Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Georgian Orthodox Church London Parish of Saint George formerly The Ancient Catholic Cathedral of The Good Shepherd originally Agapemonite Church of The Ark of the Covenant, Rookwood Road, 12/06/11

In The Beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.
Book of John, Chapter one, verse one is one of the most famous quotes from the Bible. The line is so heavily used by a variety of Christians because it is one of the most clear ontological statements in the Bible and its general sentiment can easily be appropriated to other areas of existence. It is Ironic that the poetic simplicity of the words was not translated until the King James Bible was published in 1611. Words and their meaning in Christianity are forever changing as my blog has illustrated. All churches may share core Christian values (whatever they maybe) but that is not to regard modern Christianity in a permanent status (as the majority of the media would like to believe) instead Christianity is constantly reacting to the changes within modern society. From the rise of a right wing conservative rhetoric by Jehovah’s Witnesses to the gradual increase in popularity of prosperity gospel in smaller evangelical churches and to more multicultural congregations within the Catholic and Anglican churches. Regardless of these churches desire to uphold Christian traditions they cannot remain outside the society they are part of.  No church(es)  is a better example of the multiple personalities of Christianity than The Georgian Orthodox Church London Parish of Saint George formerly The Ancient Catholic Cathedral of The Good Shepherd and originally the Agapemonite Church of The Ark of the Covenant on Rookwood Road.
Of all Rookwood church’s many guises it is its originators, the Agapemonite cult who still haunt the church architecture. From the grand front entrance you are greeted by four large statues of a winged bull and lion, an angel and a giant bird. This quartet of statues reappear in many sizes within and outside the church, the most mythical incarnation being four bronze figurines positioned in each corner of the base of the church steeple looking out over every angle. The steeple has a particularly piercing gothic quality with its spear like top. Built in 1895 and designed by J Morris its gothic styling and mystic symbolism is odd for its era. The building is designated a Grade 2 listing for its “curiosity value,” but to patronise the architecture is to do the church a disservice. The reason behind the unusual architecture is that the churches builders held a unique but short lived interpretation of the Bible.
The Agapemonites, who held decidedly unconventional views on marriage and the role of women, relocated to Upper Clapton from their spiritual community in Spaxton, Somerset, and had clearly prospered by this time. To understand the true lunacy of the Agapemonites cult please read the extract below taken from “The Clapton Messiah” which I found on a Clapton website
The Clapton Messiah
In 1892 the Agapemonites began the building of a magnificent church at the junction of Rookwood Road and Clapton Common, which they called the Church of Ark of the Covenant. Seating about 400 people this magnificent church, decorated with elaborate symbolism, cost in the region of 20,000 pounds. The preacher at the opening ceremony in 1896 was J H Smyth-Pigott, (later to become Prince`s successor).

The building of the church was paid for with money raised by an Anglican priest named Henry James Prince (1811-99). Prince studied medicine, obtained his qualifications in 1832 and was appointed medical officer to the General Hospital in Bath. Ill-health caused him to abandon his medical profession and subsequently he studied for the priesthood at St David’ Theological College, Lampeter. Shortly after his ordination into the priesthood he became curate of Stoke in Suffolk, but after a while his relations with the Church of England became strained (c 1843). He then opened his own church in Brighton called the Adullam Chapel. Prince`s passionate evanglical ways proved irresistably attractive to the wealthy and the gullible.Prince claimed that the Holy Ghost had taken up residence in his body thus proclaiming the imminent second coming of Christ.
In 1849 the Agapemonites moved to the village of Spaxton, in Somerset to a 200 acre plot of land and set about creating a self-supporting community of some 60 followers, all dedicated to the Agapemonites unconventional views on marriage, the messiah, immortality and the role of women. The community prospered so much that they were able to build the church in Clapton. Meanwhile, besides attending to the spiritual needs of his flock, Prince also had to attend to the demands of his many brides as women regarded it as a honour to be taken by him as Prince explained in his work "The Little Open Book" (1856). When Prince died in 1899 he was buried standing up in readiness for the resurrection.
After the death of Prince, John Smyth-Pigott became the acknowledged head of the Agapemonites, born in 1852 in Somerset he had a varied career as a soldier and a curate of the Church of England amongst other things. Smyth-Pigott fitted the part completely. He was a charming womaniser who managed to convert several members of the Salvation Army to the way of the Agapemonites. All was going well until, on the 7th of September 1902, the assembled congregation noticed that the communion table was replaced by a chair occupied by Smyth-Pigott who proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. He said "God is no longer there" pointing upwards, "but here" pointing to himself. During the following sermon he promised that Christ would appear in due time in the Ark of the Covenant.
In the ensuing riots Smyth-Pigott, the self-proclaimed new Messiah, had to be protected by the police from the violence of an angry mob. Unable to provide proof that he could walk across Clapton Pond he left Clapton with great haste.  Smyth-Pigott returned to the less hostile environs of Somerset where he committed himself vigorously to a demanding succession of brides, reputedly 7 a week. Records of the time show there were nearly 100 women living in Spaxton House.
Smyth-Pigott was defrocked by the Anglican Church under the Clergy Discipline Act, and died in March 1927.
Naturally some of the history of the Agapemonites might have been sensationalized but other sources I have come across confirm the amazing legend of the Clapton Messiah.  After the scandal Rookwood church was abandoned by the cult and was acquired by the Ancient Catholic Church in 1956. Despite the Apagemonites incredibly short and exciting history I have not been able to find direct reasons for the symbolic quartet of figurines. The Apagemonites spiritual and rebellious history does indicate how unconventional they viewed mainstream Christianity. The symbolic use of animals is very likely indebted to a more mystic approach to religion that harks back to pagan imagery. I would claim that the Apagemonites batty reputation has led to its most enduring and impressive achievement, the church architecture, to not receive the praise and attention it deserves.

