Sunday, 30 January 2011

St Michaels and All Angels, Lansdowne Drive, London Fields, 23.01.11

This Sunday all religions are welcome because this week I visited the Anglican Church. St Michaels and All Angels of London Fields is currently looking for a priest and they will accept anyone who accepts everyone. Forget your Anglican splinter sects running off to the Roman Catholics for some conservative order, the congregation of St Michaels are a utopian dream of a multicultural church integrated under Christ.
Christ comes in many forms as we learn each week but unlike the majority of churches’ who claim their depiction of Jesus is the definitive messiah, St Michaels seems happy to celebrate the diversity of Jesus’ image. In the sermon our stand in female priest portrayed Jesus as a counter cultural figure who in the book of Mark persuades Simon-Peter and Andrew to break from their conventional jobs as fishermen and join his gang of peace loving beatniks to each become a fisher of men.  The priest continued to list the unconventional nature of Jesus’ life not celebrating his almighty power but his acceptance of all social outcasts, lepers, prostitutes and even his own murderers. Merciful Jesus was a nice tonic to the Missions more vengeful second coming.
Such hippy sentiments were later given more social context as a congregational member read a long list of international contemporary causes for prayer. The list contained a message of good will for the elections in Sudan, the need to eradicate homophobia from the church, concerns over the floods in Brazil, hope that the violence in Tunisia would stop and condolences of other tragic events I ashamedly had not heard of. No topic seemed to be excluded and some topics seemed to me to be invented.  The congregation’s genuine if slightly patronising acceptance and awareness of the larger world was strongly informed by the building.
St Michael’s congregation dates as far back as the mid 1800s however the current church was built between 1959 and 1961 after the previous building was destroyed in the blitz in 1945. It was designed by the architect Nugent F. Cachmaille-Day (1896-1976) who was the Architect-Surveyor of the Hackney Archdeaconry and responsible for restoring several other bomb-damaged churches in the area. It is a fine example of the influence of the Liturgical Movement on mid-twentieth century church art and architecture. The Liturgical Movement aimed to draw the congregation into the worship and liturgy, and drew on early church designs and art for inspiration. Thus the church has many ‘Byzantine’ features. For example, the main body of the building is square rather than rectangular, and has an elegant copper covered concrete shell dome. It has a free-standing altar which allows the priest to face the congregation during the Eucharist in an act of inclusiveness.

The invisible but the most present feature of St Michaels’ architecture is its acoustics. The choral singing was a noticeable improvement on the satisfying but stretched voices of past services. The choir’s confidence really travelled into the singing smiles that filled the nave and it was clear that in the absence of a minister it was the choir that provided the congregation with its voice. Any excuse to formally introduce singing into the service and the choir would oblige. Never a fan of parroting prayers the choir managed to inject some soul into the service by singing the more traditional prayers. I got the impression that if the Choir could sing the entire service the congregation would let them. Like any good performers the choir left the best till last with a leftfield choice for the closing sung Eucharist.  Instead of choral singing the racially diverse choir switched to an African hymn with live drumming. Its painfully clich├ęd to admit but the fusion of choral and African traditional singing was so inspiring that you imagined it would be used in a  Colours of Benetton advert.
 The choir’s musical range demonstrated the Anglican Church’s openness to adapt to modern times and embrace a new identity. The church’s desire to contemporize Christianity is ironically an Anglican tradition. Unlike the more traditional Catholic services or the more culturally defined smaller churches, the Anglican church seemed happy to take inspiration from a wider cultural spectrum in their celebration of god, again St Michaels architecture illustrates my point.  The church may have been built by Nugent F. Cachmaille-Day but it’s the work of the  artist John Hayward which catches the eye.  The church artist John Hayward (1929-2007) is now most famous for his distinctive stained glass windows such as the Great West Window in Sherborne Abbey, Dorset. In the early 1960s, Hayward was interested in creating ‘whole interiors’ of the church, including wall paintings, furnishings and stained glass. St. Michael’s is one of the few churches where Hayward had an opportunity to do this. His art is integral to the fabric of the building in the basilican style, and includes the Apostles’ Windows on the east side of the church and nine murals. Hayward also designed an aluminium sculpture of St. Michael slaying the dragon at the entrance of the church and the Christus Rex hanging over the altar.                                                               
Despite my praise of the service, architecture and the congregation of St Michaels it is not some religious utopia. Like all the churches I have visited since December St Michaels suffers from a lack of youth. Arguably if the Anglican Church is to survive the exodus of conservative congregational members leaving for more ritual of the Catholic Church or more righteousness of new emerging African churches then the Anglican Church must adapt to a younger audience. In hope for a more tolerant church to prosper in a far more conservative time I would recommend the below youth oriented schemes.
Bible Bashing: Alternative to happy slapping. Encourage youth to film themselves attacking unaware non-believers by reciting passages from the bible.    
Christ’s mob: Mobile phones and social network sites orchestrate impromptu public demonstrations of divine worship in public spaces to praise the lord (actually this happens outside Kingsland shopping centre every day in Hackney but I don’t think they are on face book).
Gods Graffiti: Inspire the young to tag consecrated ground, combating gang culture through their own means (picture below is a genuine example (more technical faults mean it will be retrospectively fitted).

Scriptext: Riffing on the OMG (Oh my God) craze we can adapt common scripture into text, making the bible more visual and accessible for a gold fish memory generation.
As my piss poor attempt to technologically re-brand religious worship proves it is not easy to engage with the youth market without coming across as patronising and crass. Maybe the best way to attract the young into religion is to deny it from their upbringing. Cut out token Christenings, shun Sunday school, burn all the Gideon Bibles and the children will come flocking. Keep religion away from God at an early age and then in a moment of rebellion the youth may return to church defying convention like apostles Simon-Peter and Andrew.  
Still can't get my pictures uploaded, hence the lateness of this post. I took much better pictures than the ones presnet but my camera hates me. Fingers crossed and I have pictures next week.

 Many cite the rareness of John Hayward’s murals but I was most impressed by the aluminium sculpture of St Michael slaying the dragon. The colours of the metal and the striking shape of the shards really stand out from the drab brick exterior. The image is quintessentially British but not overtly religious and startlingly modern. My main interest in Hayward’s art is it appears to be influenced by contemporary art rather than a church tradition. Hayward cites post-impressionist Georges Pierre Seurat and cubist Georges Braque as major influences. Be it the present choir or John Hayward’s 1960s art, the churches artistic fusion illustrates the melting pot philosophy of church and its congregation.

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