Sunday, 2 January 2011

St John at Hackney, Midnight Mass 2010

Our father who art in heaven
hallow be thy name
Thy kingdom come
thy will be done as it is in heaearr earth
as it is in heaven
Give us thus dailyyyy ooour daily bread
And forgive us our debts,
I mean the WRONGS we have done
as we forgive those who wrong us
And lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil
For mmmthine is the kingdom and the power and glory for heavenever ever
Lords Prayer
Garbled translation by Joel Pullin

Inaccurately mumbling the most famous prayer in the world is pretty embarrassing, but if you are ever going to pretend to recite the Lord's prayer like you say it everyday then midnight mass is the best church service to attend. The number of non regular believers is far higher than a regular church service and therefore my inexperience was well hidden. As I begun to mime speak the opening line “our father,” I was tickled by a sense of irony that it was my father (who accompanied me this evening) who was the main influence as to why I did not know the words of our father. Annoyingly the motivation for my project fits the ageless narrative trope of the young man attempting to rebel but also follow in his father's footsteps

Dad (father was too old fashioned for our family) was the son of a preacher man. Raised at Christ's Hospital in West Sussex and later moving to Midhurst he lived in a vicarage for the first 18 years of his life. The picture perfect church village existence drove him crazy as a teen of the late 60s and early 70s. Leaving home in the 1970s he abandoned any faith that may not have been indoctrinated into him and decided to live a more urban, liberal, heathen existence. Subsequently my sister and I were raised strict agnostics (that's perhaps an oxymoron), with the one anti authoritarian mantra “to question everything.”

The very few memories I have of Jesus Christ in our home was him upsetting my dad. My most vivid memory was when he (dad not Jesus) returned from midnight mass fuming with anger and alcohol, damming the dogma of the service and himself for his lack of faith. Eight years on and for the first time I'm in church with my dad and we are not attending a funeral of a loved one. Despite the lack of a recently deceased relative I was still worried that the priest may say something that might upset my dad and reawaken some spiritual conflict that I do not understand.

As cruel luck would have it the priests were too boring to upset anyone, their predictable but forgettable sermons were easily a side show to the spectacle and occasion of the mass. What did I expect! This was Christmas after all. The timeless story of the birth of Christ is naturally going to get tiresome after two thousand years. No matter how charismatic and charming the clergy conduct the Christmas service, its ritual and traditions were always going eclipse any originality or wit.

So the service left me staring to the heavens, not for God but to appreciate the large tomb like ceiling. St John's at Hackney is a High Anglican Church which meant we had all the Christmas trimmings. Incense, candle light and a sung Eucharist adorned a beautifully large amphitheatre styled hall. The church felt baroque lite, an industrialized model based on the more artisan halls of Hawksmoor and Wren. Its foundations were laid between 1792 to 1795 to replace the neighbouring medieval church of St Augustine's (rededicated to St John The Baptist in 1660), yet the tower of the current building was not complete till 1816. Such great history did get in the way of the present day church service.

From when we begun our icy moonlit walk through the grounds of the church I had already become distracted by the imposing size of St Augustine's Tower (see picture below). St Augustine's Tower dates back to the 13th Century and Wikipedia informs me it was founded by the Knights Templar. Regardless of the accuracy of Wikipedia its safe to say that the church grounds are and will continue to be unspoilt by the area's commercial developments for a very very long time. So long that time feels frozen (the extremely cold weather probably also contributed to this feeling) when cutting across Mare Street into Clapton through the grounds. However St Augustine's Tower is still a meeting point for the residents of Hackney. It marks the beginning of the high street, nestled between train and bus connections and the latest pop up shop. It is a constant in an area that is constantly in flux. Walking or skating as the conditions dictated from the 13th century tower to the 19th century church in the space of a few minutes filled me with a sense of time travel. The quiet cold dark helped me quickly disappear from London, going back to an ageless tradition that exists only in my mind. First exhilarated I then felt hollow as I entered the church and realised I had no experience to be nostalgic about. I had never been to midnight mass let alone been aware of the Knight Templar..

Lack of faith in the service had left me bewitched by the building, my imagination preferred to create a fake history than to listen to one of the oldest stories ever told. I peered at the rainbow shadows that decorated the ceiling from the beautifully arched windows, too distracted to notice the priests or the entire congregation. These sins came to fruition when I burnt myself during sharing the peace. A lovely elderly lady awoke me from myself by offering her hand and some Christmas wishes, which surprised me so much I spilt the hot wax from my candle down my arm and onto my new fragile friend. I could hear God laughing at my embarrassment beyond his beautiful ceiling and wonderful windows. After that experience I did try to wake up to the people around me.

Besides a few lone worshippers the majority of the crowd were families. I was disappointed by the lack of drunken heathens looking for some Christmas entertainment after the pubs had closed, but I think pissed bored youth attendance to midnight mass is more a rural tradition and not so common in the cosmopolitan areas of London. The spectrum of belief of the congregation was clearly indicated during communion. The initial flood of people I presumed were regulars, but I regarded the parents who were later dragged by their children for a Christmas blessing as holidaying. All of my musing on the congregation was unconfirmed speculation. The atmosphere felt too traditional to break bread with a stranger, which is ironic for Christmas.

My favourite family was a large West Indian group to my left who begun the service with three members and ended with twenty. The growth of the family typified the influx of latecomers to the congregation, starting with 50 attendees at the beginning of the service but finishing with approximately 100 ( icy conditions most likely caused late arrivals ).The family had an instantly recognisable social dynamic which revealed their different attitudes to Christmas . As the older brother recited the the entire readings word for word his little sister was busy playing on her Nintendo DS (most likely last year's Christmas present), the mother would only stop her rogue child for the carols and communion. The congregation made me realise that despite their varied levels of belief it was family and friends that formed the core foundation of the church not the historic architecture with which I had fallen in love.

Next week I will go to an ugly church, one which will force me to meet the people and pay better attention to the service. However I already feel that the nature of my project means I will forever be seeing parts of a service rather being part of the service.

Will visiting church communities make me feel lonely? That would be a cruel irony. But I was not alone during the service as I had my father (not ours) supporting me during my moment of rebellion. A child playing a computer console during a christmas church service is a more expected image of rebellion than a man in his late twenties deciding to visit the house of god which was absent from his childhood, however both instances do share a defiance to their elders. More importantly in both instances the parents choose to ignore the conflict created by their child's behaviour and instead they respect their child's interest wether it be Super Mario or God.

As I sung carols as badly as I recited the Lord's prayer I was reminded of another memory of my Dad. Back in my adolescence when I was in love with the explicit lyrics of Snoop Dog and Cyprus Hill it was my old man who won me some creditability with my friends when he played me God Save Queen by the Sex Pistols. He explained the intricacies of each vulgar lyric, pointed out the swear words, provided a political context and even put forward a cultural argument that hip hop was indebted to punk. Its a memory I treasure which makes up for any missed Sunday school classes or choir practices. Some parents teach their kids the bible, some the Qu'ran, my dad taught me punk rock.

And with that I wish you a
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Despite my lack of interest in the service. St John's at Hackney do provide a lot of care in the community. They are currently turning their church into a night shelter during the cold month of January. If you are interested in contributing please find the details from their website (see below).

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