Sunday, 13 March 2011

St Mary Old Church, Church Street, Stoke Newington, 06.03.11

This week I was forced again by heathen commitments to work on the Sabbath instead of enjoying the company of another local Christian community. My plan was to go to Christ Apostles Church on Dalston Lane for a late night Friday service (10.00pm to 03.00 am) with the intriguing title “Victory Night.” Arriving at 10.00pm the lights were on and the doors were open but the small office building recently turned into a church appeared empty. Calling out into a room empty of people, only inhabited by lines of chairs I felt spooked. No victory to be had I left the building and returned at 11.00PM aware that not all services (especially evangelicals) start at the advertised time. When I returned to the office/church the building was completely locked up and I came to accept that God was not willing to welcome me into his house/office/church this evening. Naturally I was angry (it does not take much) but I had to think fast and decide on which evensong to visit in two days. Luckily my random selection led to a spiritual surprise.

Arriving at St Marys Old Church on Church Street in the heart of Stoke Newington I thought it strange how you can never predict the circumstances and the subjects that are raised each Sunday. Truth be told, when attending the first service before Lent I should have predicted the sermon would feature the biblical prophecy of Jesus’s forthcoming sacrifice at Easter. In my defence, knowing the religious calendar does not always help you understand the Priest’s interpretation of the Bible and the reaction it might generate in the congregation.  A multitude of factors and coincidences had led me to this service on one of the oldest grounds of Christian worship in London.  Not only was my visit brought upon by the lack faith of another church but other agents had inspired my choice. I had chosen the church out of convenience that the 341 bus went straight from my work to Stoke Newington.  Also I had chosen the church as it was the only service I could remember, fresh from my mind on Thursday afternoon when I photographed prospective churches.  My choice was also motivated by the church’s exclusivity, the church stood out because the service was only held on the first Sunday of the month due to the fragile size of the building. All these factors and other unknown influences shaped my decision to attend St Marys Old Church on Church Street.

In the above maze of reasons I attribute to my visit the main conscious motivation being its ancient architecture and the rarity of its service. St Marys Old Church is situated in the shadow of its taller daughter St Marys New Church. Further away from the main road than its offspring the Old Church is nestled in the corner of Clissold Park; its small size reflects a time when Stoke Newington was a neighbouring farming town to the City of London. St Marys New Church is not that new (erected in the 1850s in response to the growth in the population) but the New Church is significantly younger in comparison to is architectural ancestor positioned directly across the road. St Marys New Church may have all the grandeur and glamour but St Marys Old Church has the history. The Old church has been a Christian ground for worship since 1086 but the present “Old,” church was built by Sir William Pattern in 1563 and thought to be the only Elizabethan Church left in London.  Anglican throughout its entire history unlike the majority of churches in London, St Marys never flirted with other faiths remaining as pure as its namesake. Throughout the years many additions feature on the current site most notably the Victorian pew boxes and wooden panelling in the sanctuary and the large spire, placed on the top of an ancient square tower by Sir Charles Barry. As well as the architectural additions the church has made numerous repairs especially when it had an extensive restoration after certain areas were damaged from World War 2. The Church of England’s desire to maintain the site indicates its commitment to heritage and how its history is valuable to its own self-importance.
Entering the beautiful village sized nave I had goosebumps at the still atmosphere, entering a space between histories linked by some old ritual involving a guy named Jesus.  Not that I was there for Jesus and not that the other twelve members of the congregation were all there for Jesus. I got the feeling that amongst the small sets of couples and fewer individuals I was not the only one enjoying the architecture and atmosphere more than the word of God. My assumptions had no foundation but on reflection I felt the lack of volume in the singing by certain individuals might demonstrate a lack of familiarity and interest in the singing material.  However the church had enough devout attendees in full song and I tried my hardest to sound like the weekly faithful, attempting to summon the Holy Spirit from out of my lungs. The songs did not suffer from the lack of a choir as the organ had such a rich sound surrounded by such history. To be fair this is the Church of England and they are not famous for their feverish devotional singing but are instead known for their well-mannered spiritual reflection. Theological reflection was the order of the day/night and Reverend Rector Jonathan Clark did not disappoint.

The service reflected the architectural duality of the parish as it featured one reading from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. The reading from the Old Testament was taken from Book of Kings and the reading from the New Testament was taken from Mathew. In the book of Kings Elijah waits with Elisha (his son) for God to take him away and in Mathew Jesus's sacrefice is foretold by God. Both readings featured the subject of prophecy and death Reverend Jonathan Clark wanted to focus on how prophecy was simply the will of God and not intended to be known to the living. Clark argued that Jesus stopped his disciples from informing others he was the son of God and his decision not to prevent his forthcoming death demonstrated God's desire for man to have free will no matter how tragic the consequences. Similarly Elijah and Elisha accepts their fate instead of attempting to learn details to God's plan or stop their seperation. The theological argument is simple: if the living have been given free will by God they cannot be adherent to prophecy as they would undermine God’s desire for the living to have free will, therefore prophecy is key facet to the mystery God. Clark claims prophecy ia only known to the living tin retrospect and related his interpretation of free will and prophecy to his work as a counsellor to congregational members - touched by how many people say that they surprise themselves when faced by personal tragedies. Clark believes that the strength of these individuals comes from not knowing the tragedy that is going to befall them and that the individual’s ability to cope with tragic situations empowers their own free will and the will of God. In short, our free will and decisions lead us to heaven which is when Gods intentions are entirely revealed. The belief in the unknown intentions of God struck a chord in my cynically spiritual heart but not by leading me to believe in God’s intentions just leading me to be content with the unknown.  Clark’s argument was too neat and needed that intangible element called faith.  Surrounding me I had all my reasons for enjoying the unpredictability of humankind that needs no prophecy, just chance.

Who could predict a 27 year old agnostic would spend his Sunday evening visiting one of the oldest Christian grounds in London to sing hymns badly as an elderly West Indian woman scowls at his eyes wandering away from his hymn book towards the architecture of this Christian tomb. As 16th century stone arches morph into 20th century bricks lit by 21st century lights I continued to stare from my Victorian booth at the antique wood panelling and began to think who could of prophesised such a beautiful building. No architect can create such history and no God could plan such details. The unique atmosphere is not created by the history I know, but all of the history I don’t and can’t know. It’s a feeling of unfamiliarity that stills the atmosphere and makes you reflect that the grounds entire development has been slowed down in the name of God so that areas in the building hold an unknown mysterious quality as a result. Unlike Reverend Clark I believe this mystery is not created by God but is created by people, the unknown numbers of people who have come before and unknown numbers who are still to come. Will the grounds be a church in another 925 years? I doubt it, but then did the congregation of 1086 have such a strong sense of faith to make such a wild and correct prediction?

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