Sunday, 3 April 2011

The St Parish Church of St Chad's, Haggeston, Dunlow Street

Every time I visit a Catholic church I want to confess, not necessarily to expose my fraudulent faith but instead to grapple with some guilt (I should feel) at the failure to adhere to my own personal principles. Principles I presume I have but could not define in my writing. This desire to form a sense of guilt might explain my planned decision to visit the congregation of St Chad's on Dunloe street after a very heavy night of drinking. Perhaps an unconscious desire to feel guilt had driven me to masochistically punish my already vulnerable body (recently recovering from a cold) by pleasurably poisoning myself with alcohol till the early hours of the morning. After very little sleep I had decided to go to be judged by God’s people or at least punish myself by publically appearing hungover to a room of extremely polite and pleasant strangers. In the church the only one to condemn my sins was me which ironically helped me obtain a sense of guilt (but not the type I wanted). I have not been in the best of health on numerous occasions when visiting churches in the past but never before had I felt so guilty toward the congregation that surrounded me.

The reason I chose St Chad’s as my spiritual priory was that my previous experience had taught me that the most mannered and conservative of services were Catholic and therefore a Catholic congregation would be ideal company if I was of poor health. So I was prepared to not talk to anyone and instead appreciated the beautiful late Victorian architecture (more on which later) but to my snobbish disgust the congregation of St Chad’s were the most cheerful Catholics I had ever had the fortune to come across. A small crowd of chirpy cockney Catholics predominantly elderly women (Nans not Grannies) greeted me with wise smiles and gravelly voices; the congregation had a genuine east end community feel with a mixture of races all linked by the local accent identified by the dropping of “Hs” and adding “ers” at the end of sentences. In previous Sunday services I have commented on the routine ritual of Catholic services and the mass drone prayer that destroys the rich language of the Bible but these cliched elements were challenged by the congregation’s enthusiasm and arguably my sensitive state of mind. From reciting the “Act of Penitence,” to the “Lord’s Prayer” and concluding with “Holy Communion,” and with a lot of proclaiming “The Word of Lord,” and “Thanks be to God,” the spoken prayers of St Chad’s congregation were crystal clear and in perfect unison in contrast to the mass drone I had come to expect. All the communal spoken prayers were so vividly heard it was like hearing the word of God channeled through a congregation of Michael Caine impersonators reminiscent of a stand up sketch by the comedian Simon Munnery (plese see video). 

In truth I wanted the more mannered and antique like mass which I had previously criticized and disregarded in past weeks as merely a zombie rite of ritual for the indoctrinated because then I could remain within my cynically spiritual comfort zone, but instead the service despite its trance like repetition was very sweet and touching.

Three factors that gave St Chads service a more intimate and communal feel (and none of them have anything to do with my hangover).

1.    The service had no organist which led to a stronger emphasis on singing with no congregation member being able to hide behind the musical accompaniment and lazily mouth the words to the hymns. Plus the acoustics of the late Victorian church made even the quietest member heard.
2.    The congregation were heavily involved in the readings and the running of the service, but were not timid (as I have found in previous Catholic and Anglican services). The jovial nature of the congregation as they assisted in the Sunday ritual created the impression of an amateur theatre group performing their favorite play. Speakers were clearly nervous but everything was spoken with a smile that told you they were happy to be there.
3.    The architecture created a real sense of community despite the churches incredible size for such a small congregation. Of all the many features it was the large wheel shaped windows in the transepts that enhanced the congregation. Positioned in the east end apsidal of the church and one in the north-east vestry under the pyramidal roof, the windows provide a showering ray of curved light shone onto the red brick interior that lit up the entire room and created a high contrast from the heavily lit congregation and dark depth of extremely lit nave. In God’s incredibly large building the architect had managed is so his light would shine on them.

Despite all of these factors I predictably felt not only alone but possessed by the alcoholic poison running through my veins. Not one for spiritual intervention I found all these pleasant qualities of the church deeply haunting (obviously in retrospect I was just still hung over). The voices of the congregation spoke to me like never before and they were not even addressing me, the cheerful personalities were the social peak I could not reach and the bright light from the large wheel windows got in my eyes. The main factor for my discomfort was the burning of incense. Still harboring a cough, as soon as the incense was burnt during the opening antiphon all the way to Holy Communion I was coughing, I did my best to hide my cough but it was impossible. The church had such amazing acoustics the tiniest sound of politely clearing your throat echoed across the nave. The congregation of Nans kept offering suspicious smiles and curious glances at my strange intrusion. As the mass progressed it got worse as I watched the smoke move from the light of God’s window to surround me, physical appearance acting as a placebo that kicked my larynx into a fit of convulsions. So embarrassed by my demonic cough I had to leave during communion to properly clear my throat, bronchioles and lungs. As my unfit and damaged body fled the hospitable and holy surroundings I could not help but feel some spiritual exorcism had been completed. My guilt had manifested into a cold and physically driven me from the pleasant company and eloquent architectural surroundings that I clearly did not deserve.

Leaving the church I did find a little solace in spotting a lone stone Mary situated in the corner between the church and the vicarage. Judging by the stone it was not as old as St Chads (built in 1869) but it held a similar relationship to the surrounding building. St Chads is like Gods cavern, due to the extremely high red brick walls you feel it could be designed to be a warehouse for the Industrial Revolution. The grandeur of St Chads, like the lone statue, has been dwarfed by 20th century ideas of progress with a huge number of high rise council flats surrounding it. The building is now hidden within back streets between the main roads of Hackney Road and Bethnal Green Road. The building should be visited and appreciated not only to appease my guilt at leaving early but to celebrate the rarity and unique architecture that provides a spacial stability in contrast to the hyper developments of the area that surrounds it. I asked a friend (a resident of Bethnal Green) what does he think of modern London architecture he said he thought of cranes and scaffolding; a constantly unfinished metropolis. After this comment I realized the buildings of the past are always intended for the present (especially churches which are built for the end of days). Whatever your spiritual persuasions I recommend people to visit the churches of not just the east end, not just London but the entire UK and go out and celebrate a sense of history. It is hard when surrounded by such religious imagery not to feel a sense of guilt at your lack spirituality or religious conformity but it’s important to remember these buildings may have been built in the past for a more religious society but they have always been intended for the present. Guilt only breeds more guilt, from planned piss up to spiritual hangover I cannot prescribe to such masochism and it really does get in the way of appreciating the other qualities of religion. 


  1. hey Joel, were you still hungover when you typed your headline?
    St Parosh? Haggeston? If there's a hint of dyslexia then copy from the photograph of the signboard.....
    But don't worry about drinking, even Jesus made wine, or so it's written.
    However, another very interesting post and a quarter of the way through the year.
    Nothing fraudulent about your faith, or lack of it. You seem to be very honest about where you stand in relation to Christianity

  2. This is not a Catholic Church but an Anglican one, though it looks very Catholic. That might explain why the congregation sang better.