block,” challenging scripture and his elders for answers.
While Winton is invested in the church, he also actively engages with social and political issues in the wider community, and is frustrated when members of the congregation refuse to contemplate the ways that theology and the complex, violent world collide. The church begins to fail Winton when it stops acting as a force of connection and community, suggesting that these things are the most important to him.
Winton has become a wide reader, and his excitement for the philosophy of thinkers like Bonhoeffer and Barth grates against others in group discussions. Though other church members worry for Tim’s journey and faith, the larger worry is for the security of the group, and Winton finds himself becoming a “wayward son.” He's surprised by the fact that the church has become a hurdle to his own faith. He knows that his parents are devoted to the church, and he doesn’t want to worry them with seeming disloyalty, but the church’s insularity and growing tribalism make him uncomfortable.
The church, a place that was once so welcoming and a symbol of strong community for Winton, begins to shut him out. Winton is still deeply committed to his faith, and others’ worries suggest that their idea of faith and the spirit is fundamentally at odds with his. While he searches to connect his faith with the whole, complex world, the rest of the congregation wants to shut that world out.
In particular, the thing that bothers Winton about the church’s changing attitude is the repeated idea by members that “this world is not my home.” This idea seems, to Tim, like a dismissal of the miracle of human life and the world around them, and it seems particularly absurd when the members of the church had generally safe and happy lives and enough food to eat. Winton is eager to live in communion with his neighbors and the natural world, and when he shares this idea with others in the church, they grow defensive. He leaves church life slowly and quietly. Looking back, he doesn’t regret calling out the issues he saw, but he realizes that he was unaware of his own privilege as a university student among elders who had mostly left school in their early teenage years to become laborers.
The elements that young Winton loved about the church—its energy and joy—seem to have disappeared as he’s grown up. He’s dismayed by the attitude of the congregation that the beauty and joy of the world around them are insufficient, while for him—as he describes in essays like “Repatriation” and “Barefoot in the Temple of Art”—they make life abundant and exciting. In hindsight, he’s able to see that his extended education allowed him to find so much joy in those things, rather than feeling afraid of them.
Through his twenties, Winton moves between different, more progressive churches, but he doesn’t feel satisfied by what they offer. He realizes that language or theology can’t solve the mysteries of faith and life. He continues to hear from the members of his childhood congregation who write with care and concern. As an adult, his best friends are—or have been—believers, and their common childhoods provide fuel for good jokes and shared memories. Winton still has a fondness for the liturgical form of worship—its repetition and structure.
Even churches that more closely align with Winton’s political views aren’t places he feels he belongs, implying that it’s perhaps not an issue with a specific congregation that caused him to slip away from the church but an issue with any attempt at spiritual cohesion. Church still offers Winton a place for meditative reflection and joy, but it seems to lack the discourse he’s interested in pursuing.
In the present, Winton still doesn’t know what kind of believer he is, though he still identifies as a Christian. He’s no longer as feisty and argumentative as he once was. To him, belief matters less than “the acceptance of grace.” Still, on Sunday evenings, he feels that same pull he felt as a child when he was ruled by the demands of a churchgoing life.
Winton settles into an attitude that allows him to kindly and generously connect with the world around him. Focusing on grace, rather than any rigid belief or religious sect, brings him joy and makes sense to him where congregational worship and belonging didn’t.