Sunday, 29 May 2011

St Anne’s Church, Three Colt Street, Limehouse, 22.05.11

This week I finally yielded to temptation and visited a church built by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The fame of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s five London churches is only comparable to the critical praise given to his mentor Sir Christopher Wren, who built a high number of churches in the City of London (none in the East End) including St Pauls. Hawksmoor’s gothic churches inspired Alan Moore’s comic book masterpiece From Hell, Peter Ackroyd’s seminal 80s novel Hawksmoor and provided the most written and celebrated architectural sites for Ian Sinclair and other fellow London Psychogeographers . For readers unaware of the (o)cult reputation that follows Hawksmoor’s architecture please watch the documentary short below.

After that sensationalist documentary you might expect the congregation of St Anne’s to sacrifice a goat every Sunday and baptise their small children in the remaining blood before performing a nude fertility dance to encircle the church grounds. Such Gothic pagan fantasies never materialized, instead the congregation was predominantly white, middle class, and extremely mannered. The service felt so Middle England I felt I had stepped through a vortex when entering the church doors and had been relocated to a village nave in Surrey. Not that I disliked the congregation, the slower more reflective service did provide a spiritual rest from all the dancing and shouting of the evangelicals of recent weeks. The congregation just seemed to be dwarfed by the sheer grandeur of St Anne’s history. 

St Anne’s grounds were consecrated in 1730, one of the twelve churches built through the 1711 Act of Parliament. Built in 1712 to 1724, so much money had been spent on the building there was nothing left to pay for a priest. Dedicated to St Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary and Grandmother of Jesus) the church’s name is also a reference to Queen Anne who commissioned an act of parliament to build fifty churches in London and the surrounding area. The details of history are lost in such a grand nave which has been numerously renovated  and filled with wooden pews and large stone columns, with a gallery on three sides, fully restored giant gold organ in the west end and the sanctuary recently returned to its original level in the east. Not that the church is a full restoration of Hawksmoor’s original building, originality is always a casualty of history, instead the church’s wonder comes from the mystery of its old age typified by its huge size. The nave was first gutted by a fire on the Good Friday of 1850, starting the first restoration from 1851 and/to1854 by Philip Hardwick and a further restoration in 1983 and 1993 by Julian Harrap’s inclusion of tubular steel trusses as roof support and not forgetting the most recent restoration of the organ, altar and floor from 2007 to 2009.

 Fitting the church’s long history, St Anne’s building is difficult to visually comprehend from the outside, every angle has a different facet of character.  To attempt to describe the building would take forever so instead I focused on the main architectural oddities.  My favorite entrance is the West Elevation (see above), when walking towards from the west the entire building appears to come forward and extends its entrance yet it seems to grow further away in height the closer you come. The entrance creates a feeling of the church being unavoidable yet unobtainable. Another outside oddity is the rogue pyramid nestled within in the corner of the churchyard under a tree, many believe that Hawksmoor intended pyramids to be placed on the turrets (as indicated in his drawings from the British library), it’s an odd feature for a church building and has been explained as a throwback to the Egyptians, a signa of masonry, or even a prophetic symbol of the future construction of Canary Wharf (I made that up). The other most notable exterior feature is the large clock tower, one of the highest in London, so as to be visible from boats on the Thames.  All the noticeable architectural characteristics cannot be viewed from one angle, however luck has it that some kind person has posted a walk around the church grounds.

 The church's complexity cannot be encapsulated in a single photo, even the film is limited by the intense atmosphere the building creates, an atmosphere that is only fully realized when seen in the flesh/stone.

The congregation is surrounded by such grandeur and heritage that they could not help but feel a bit self-satisfied. No Rapture predictions, no despairing diatribes on the decline of modern society, no urgent wrongs to be righted. The congregation of St Anne’s were comfortable and content in their beliefs which were well illustrated by Reverend Richard Bray sermon on the 8th Commandment Thou Shall Not Steal. St Anne’s proudly claimed in their pamphlets and online that they offer “straight forward bible teaching,” and it is true there was a clear and practical understanding of the scriptures in everyday life that did not look to spiritualism or the mystery of god. Reverend Bay indicated that we are all thief’s in some regard be it the criminal burglar who recently robbed the parish crypt or the dishonest customer who paid less because their item was wrongly priced. The only person who is not a thief is Jesus (him again) who also is the only person who can show us salvation through giving.  So we might all steal but as long as we give like Jesus we can make amends for our natural disposition to sin. Call me puritanical but this all seemed very easy and I felt Reverend Bay seemed a little too “straight forward,” in his bible teaching.  Especially when the main act of giving would be a financial donation paid to the church, perpetuating the most clichéd but valid criticism aimed at organized religion.

I have no problem with the concept that we are all thieves of some kind (it's a sentiment I agree with) but I do have an issue when people claim that stealing cannot always be justified. Reverend Bray knew his audience and chose to focus on the small acts of stealing that his privileged congregation might identify with.  Bray’s rationale was that all stealing is wrong and there is no harmless crime yet he never acknowledged that some people might steal out of necessity and for survival. My anger was not only generated by the assumed wealth of the congregation within the sermon but the concept that giving is forever the solution and a natural reaction to guilt. Giving is not always an altruistic act, it can be used to assume and project power and identity onto someone, thing or people. A great example is the information I have given you in regards to St Anne’s Church.

In “London's Scariest Churches” we are given analysis and historical research  by Ian Sinclair and friends of the pagan history surrounding Hawksmoor, but from the present congregation of St Anne’s I was given an entirely more conventional impression of the church. Naturally the differing experiences and perspectives can co-exist and they help form a more overall impression of St Anne’s church but in both cases the act of giving information colours your primal impression of the church.

 Arguably Hawksmoor and his churches have been so entwined with historical mysteries, as well as being the subject of such huge amounts of cultural analysis and survived such vast social changes within the Church of England that Hawksmoor's personality has been stolen and then given back to us. In this regard the act of stealing and giving is merely a constant exercise in recycling, a process which I am continuing. I guess I am not suited to “straight forward bible teaching.” I am too interested in the multiple meanings of buildings. Lost in the imagination of St Anne’s Church of Limehouse or my imaginations of St Anne’s Church of Limehouse, now which one is it?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for all this information and for the film of your walk around the church. I am intending to visit the church to sketch and paint it as part of my own painting project linking all the Hawksmoor churches. There was a clear visual and atmospheric impression given in your film. Particularly of the pyramid which was taller and thinner than I had imagined. Many thanks.