Sunday, 20 February 2011

Our Lady of the Assumption Bethnal Green, Victoria Park Square, 13.02.10

Forgive me reader for once again I have sinned, this week I attended church on Saturday evening instead of a regular Sunday service. Work commitments that dictate my heathen existence committed me to hard labour on the traditional day of rest forcing me to find spiritual solace at a time when the majority of Christians are in the pub. Oddly for a non-religious church goer I felt guilty, but a guilt that stemmed from my own disappointment and not from disobeying some omnipotent creator. Surprisingly my sin is so common that I found a church which actually replicates the same Sunday service three times at the weekend. Our Lady of the Assumption Bethnal Green holds their Sunday service on Saturday at 6.30 in the evening and twice on Sunday at 9.30 and 11.30 in the morning. Trust the Catholics to franchise their Sunday service and utilise its potential congregation. The Lady of the Assumption’s business/spiritual model is the Parish Mass Book which is available in 6 parts (2 books for each year of the lectionary cycle) and has condensed the Bible into more manageable chunks for every Sunday over a three year calendar. Each service outlines two readings and subsequent interpretations, a quick religious summary, three prayers and four hymns.  Attending a service dictated by the Parish Mass Book is like watching piece of Shakespeare in which actors read from the study guide instead of the play.  For an agnostic, yearning for some spiritual mysticism the service last Saturday (but written for the Sunday) was a disappointing exercise in religious dogma.  A dogma that dictates that the congregation are treated like children instead of being given the confidence to think for themselves.
Not that the congregation were complaining. The racially diverse congregation appeared reminiscent of the congregations of other Anglican and Catholic churches. I find it ironic that the congregations of east London that once appeared to me to be refreshingly multicultural have become so quickly recognisable. When visiting an Anglican or Catholic congregation in Tower Hamlets and Hackney I expect to see a few women predominantly black directing at least two children (or father if she’s lucky or unlucky) , a prominent gaggle of old ladies who natter away during certain elements of the service but shush others , a scattering of suited elderly gentleman who don’t seem to recognise the rest of the congregation and appear to be spiritually daydreaming, the occasional lone young woman looking very pensive who talks to no one,  adolescents reluctantly on altar duty often watched by mum, large immigrant men who intimidate you through the intensity of their prayer and finally the busy bodies assisting the service who transcend all gender, race and culture but are instantly recognisable by the joy and excitement in their eyes. The routine ritual of the Parish Mass Book seemed not to bother this diverse group, if anything the dogma was a connection and comfort to the congregation. Only the children and one particular child seemed as bored as me.

