Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Sight of Eternal Life Church, Shrubland Road, Hackney, London, 01.05.11

City Churches should standout, carving out their own space from their urban surroundings; architectural oddities that belong outside the local council’s planning permission. Long gone are the days when a new faction of Christianity would insist on building a new church instead new denominations find solace in disused government buildings, derelict warehouses or old abandoned Anglican churches (if they are lucky). These “make do” churches lack the mystery and romance of the religious relics that inspired my blog. A church like The Sight of Eternal Life Church, whose corrugated iron exterior and sharp dagger shaped steeple frighten and thrill the imagination in equal measure. The church’s name “The Sight of Eternal Life” clearly but unintentionally states its visual power, implying the sheer sight of the building would inspire everlasting life. I was awe struck the moment I set eyes on such a magnificent metal model, like an alien ship had landed on the most non-descript residential road in Hackney.  The church’s mystery was heightened when I realised that the wooden doors that opened the metal shell would only part on Sunday for the weekly service (actually they are also open on Wednesday but that does not sound as romantic and a fact I only discovered after the service). The exclusive interior really made my mind boggle but such architectural anomalies need to be savoured, they need to be reserved for the right occasion. So after feeling a mini Easter crisis of faith I hoped The Sight of Eternal Life Church would provide a sense of renewal and regeneration in my non spiritual pilgrimage.
I am always apprehensive of unravelling mysteries I have concocted from my imagination, afraid that reality will be more disappointing. In the last six months I had created many fantasy stories about how The Sight of Eternal Life Church had come into existence. My favourite fantasy was that the church’s corrugated iron slabs had been obtained piece by piece and the gothic windows and wooden doors had been scavenged from derelict churches, robbing from spiritual competitors. My imaginary congregation would have obtained the land from donations and started slowly building the church as money was raised from charitable means. Yet my nonsensical story appears boring when I learned about the true history of Shrubland Road Church thanks to the brilliant book Corrugated Iron: Building on the Frontier written by Adam Mornement and Simon Holloway. Forget my speculation that the church was founded by a modern day evangelical sect, in fact its corrugated iron exterior harks back over 150 years. Corrugated iron churches were a common feature of mid-nineteenth century Hackney, a period that saw the borough switch from a middle class suburb to a poor inner city area. Examples include St Marks on Ridley Road, St Mary of Eton in Hackney Wick, St Augustine’s on Dalston lane, and St Mathews on Upper Clapton Road. Over the years the majority of churches withered and were replaced with permanent structures or fell into dereliction. The Shrubland Road Church (its original name) was founded by Presbyterians, built in 1858 and commonly thought to be the oldest surviving corrugated iron church in the world.
The church was made by W. Browne of Messrs Tupper and Co. (formerly Tupper and Carr) of Moorgate Street. From the 1860s Tupper & Co. iron church and house builders, were among the leaders in the field of iron churches.  Tuppers and Co .may have provided the physical foundations but the church’s spiritual base was laid down by Reverend Thomas Udall. By 1871 worshippers describe themselves as Congregationalists rather than Presbyterians. Under the leadership of Reverend Thomas Udall the church had its most successful period for thirty one years, the congregation grew from 50 to a 300 membered Sunday school, hosting 250 members of the Temperance League and listed 520 members of a Social Guild.  After 1909 Revd Thomas Udall died but despite the church suffering from roof leaks and hygiene problems the congregation continued but inevitably dwindled. In 1971 the congregation merged with Trinity Chapel on Lauriston Road. That same year the Sight of Eternal Life Church took ownership of the church.  Despite Adam Mornement and Simon Holloway’s excellent study dispelling some of my made up myths it lacks a contemporary depiction of the current congregation and a commentary on the present state of the building’s interior. The interior and the congregation did not disappoint in surpassing my vivid imagination yet they inspired new fantasies due to their quirky and strange atmosphere.
The Sight of Eternal Life Church’s most ecclesiastical features are its 48 feet high belfry and the pointed Gothic style windows; these are the only characteristics that move the corrugated iron shed towards a more spiritual shape. Inside the structure of this giant shed the congregation have compensated for its lack of Christian iconography with an amazing array of religious treasures from across the ages.  The corrugated iron has a wooden interior painted white but peeling, wood had never seemed so rustic. The church was populated with dark varnished wooden pews separated into three rows all pointing towards the church’s main central attraction, its giant broken organ. Positioned behind the altar, the large pipes of the 19th Century organ loomed over the congregation. Unheard but seen by all who entered the nave, the organ’s sheer stature means it must have been constructed within the church. Decorated with rows of synthetic flowers bunched in baskets across the organs skirting, the central platform is home to two rotating tinselled mini crucifixes, one red and another white, placed on either side of a draped flag of a white crucifix on a red background. The juxtaposition of the tasteful wooden furnishings and the plastic robotic crucifixes marked two very distinct ages brought together through a love of god. The church’s grandeur lacked a cohesive style so that its adornments could never be perceived as vain. The empty wooden pews had to their front right empty rows of chairs for an absent choir and to their left was a large blanket covering an assortment of disused instruments, drum kit, guitar, electric organ peeking out from their cover.  The massive collection of material objects compensated for the church’s small but most prized asset, its congregation.