The church’s reputation was so tainted by the Agapemonites scandal that the church did not fall into the hands of the Anglican Church until 1927 as the majority of abandoned churches would have but was given to the Ancient Catholic Church (whose origins are Dutch). Despite the Ancient Catholic Church’s long tenure I could not find any notable features within the interior and exterior of the church, instead The Georgian Orthodox whose residency had begun in 2005 had made the church their own. Inside the nave the Agapemonites presence can still be felt in Walter Caine’s amazing stained glass windows filled with depictions of flowers and plants with no religious imagery except at the rear of the building. The Agapemonites claim that the plant and flower imagery was to portray the “true station of womankind,” which might explain why church male leaders felt they had to impregnate so many women as if they were cross pollinating a field like the famers they were. Other remnants of the Agapemonites can be seen in the scattered statue heads of bulls, lions, angels and birds that decorate the side of the nave. Despite these features the nave had been highly converted into a more Eastern Orthodox Church.
 Following Eastern Orthodox convention the Georgians had installed a wooden iconostasis to separate the nave from the sanctuary and various icons and candles were positioned in the corners of the church. Below are two short videos on the Rookwood church, the first is a Georgian telly feature on Rookwood Road church and its spiritual conversion and the second is a member of the congregations mobile phone video. Obviously I do not speak Georgian and do not understand any of the dialogue but the video is still a great insight into the hard work and money that Georgians contributed to renovating the damaged church. Look out for the amazing church tiling, the long carpet that goes from the church steps to the sanctuary (second video) and the English man interviewed who I presume is a descendent of Henry James Prince who seems amused by the interest and relieved that no one is asking him difficult questions about his scandalous ancestor.

The second video indicates the transformative ritualistic chanting that fills the nave which projects a distinctly Eastern Orthodox identity onto the Western built church. The church in many respects bridges the East West schism in that it combines architecture from a short lived West Christian Cult with one of the most ancient forms of Christian worship from the East. 
The Orthodox Church is the oldest Christian religious establishment in the world, as the organization grew it fragmented into self-governing bodies despite remaining theologically connected. The Georgian Orthdox Church was established as a sub division in 1010 surviving various cultural attacks throughout its history most notably from Russia and remains an independent body to this day.  The service predominantly consisted of four hours of chanting and held strong similarities to The Greek Orthodox Church I had visited, however the Georgians had more variety to their voices (not that I could be aware of the differences of their words) making a more dynamic worship. The priests whose deep and lows chants came from in front and behind the iconostasis was counter balanced by a lighter sounding response from the female contingent placed in the upper narthex above the front entrance. The surrounding chanting created an omnipotent atmosphere that broke conventions of performer and spectator and generated a sense of community. The caller response paradigm was not a too rigid structure of worship as I had feared but instead it felt non hierarchal due to the voices appearing disembodied throughout the service. The Georgians had brought an authentic sense of mysticism to the contrived gothic mysticism of J Morris’s architecture creating a very postmodern spiritual identity. The link below is for The Georgian Orthodox Church, please click  on it and scroll down to the mp3 player to get sample of the churches chants.
The clashes between 19th century gothic architecture and Eastern Orthodoxy were not striking but seamless and enchanting; the reason for this smooth amalgamation of time and culture was the congregation.
The congregation seemed at ease with the ancient traditions of the Georgian Orthodox church and its relationship to the outside world. All rituals were respected and adhered to but they were not strictly implemented. The rituals were demanding, congregation members had to stand, at times get on their knees and partake in some elaborate ceremonies however many children played throughout the service, mobile phones were constantly ringing and being  answered and a few members popped out for a cheeky cigarette. Such contrasting behavior would often create a split in the congregation between the devout and the obligated but during the brief chanting breaks within the service the congregation would burst into chatter across the entire nave. Besides the beautiful ordained robes of the Holy Order, the hierarchies of the Georgian congregation were not clearly identifiable. The Georgians did appear to be fairly rich and stylishly dressed:  a high number of men in smart jeans and jackets and women with Louis Vuiton head scarfs. The smart attire was not similar to the more outlandish Sunday best of other predominantly migrant (but African) congregations of Dalston Lane instead the Georgians smart casual would be more commonly found in a designer catalogue. Nor was the congregation similar to The Greek Orthodox Church I had visited on Mare Street, the Rookwood congregation consisted of much younger families with a larger generational variance and more fashionable attire. The church seemed to have a mystic quality but was entirely modern and at ease.
In the beginning was Rookwood Church, and Rookwood Church was with God and Rookwood Church was God but that is not to say it did not change. From The Ark of the Covenant to The Cathedral of The Good Shepherd to The Parish of Saint George the building remains the same but the name signifies a change in spirit. It seems ironic that the church’s origins set out to form a new Christian mythology eventually returned to one of Christ’s oldest adherents. Not that the Georgian congregation are interested in historical primacy they appeared to understand that for traditions to remain sacred they must adapt and integrate to survive, something the Agapemonites could never do.


Due to copy write and other technical gobbins i have been unable to post the photos. They will be posted soon


  1. I can find no information anywhere about services at this church. Could you possibly help me?

  2. They have services at 6pm on Saturday and 10am on Sunday.

  3. Fyi that is smyth pigott's grandson in the video, not Prince's

  4. When is the church open for photographs and viewing?

  5. Surely the four symbols you cannot explain are the Angel, Lion, Bull and Eagle that represent the four evangelists (Ss. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John respectively). They are all usually depicted with wings. In which case there is nothing particularly strange about them, they are ancient, very common and perfectly 'normal' Christian symbols.