Saturday, 21 May 2011

Church of theThe Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and St Dominic, Ballance Road, Homerton, 19.05.11

Forgive me reader for once again I have sinned. But this time it’s a real sin, not an act that goes against religious dogma instead I have committed a sin in the sense that my action disobeys my own moral code. One of the few tenets of my blog is that I attend a service every Sunday, if unable to uphold this principle I must go to another service later in the week.  I did neither but I did get to have a very nice chat with a cheerfully informative Father Tony from the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and St Dominic on Bannister Road.
I am proud to say my principles do hold emotional credence and are not hollow and masochistic rules I have placed upon myself. Despite the pleasure of a lazy Sunday morning in bed as the week progressed I became distracted by guilt and regret at my lack of spiritual voyeurism. The guilt and regret flourished into a shrugging stroll and supplicating stare as I entered the empty nave of The Immaculate Heart of Mary and St Dominic. The church was as lavish as its name with a light blue marble dome shaped sanctuary forming a blunted point at the end of the nave. Creating an annular communal space. Religious wooden figurines were placed either side of the aisles between the pillars. From the front you are greeted by St Patrick recognisable by his four leaf clover and St Dominic with his loyal dog, while at the back of the building  you find wooden replicas of the Vatican statues of St Peter and The Pieta.  The Immaculate Heart had great depth with tall and long arches, whose height was doubled by the reflective geometry of the arched stained glass windows positioned directly above. The high ceiling was fittingly made up of sky blue stone squares but with hidden lights nestled within stone carved stars placed in brown pirouetting squares. The nave’s large interior was matched by the large cultural scope of Catholic art, the right hand side of the wall adorned with traditional numbered wood carvings of the stations of the cross (common in any Catholic Church around the world) but to the left hand side was a diverse collection of Christian art from South Africa, Haiti, South American and India. The Immaculate Heart had all the grandeur I had expected from the Catholic Church before I began my blog but had not yet experienced in the East End. It was not a surprise when Father Tony informed me that the church had garnered the reputable title “Cathedral of The East.”  Perhaps the nave seemed so large and romantic because it was lacking the congregation I had missed, the grand but empty architecture mirroring my own pining heart.
The imaginary congregation and church’s history (no online sources) was in the hands of Father Tony, a less holy Priest may have taken the opportunity to increase the attendance of the faithful and concocted a more persecuted past but Father Tony had sincerity and infectious enthusiasm for his faith, congregation and church history. I was informed that the congregation were 75% African and West Indian (with Nigerians and Ghanaians being the most predominant nation) the other members range from being Irish, Polish and from Latin America (Columbia being the most notable country). Father Tony had been Reverend for The Immaculate Heart for 7 years, before working in South America (Columbia and Venezuela) and was brought up in Ireland so his international experience seemed a key facet in working with such a diverse congregation. Interestingly Father Tony never described any of his members as English reinforcing my own prejudice that the Catholic Church is forever the immigrants’ church of England. The history of the East End however would contradict my ignorant assumption with the heavily documented migration of French Huguenots and German Lutherans arriving and building homes around the eastern docks. Yet the Catholic Church has a changing émigré face in its vast history. Father Tony pointed out that in the 1960s the congregation was predominantly Irish and Italian and the first Nigerian does not appear in the directory until the late 60s. I am often been critical of the Catholic service’s routine rituals but with such diverse congregations through the ages you realise the rituals are not just intended to be transcendental but transnational and transcultural. Father Tony informed me that various services range in numbers, the liveliest services being on Sunday at 11 AM gaining 600 members  with organ and occasional African drumming while the morning mass held every day except Monday brings in a more modest 10 to 20 parishioners. These numbers are huge in comparison to the Anglican churches I have visited but the Catholic faiths endurance comes from sets of traditions that have thrived despite historical opposition.  
