Sunday, 13 February 2011

The United Benefice of Holy Trinity Dalston, Beech Wood Road, 06.02.11

Holy Trinity - Exterior
When I tell people that I visit a different church every Sunday I often get a look of suspicion as If I am telling a joke but unfortunately for my audience the punch line never comes. Clearly my appearance is unchristian as very few people presume I am a genuine believer.  When I explain the reasons behind my non-religious hobby people’s reactions are varied but more often than not they find my decision odd perhaps funny like an a lone clown with no audience. But this week I was surrounded by clowns, I suspect I was also surrounded by fellow agnostics and atheists and was definitely surrounded by loud children. The reason for such an eclectic mix of people within the congregation was because I was attending The Clowns 65th Annual Memorial Service held on the first Sunday of February at The United Benefice of Holy Trinity on Beechwood Road.

The United Benefice of Holy Trinity Church has hosted the memorial service for 65 years as it is the resting place of Joseph Grimaldi (thought to be the greatest British Pantomime clown) who lived from 1778 -1837 and was lucky enough for Charles Dickens to ghost write his memoirs. The memorial service I am told is a vital pilgrimage for all clowns but the reality of the service on Sunday was a media frenzy, I would estimate one camera to every three clowns. The size of the event meant that my group (so popular an event that even had 5 of my friends decided to join me) were placed in the church hall to watch a projected live feed of the service.   When I was first told of this unique service in November of last year I expected a niche affair but during week prior to the service I had seen articles in The Guardian and various local websites and quickly realised that any sound of light chuckles on the day would be drowned out by the clicking of cameras.  Not to say that the service did not have plenty of aspects to laugh, my funny bone was particularly tickled by how a Christian service would adapt to such a high media presence. Therefore my three favourite clowns were not Mr Mudge with his classic mime make up, or the giant figure of Eek with his pirate plaited beard and tiny bowler hat and as much as I smiled at the Reverend Roly Bain’s combination of dog collar and Biretta offset by his painted tears and redder than red frown, no one amused me as much as the clowns out of costume.  No it was the members of the service who were not dressed in red noses, painted faces or overly large colourful clothes that made me laugh. My three favourite clowns were the resident vicar Reverend Rose Hudson –Wilkin , the Right Honourable John Bercow and Mark Harrington (A member of the fellowship of Christian Magicans & President of Wolverhampton Circle of Magicians) who led an address to the congregation.
It’s a comedy cliché that comic double acts are dependent on the dynamic of the funny man and the straight man. Without the seriousness and conventional manner of the straight man the funny man’s jokes lack a context to rebel against. Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin was our straight man; well actually, she was a British West Indian female priest (none on comedy circuit to my knowledge).  Like any good straight man she had our sympathies, it can’t be easy share a conventional church service with a bunch of clowns who are unconventional by nature. On stage Reverend Rose Hudson – Wilkin was a calming presence to the hectic world around her, her deep and slow voice was never raised and she concisely reminded everyone to be respectful of church traditions, commanding an air of authority without appearing aggressive or defensive.  Sadly when off stage her microphone remained centre stage, it provided a door into the complexities of her situation, hurriedly commanding children, inaccurately singing hymns and directing the clergy in a bit of panic. The microphone did not reveal her to be a religious hypocrite but instead made her seem more human than she would like to appear.  One tiny microphone typically demonstrated the power of the media and modern technology to unintentionally extrapolate and magnify one person’s experience upon the congregation. Cynics may say that is the entire point of religion and it was ironic that a tecky taboo had made the unaware Reverend more commanding than ever. To Reverend Rose Hudson – Wilkin's credit she appeared endearing when held up to media scrutiny and like any good straight man she still came across as very likeable.
