I've just been listening to Thought for the Day on Radio 4. Alan Billings was talking about a good death, a reflection born of seeing Pope John Paul slip away over the past week. I didn't hear much of what he said because I was taken back to when I was 15 and Alan was the curate of my local Anglican church.
He is one of the reasons I'm a Christian. He was young, dynamic, a labour counsellor, a man of radical vision and inclusive tendencies. He invited me to join a group running the youth club that I'd started going to and through that to consider getting confirmed. Confirmation, of course, would require me thinking about what the Christian faith was all about. I duly did so, got baptised and confirmed and joined the free church across the road because they had better girls and, I think, a surer, more certain take on the faith.
Alan left and disappeared from view for a decade. He resurfaced in the 80s as a member of the commission that produced Faith in the City - a report that had a major bearing on my call to ministry. And more recently he has begun to do Thought for the Day. He's director of the centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University.
As I remembered him, I thought of others who'd been influential in my development as a Christian: David Sheppard - with whom I worked on the Churches' Enquiry into Unemployment and the Future of Work - Audrey Anderson - a wonderful woman who made me tea, opened her home and listened to my struggles - David Lomax - my old RE teacher - and lots of others.
All kinds of people influence and mentor us as we grow in our faith - some consciously, some completely oblivious to the influence they're having.
All this underlines how vital relationships within our churches are. Getting the teaching sorted is important, but we learn far more through good friendships. It was Jesus' model, after all. He called 12 people to be his friends. Clearly within that group there were some who were closer friends than others - notably Peter, James and John formed a circle of three very close friends, sharing some of Jesus' most private moments (the transfiguration, his agony in the garden, etc).
Mentors are vital. We grow in our faith as we listen to them, share with them, watch them walk the Christian walk. Our churches need to be places where such mentors can be found - not through formal structures but through the creation of spaces where such relationships can blossom.
I'm so grateful for Alan Billings, though I doubt he remembers who I am.