The church grounds were founded in 1873 by the once Anglican Cannon Ackiers, Ackiers  was keen to build a grand Catholic church in the East End. However the majority of the current building is no longer standing after being bombed in 1941 during The Blitz. Massive reconstruction funded by the war indemnity and the local community saw the current building resurrected in 1956. Father Tony was unsure if the grand stone entrance with its large wooden door and statues of St Dominic and Mary would have been a part of the original building, he was unsure if the entrance would have been too flamboyant for a Catholic church in the 1800s but more acceptable in the more tolerant world of the 1950s. If the bold entrance was or was not in the original building at least Ackiers's founding desire for grand Catholic Church eventually came to promise. Father Tony was essential in creating an understanding of the congregation and history of the church and in effect creating a penance for my own transgression but he also provided a perfect opportunity to talk to a Priest and get his opinion, especially on my feeling of guilt around my own sanctimonious perception of sin.
Guilt does not create sin, the first myth that Father Tony dispelled for me, he claimed that often during the confessional he has helped his parishioners have a sense of perspective of their own religious morality, claiming some members needlessly worry about the implications of their actions.   Not that sin needs religion despite the word’s origins. Below is a definition of sin taken from an online dictionary (sorry its not the Oxford English Dictionary for all cultural snobs).
Sin1. transgression of divine law: the sin of Adam. 2. any act regarded as such a transgression, especially a willful or deliberate violation of some religious or moral principle. 3. any reprehensible or regrettable action, behavior, lapse, etc.; great fault or offense: It's a sin to waste time.
Clearly this week’s personal shortcomings qualify with the second and third definition of sin. To shoehorn my morality into Catholicism seems unnecessary as I share different principles (or less rigid regulations) but I was interested in the concept of sin. In my very limited knowledge of Catholicism I knew of venial sin and mortal sin but was unsure what qualifies an action to be a mortal sin. I presumed mortal sin was murder, rape and torture but actually none of these horrific acts qualify unless they are committed with the criteria below.
1.       Must be a serious matter
2.       Must have absolute Freedom
3.       Must have absolute Knowledge
4.       Must have desire to offend God
Judging by the above criteria my agnostic sins will not lead to certain damnation until I start to believe in god and subsequently commit sins with the very intention of upsetting him.  In answer to what sort of person would believe in God and would want to upset him I suggest people read Graham Greene’ Brighton Rock (as it could only be a person who exists in fiction). Separate from the religious ideas of sin and guilt, I do have retrospective worries around my blog.
My original idea for this week was to confess but after some thought it seemed cheap and offensive to confess to a Priest an action I do not feel guilt or regret about. Instead it makes more sense to confess to you (the reader). I often view my posts as confessionals as they are not inhibited by desire to appease my Christian hosts.  So reviewing my own flimsy moral code which I created on my first post I have created a list of my recent blogging sins.
So forgive me Reader for…..
1.       Every time I say Amen at the end of prayer yet lack the belief. Its instinctive to want to join the group but  do feel I mislead the congregation especially when I cannot understand the mumbled prayers of quieter services or the West African accents of louder forms of worship.
2.       Inaccurate research and blatant ignorance: Father Tony pointed out that St Chads (27.03.11)  was not a Catholic Church (far more hung-over then I originally imagined) and my great friend Gareth pointed out that Joseph Grimaldi  was not buried in the grounds of The United Benefice of Holy Trinity (06.02.11) despite his annual memorial service being held their on the first Sunday of February.
3.       Being too pompous and self-absorbed to focus on the many different and interesting parishioners and instead on my own failings.
4.       For leaving the Greek Orthodox Church (30.01.11) early after I realised the service had over run to 4 hours and I was late for work.
5.       Telling the Pentecostalists of  Ritson Road that I would come again (still a possibility)
6.       Not talking enough to congregational members because I was too keen to have a Sunday roast or watch Arsenal lose another game
7.       Forgeting Father Tony’s last name….

Despite my lack of religious conviction Father Tony did provide the opportunity to face one of my main sources of guilt since I began my blog, the guilt I feel when members of the congregation assume I am a Christian and I do not have opportunity to be honest and correct them. This week I decided a suitable penance is to email all the churches I have visited and ask for their opinion on my blog. Hopefully in future instalments I will be able to garner the opinion of various different churches I have visited and post them for you all to read. I see this as the next step in creating a dialogue between Christians, agnostics and atheists. Now that last statement was guilty of being incredibly pompous and sanctimonious another sin for me for me confess and for you all to judge.

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