How do you interest children in Christ, last week clowns and magicians almost seemed to trick children into Christian worship by masquerading religion as entertainment.  Not that every church can employ clowns and magicians for every Sunday worship instead the majority of Christian society rely on illustrative books on Jesus. Despite my lack of a religious upbringing I do remember the countless dull illustrated books depicting the life of Christ that filled my primary school’s shelves. The very placid drawings were no contest for the more zany and surreal designs of The Hungry Caterpillar or Where the Wild Things Are.  The reason behind the lack of imagination surrounding religious illustrated books was that the stories should not appear too comic as they are intended to be taken as the truth. Outside the life of Jesus Christ the most prominent religious story adapted for children is Noah’s Ark; this is most likely because the story features elements that were more suited for children. The story is simple in structure but extravagant in scale; yet vaguely educational in the respect that it features animals and a geographical natural disaster which children can recognise (not to mention some vivid apocalyptic images to scare little ones into listening). Noah is an exception to the rule in that the majority of books in the Bible cannot be put in to pictures and is not intended to be taken so literally.
A child like tedium crept over me during the service, tired of the traditions I fell into my old habit of gazing at architecture and looking down the aisles up at the tall windows and across to the altar my inspiration was absent. The early 1900 building had no intrigue, the Catholics who had built this church were too anglicised, had the church had been built by Italians, Spaniards or South Americans they would have produced a more romantic building fitting for the Roman Catholic faith. Disappointed by the lack of Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine decorative designs to add a sense of spiritualism to the ritual my service was saved by another restless child, called Antoine.  Arriving mid service little Antoine’s late entrance answered my prayers. Dragging his mother with an innocent air of authority that only a child can command, he was driven by uncontrollable excitement that disregarded everyone around him. Maybe as young as two he was fat in the head but not in the body, all his movement was face first as he unashamedly invaded anyone’s space who dare stand in front of him. Like many young children he the gave impression that he learnt to run before he could walk and would occasionally fall into a crawl. Such young innocent energy cannot be contained by any church and as I witnessed Little Antoine disrupt the service I took comfort in his unintentional rebellion (providing a tonic to my empty obedience).
 To a non-believer church ritual can seem like a dogma of don’ts. Don’t shout, Don’t talk, Don’t whisper, Don’t run, Don’t walk, Don’t move, Don’t stand up, Don’t sit down, Don’t look up, Don’t look down, Don’t stare, Don’t look bored, Don’t question,  Don’t enquire, Don’t think just follow. The many degrees of don’ts remind the non-believer to be respectful, but unintentionally it can create a repressed mannered form of rudeness.  Adherences to a culture’s customs do not always show respect and understanding and can make you appear disingenuous. I don’t have these apprehensions in less formalised churches and I associate my insecurities with the more routine ritual of the Catholic Church. The dirge of don’ts applies to me so that I know what is expected of my behaviour but how can they apply that to a small a child yet to develop a degree of self-awareness. It’s especially hard to be critical of little Antoine’s disturbance when his entire motivation was his love for Father Tom.
 Little Antoine ran into the nave down the aisle and to the feet of man he called “Faffa Tom.”  Sweetly the reverend picked up the little boy and kissed him on the cheek before returning him to his mother at the back of the hall. Antoine’s entrance should have been a warning of his ability to overwhelm the service but the ritual went on. Hearing the parental struggle behind me,  Antoine slowly set himself free from his Mother’s clutches and quickly passed between the feet of the congregation as they stood still, unflinchingly observing the service. Not that anyone in the congregation could not be distracted by Antoine, other mothers and children pretended to look shocked, old ladies’ hands itched at the idea of stroking or smacking him, suited old men appeared to have been awoken from their self-absorbed spiritual slumber, the lone young woman seem to be surprised by her own smile when faced with Antoine, while the prayers of the large immigrant men  appeared less important and the adolescents on altar duty became interested, giggling as a group at the stunning independence of this individual infant.  Seizing the moment with a captive audience watching his every move Little Antoine went for a run crawl in to the holy sanctuary as Faffa Tom, prepared for communion.  Watching Little Antoine run around the altar tugging at Faffa Tom’s leg should not have been overtly funny however the congregation and reverend’s decision to ignore him made the situation a comedy of manners. Faffa Tom, clearly did not want to interrupt the Holy ritual so therefore none of the congregation would attempt stop little Antoine for fear it would interrupt the service. Leaving Little Antoine free reign to attempt to explore the holy sanctuary (a dream of mine) when he was not bothering “Faffa Tom” he attempted to jump on the table and use a couple of large crosses as a climbing frame. Eventually as he walked too close to the cloisters his mother prised him away from the altar, the congregation responding with a cathartic release of breath. Antoine was escorted outside where coincidently he shook everyone’s hand with Faffa Tom as they exited.
Church does not always accommodate children especially a service with no Sunday school to rescue the parents from public embarrassments.  Perhaps I lack the maturity for a Catholic service and I would be better outside with all the other heathen children. Sadly what stops me from running down the aisle, jumping on the table and using the crucifix as a climbing frame is my tiny sense of respect and self-awareness, if only I was little bit more innocent and had some faith and then maybe I would be able to get away with such outrageous behaviour.  Such impromptu behaviour is important as it makes the service unique, I would have been disappointed if I had visited the following morning to discover that Antoine’s antics had now been incorporated into the Parish Mass Bible and that rebellion had been formalised into another routine ritual.

1 comment:

  1. l attend mass each week with my 3year and there is a childrens group at each mass which we enjoy and Fr Justin is very child friendly and we are a welcoming congregation so come along and see for yourself.