Stepping through the church gates of Saint Leonards of Shoreditch an educated man would be in awe of the spire which has inspired such a great history of literature and theatre but an uneducated man’s eyes would be drawn down to the collection of sleeping drunks that adorn both sides of the church door. St Leonards has a long standing artistic fame, it features in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons with the line “When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch,” it’s built next to England’s first purpose built theatre, and within the church grounds you can find the resting place for a high number of Shakespeare’s original actors. The church’s artistic traditions live on as the grounds are the location for BBC 4’s church sitcom Rev and the building also moonlights as a classical and contemporary music venue. The arts love St Leonards and St Leonards appears to love the arts; but its biggest artistic contribution is the 18th century building which is yet to be fully restored. Instead of restoration the building has aesthetically suffered as the church’s finances have focused away from the high spire and down to the drunks of the courtyard.
The church’s historical majesty but decaying decor reflected the two communities that formed the majority of the congregation, the elderly and the homeless (however families did arrive typically late into the service). The odd mixture of smartly dressed and mannered pensioners standing side by side with politely silent but dishevelled vagrants created a potent atmosphere of acceptance. Judging by the appallingly whispered shared prayers and muttered melody that accompanied the hymns, the community was not formed by a familiarity or fever for the Holy Scriptures. A shared silence born out of an English sense of austerity and tolerance brought the two groups together to continue a classical tradition of Christian care in the community. The two groups were not attending under a passionate faith but more a sense of Christian duty.
For the homeless Sunday service attendance is a continuation of their rehabilitation and a possible duty to insure their temporary housing. St Leonard’s runs “Acorn House,” an 18 bed residential unit for those who need a roof and security, “Acorn house,” also offers assistance in recovery of various addictions. Judging by the assortment of sleeping bags that scattered across the church yard I imagine St Leonards charity extends outside the residence of Acorn House into the church grounds providing a nonresidential temporary home for those unlucky enough to be without in exchange for increase in church attendance. The elderly share a similar sense of duty in their church attendance, not singing or jumping like the Evangelicals of previous Sundays but instead focused on the practicalities of charity and spiritual reflection. The belief in charity as a form of faith clearly bound the two groups in silence; the homeless practically benefited from the church’s charity and provided philanthropic substance to the elderly’s spiritual reflections. Regardless of the lack of passion within the service the sermon from the reader ( Reverend Paul Turp was sadly away) reflected upon modern Christianity and justified its mannered and modest Church community.
Too reserved to attack other churches the reader merely voiced his concern at the increase of popularity of “prosperity gospel.” ”Prosperity gospel,” is the belief that that God rewards people in life for their Christian faith from which you can reason the Holiest man is the most successful. Anglicans rarely spark a fight (under Rowan’s new politically correct leadership) in comparison to their bloody past, so rather than outwardly criticize the high number of evangelical churches who follow “prosperity gospel,” the reader indicated that just because a person is “unlucky in life, “ does not mean he or she is a bad Christian. Focusing on Psalm 112 (a passage that could be seen to reinforce “prosperity gospel”) he claimed that despite the passages praise for the “man who feareth god,” and the “wealth and riches shall be in his house,” the passage also states “he hath dispersed, he hath given to the poor; his righteousness endureth forever.” The reader wanted to highlight that while the Psalm refers to Christians being rewarded by God it also attacks the shortfalls of materialism and instead focuses on the enduring spiritual reward Christians receive. Judging by the crevices of peeling paint from the church ceiling and the battered wooden cross that stands in the sanctum the congregation of St Leonards church was clearly not driven by aesthetics.
Not that St Leonards has a boring architectural history. The first church was built by the Anglo Saxons and later demolished and rebuilt by the Normans. St Leonards did not rise to fame till the Elizabethan period when it was dubbed the actors church for being the chosen place of worship for many of Shakespeare’s actors. After the Elizabethan building collapsed in the 18th century it was quickly replaced by the current structure. The old church’s remains have recently been discovered in the current Church‘s crypt and has fuelled speculation of a possible renovation not that the current the church is not a historical monument by itself. Following the partial collapse of the tower in 1716 the medieval church was rebuilt in Palladian style by George Dance the Elder in 1736 - 1740, with a soaring steeple 192 feet tall (an imitation of Christopher Wren’s magnificent steeple on St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside). Inside the church the entablature is supported by giant Doric columns, giving the church an almost ancient Greek quality. Many original 18th century fixtures and fittings remain, including the front, the pulpit, the communion table, clock, organ case, bread cupboards and commandment boards. It was lit with gaslight in 1817, the first in London. The possible restoration appears to hover over the spire of St Leonards with the recent crypt discovery and the current deteriorated state of the 18th century building in need of make over. To renovate the crypt is a current campaign of Reverend Turp along with his ambition to get the clock tower working again. In the two short docu pieces on the brilliant St Leonards website the softly spoken Reverend Turp explains his desire to renovate the crypt and the difficult logistics of the church clock’s potential restoration. Please see the below clips.
In the short interview Reverend Turp outlines his predicament that a full restoration of the clock tower would be jeopardized if he just fixed the clock without renovating the tower. Reverend Turp is clearly frustrated that a practical solution would undermine the possibility of a full restoration, viewing a full restoration as a waste of money when the clock could be fixed for less. Turp’s practical nature and consideration highlights the church’s lack of vanity. In contrast to the beautifully refurbished Christ Church of Spitalifields (only a 10 min walk from St Leonards) the congregations of Shoreditch church are not preoccupied with aesthetically recreating the past yet they are still continuing other church traditions.
St Leonard was the patron saint of prisoners and those who are mentally ill and therefore it seems fitting that the church should focus its work on the rehabilitation of local addicts and provide care for the homeless. The church’s website proudly states that “Shoreditch Church has always been committed to its community. (When the Spanish Armada was coming up the channel, the church was giving out bread and coal to poor people.) So when it was recently rebuilt, a large amount of money was spent on its community needs and no funds were left to buy paint. Hence it still looks a bit sad and tatty.” The church’s lack of vanity is very sobering and applaudable that Saint Leonards looks first to rehabilitate its community rather than restore its wealth.