 I have never associated the words likeable with John Bercow, maybe it’s my innate dislike of all politicians or my leftist parenting that puts me in such strong opposition to a man I have never met.  John Bercow may not be likeable but he is funny. His surname is funny as you can almost spell Berk(if you swap the K for a C). Like any good clown his silly name is complimented by an even sillier long title, The Right Honourable John Bercow speaker of the House of Commons. Plus he always reminds me of the clichéd comic stereotype of the short, self-important, angry man who is looking for a fight (please You Tube the footage of the honourable Berk’s spat at a journalist last year). Unlike Reverend Rose Hudson –Wilkin  media scrutiny has not made John Berk more likeable but more professional. The manner he conducted himself during the reading, posing for photographs with his family and letting his hair down with the clown congregation was polite and professional which made him no less funny and surreal. The reason I treat his appearance with such cynicism is I thought he was a resident of Buckingham not Hackney and his appearance did come at the end of a week in which MPs had criticised his wife’s semi clad photo shoot for the Evening Standard. Maybe I am wrong to judge and snidely laugh at him and maybe the honourable Berk had always planned to attend the service and this was not a simple and crass PR stunt. But without doubt in the eyes of the media circus he was the biggest clown on display.
The next non costumed clown was Mark Harrington who I found scary but the majority of the congregation found loveable and entertaining. Magician Mark Harrington performed three elaborate magic tricks while addressing the congregation on the importance of God. Suited and booted, bald with glasses and school teacher smile (professional but sincere) he looked far less anarchic than the clown congregation he addressed.  Maybe it was his smart dress sense that made his tricks appear real and therefore scary, more preacher than pantomime.  The mixing of magic tricks and religion made me feel uncomfortable and the more others laughed the more uncomfortable I felt. Call me old fashioned but I feel more at ease with the traditional medieval dichotomy of the church accusing magicians of witch craft and dunking their heads under water to see if they float rather than watching magic tricks being used as visual metaphors to explain religious faith to children. Also Mark Harrington had a born again glint in his eyes and an assertive sense of faith which I personally found difficult when put in front of the impressionable minds of children. The final elaborate trick was Harrington describing how one might travel to heaven with a newspaper as a prop: First making a paper airplane, then a rocket out of the same paper, then tearing the paper into a cross only then to destroy the paper to illustrate a world without faith/God and then re-joining the entire paper to symbolise how God makes you see the bigger picture.  Maybe children are not innocent vessels and maybe they can separate the entertainers trick from a spiritual belief in God but combining these two worlds seems to devalue both. All magic tricks are explainable but should remain unexplained to have any worth, in contrast religious faith is unexplainable but worthless without the attempt of an explanation.  Sadly I lack innocence and adopt cynicism as a comfort when presented with religion as light entertainment, perhaps my dislike of Harrington had more to with my personal pilgrimage being undermined by another.
This week no one tried to convert me, no one was shocked to see me attend the service, no one cared why I was there, I did not get bored by the routine rituals, I had no need for architectural musings to occupy my mind, I entirely understood the service, yet I felt my holy sanctuary was disrupted by a world I recognise oh too well. I don’t know how many people attend The United Benefice of Holy Trinity every Sunday but even minus the number of clowns and cameras I still think a huge portion of the congregation were fellow agnostic voyeurs like me. Perhaps I go to church to feel isolated and escape a feeling of self-loathing. Ironically I attribute my own self-loathing as symptomatic of being too media conscious. So when media encounters the church it holds up a mirror in which I don’t want to see the reflection.  Churches are only an interest to the media if they create controversy or have a novelty value I hope my blog means more.  Luckily for me I predict my own voyeurism will not be mirrored again in the remaining 50 churches I plan to visit. I am sure like any good Anglicans the regular congregation of The United Benefice of Holy Trinity enjoyed the influx of people to share their weekly Christian celebrations but I am unsure if the Catholics and Evangelicals would be quite so forgiving. My lack of involvement and enjoyment of the service really highlights my overly serious self-importance when faced with such fun and like any good straight man I can see the joke this week was very much on me. 

Not even going to make excuses about the lack of photographs, I recommend to type the below link into address bar to get The Guardian pictures of the service

1 comment:

  1. The bald guy was scary....
    Also, Grimaldi is buried in Joseph Grimaldi Park, Kings Cross.
    I hate to make my first comment on your awesome blog a correction but I couldn't resist such a low blow.