The regular congregation consisted of six members, all elderly and all from West Indian descent who held their service like a conversation in which one could only communicate through words taken from the Holy Scripture.  The individuals that made this small flock were Pastor Peter who was warm and welcoming, like a human teddy bear, the more proud and refined Deacon, a well-dressed gentleman who wore and occasionally played the guitar, a small lady who said nothing the entire service but was forever tentatively smiling, Mother Maria who was returning after being recently away and the large, loud and unforgettable Sister Stanis. The visiting guests were I and Pastor Noel Pond, who attended a church in Seven Sisters but had been asked to visit the service. To say the service was intimate was an understatement; every congregational member (with the exception of the smiling silent woman) provided a personal testimony.   The most touching moment of the service was Mother Maria stating she only felt close to God when she prayed at church in the company of the congregation. Despite the friendly manner and quiet nature of the congregation the testifying did have an end of days bent. The average old age of the congregation may have unconsciously led the service to focus on the forthcoming apocalypse instead of more savoury areas of the Bible. I am sure the congregation would disregard my criticism as youthful naivety but I would reassure them that no forthcoming apocalypse in my living memory has been prophesised with such sweet and soft voices.
The congregation fitted the building perfectly, like its material content they were all unique, antique treasures. I attempted to unlock the church’s recent history of the last 40 years but was greeted by answers that merely put all developments down to the glory of God. It was like the congregation were shushing me with praise the lords and hallelujah every time I asked a leading question. The congregation seemed happy to wrap themselves up in the mystery of God and not be interested in their own history but instead celebrate their own spiritual salvation in the present and eagerly wait for the salvation of the future. Maybe if I had been forceful in my questioning I could have gathered some recent local history but like the congregation I enjoyed a good mystery. The congregation contributed to my own personal mystery creating an atmosphere and community that seemed so separate and unique that it could not exist outside these corrugated iron walls
The Sight of Eternal Life Church / The Shrubland Road Church is a listed building due to its great history but the members of the congregation cannot be there forever despite their church’s name. The apocalyptic service implied that all the members are aware that their mortality and that their own day of judgement is not far away. But where does that leave the church? Surely the church will need to find some new owners. The new owners will have to understand the church’s great history but also realise that the church’s strange and stunning architectural power comes from not just celebrating God but also inspiring mystery.   
 

1 comment:

  1. I am a church (pipe) organ builder. Please note that all pipe organs are assembled on-site. It takes a couple of days to dismantle to average 4-tons of organ when completes (either new or as a restoration) in the workshop. Upon arrival on-site, the instrument is re-assembled & finished over a 2-6 week period. Pipe organs last hundreds of years, but need a major overhaul every 75 years & a minor clean every 25. The fact that this organ is 'broken' quite simply means it will need stripping down, the dirt getting out & the action rebuilt, certain parts being replaced, & putting back together again...a six week job. This is absolutely standard procedure & back the organ plays for another 75 years

    Richard Shireby, Lincolnshire

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