Sunday, 9 January 2011

St John The Baptitst, Roman Catholic, 3 King Edwards Road. 2.01.11

Forgive me father (mine not ours) for I have sinned. Dad had a few concerns about last weeks post, he felt that certain sections romanticised the truth. So in the name of democracy, freedom and blandness I though it best to list the sections that he found contentious.

  1. Fuming with anger and alcohol”Dad would like to state for the record that he was not drunk but had been drinking. Personally as a general rule I believe when a person has a drink its not for them to judge if they are sober but for those who have to bear that individual's company.
  1. Eight years on and for the first time I'm in church with my dad and we are not attending a funeral.” Dad has informed me that in my early infancy I did attend church when visiting my grandparents. Proof that your own blog can teach you stuff about yourself you did not know to be true.
  2. Some parents teach their kids the Bible, some the Qu'ran, my Dad taught me punk rock.” Dad would like to make the additional point that he also introduced me to Jazz with such great artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane and more conventional rock acts like The Beatles and Elvis Presley. You might guess he is a musical snob.

When beginning my blog it was not my intention to create an online family soap opera. In future instalments I will refrain from publicising my family's disagreements because it makes me feel like a middle class, less famous, wannabe Katie Price.

The need to appease my Dad after unintentionally offending him leads us to the subject of this weeks sermon “How does a Non believer go to Church and not offend anyone.” In Islam a non believer is often provided with clear rules when entering a Mosque. Similarly when I visited Buddhist and Hindu temples outside the UK I was instructed by people or placards on the correct manner in which to conduct oneself. Most likely it is the the eastern origins of these religions and their integration into Western civilisation that has led to a formalisation of the correct etiquette when an outsider attends their place of worship. Christianity is far more complicated as it is perceived as a Western creation and has multiple denominations. I could not decide if it was the arrogance or the acceptance of Christianity that led to nobody questioning me on my faith. I quickly realised that my personal faith and the individual beliefs of the congregation were to be eclipsed by the ritual of the service.

The congregation of St John the Baptist Catholic Church are very mannered and private. The highly formal social interaction made me self conscious of my inexperience. Uneasy more than unnerved. I felt like the black sheep of the Christian flock rather than a wolf in sheep's clothing. For the sake of not causing offence I would like to state that the sheep analogy is in regards to “the Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23) and not a reference to any modern critique on the conformity of religion. More importantly I don't think my personality is worthy of a wolf comparison. I am definitely a chicken, because despite my complaint at the congregation's indifference to my attendance I did not have the guts to speak to them. Its not my desire to have a theological debate with a different priest each Sunday but I was shocked that nobody asked me my name or shared any pleasantries, perhaps I appeared too dedicated to my prayer.

My inability to start a dialogue with the congregation meant that I had failed in my aspiration from last week to meet the people who form the church. Another of last week's unfulfilled aspirations was to choose an ugly church, sadly St John The Baptist Catholic Church's boring exterior was undermined by its pleasant interior. The building was built in1960s and has no outstanding exterior features. In stark comparison to the cold dark brick exterior was the warm glow of the interior. The morning light maximised the yellow, white and beige colours that decorated the hall which created a sense of renewal and freshness from the ill lit city streets of Hackney in January. The roof's perpendicular arch appears bigger on the inside due to the bright colours. The shape of the roof formed an egg like dome which contributed to a sense of paternal comfort. These pleasant surroundings were slightly offset by the plain church ceiling which had an omnipotent character due to CCTV cameras sadly not a mural of God. St John the Baptist lacked the architectural history of St John's of Hackney but the building appeared to be more aligned with the congregations needs. Last week the church's history distracted me from service but this week I was more overwhelmed by how the church building forced me to be part of the service.

Entering the church I was struck with the fear of “being told off” (personally, theologically or philosophically), combined with a desire to conform and please my unaware hosts. Before entering the nave I was faced by Holy Water and was highly embarrassed not to cleanse myself from the outside. As an old lady watched me not take the Holy Water I felt like I had exposed myself as the spawn of Satan. Similarly I felt compelled to bow at the cross, to cross myself during the end of prayer and even found myself on my knees praying out of social obligation. Irrationally scared that the congregation would view me as a bad catholic I constantly wanted to take part in the rituals so I did not feel ostracised. Oh God! And how the Catholics love rituals. From the entrance antiphon to the communion I was schizophrenically shattered. The impulsive side of my personality would initially join the ritual celebrations only to be quickly regulated by a more self aware facet of my consciousness, that would stop my behaviour from blaspheming through inaccurate and fraudulent religious worship. All this ritual made me so tired I had no time to think let alone ponder my spiritual relationship with God.

The service left me with two clear memories of ritual celebration that summed up my experience. First, the singing despite sounding awful was a joy and awoke me to the community of strangers that surrounded me. I have attended protest marches when passionate for the cause, I have chanted at football matches when my team have been top of the league but nothing compares to the sense of togetherness I got from singing hymns badly to a God I did not believe in. I guess protests and football matches are based on opposition but singing like all music is an all inclusive celebration. Unlike a concert, gig or club this music was so accessible it was devoid of any artistic merit yet uniquely enjoyable. If the appalling singing made me want to believe in God then the frequent mumbling prayers scared the bee jessus out of me. The communal prayers were laid out in the programme and are to be recited during certain parts of the service, not that you would recognise them from the inarticulate thunderous mumble that is barely spoken but more grunted by the congregation. From an outsider's perspective nothing demonstrated the antiquated dogma of Christianity better than the communal prayers that reduced the beautiful linguistics of the Bible into an unrecognisable mass drone. The only sign of life in these group recitals was the stopping for breath at the end of every line. In retrospect my praise of singing and criticism of prayer may be purely based on aesthetics. The singing sounded terrible but its use of pentatonic scale forced the congregation into stretching their voice which brought forth their various personalities. In contrast to the mono tone prayer which asked nothing of the participants voices and therefore made the congregation appear indoctrinated instead of individualistic.

Again as a non believer I seem bound to read meaning into the superficial aspects of the ritual worship instead of directly looking at the congregations faith in God. Only time will tell if I can lose my British manners and personal apprehension and directly communicate with the congregation on the reasons behind their faith. To enter into a discussion about faith I must first overcome my fear of offending the congregation so I can eventually understand them better.

1 comment:

  1. It will be interesting to see which congregations welcome you and which don't. I'm now an apostate, but from church going days I remember the tradition of the vicar shaking hands with everyone at the porch on their way out, and newcomers were easily identified and specially greeted.
    Don't worry about offending churchgoers - peoples religious choices should be up for debate just as much as their political affiliations.
    I like the architectural notes - How much does the building influence the service etc?