Sunday, 5 June 2011

Stoke Newington High Street Methodist Church, High Street, 29.05.11

Some church services are like visiting the congregation’s funeral but before the parishioners have passed away, instead the congregation is attending their own wake predicting that the Day of Judgment will soon be upon us. These services are more common in evangelical churches but they feature across numerous denominations of Pentecostalists, Charismatics, Baptists and Methodists. The more established Anglican and Catholic churches seem less preoccupied with the End of Days and always feature more topical prayers for recent international crises rather than citing wars in the middle east or environmental disasters as signs of the second coming. Not that all evangelicals focus on a forthcoming apocalypse, the general link amongst the majority of Rapture predicting church goers is that the congregation is small and elderly which creates an atmosphere that the church itself is dying.

The congregation of Stoke Newington High Street Methodist Church was warm and welcoming but you could smell death in the air. The service reached its peak capacity at 30 and did feature at least 3 families with 8 children in total but despite half the congregation being under 60 a feeling of contented lethargy and resolved defeat spread across the nave. The ominous signs were apparent when entering the large church doors, the lack of an organist, an absent resident Reverend, and too few Bibles for a relatively small congregation all indicated that this church was struggling. The lack of materials manifested into a more cynical Christian attitude, focusing on the end rather than the now. The service, despite containing 3 families was run by a group of elderly West Indian women (the dominant demographic) with Sister Woolcock leading the service.
Sister Woolcock fittingly wore regal red and had a Queen like demeanor when conducting the service. She never raised her voice and was beyond the histrionics of testimony but her reserved manner still discouraged the pitfalls of modern society by comparing the book of Leviticus to the rise of atheism claiming that the world was becoming more violent as the church’s power had declined (statistically crime reached new low levels in the last decade) and we were returning to an early period of Christianity. I found the most depressing aspect of Sister Woolcock sermon was her reserved and conservative manner, for a person to unreasonably criticize modern society and claim that Jesus is our saviour and not raise their voice seemed odd. The reason Sister Woolcock and the majority of the congregation did not feel a desire to raise the Holy Spirit was that they seemed at peace with God without needing to communicate with him through group prayer. I would have been happy with her calm tone except her belief demanded more emotion. If you think The End is near its better to bang a drum and save a few more souls than sit quietly in the church hall content that you are saved. The biggest exhibitionist behaviour outside the singing was Sister Woolcock asking all the children to come to the front of the congregation. As the children awkwardly stood in a row Sister Woolcox told their parents that they may not realize or have not yet reaped the benefits of taking their children to church however they are sowing the seeds for their future salvation; this message of hope was undercut by her concern that not enough youth were in attendance. In such a dry service I had no chance of finding God but was more preoccupied with finding an interest.

When visiting churches I do not have writing formulas to fall back on (that would be far too professional) but I do have certain recurring interests if the service does not inspire. Architecture, history and cultural shifts are my research staples to flesh out a boring service. Even in these research areas I found little inspiration. The church was a modern building built in the 1970s and looked like a terraced house which had undergone a cheap spiritual conversion, yet the interior did have a pleasing arch. Historically the church did not exist except in its present form from what I could find very little written. Culturally the congregation was all black; it appeared they were a combination of first and second generation West Indians and West Africans but the service did not contain any culturally specific references. The Methodist Church is such an established religion the congregation did not the share the vibrancy of the younger churches I had visited on Dalston Lane. I was desperate for something to elevate the spiritual funeral to my interest but arguably my desire for an epiphany was missing the importance of routine and ritual traditions that are key foundations for all religion.
Perhaps my desire to find a magical moment led me to observe and magnify the smallest of incidents, but as soon the congregation begun hymn 341 I had my epiphany. Ironically the lack of organ I had criticized was actually the key facet to creating a scenario in which two sections competed for ownership of the church hymn. A church organ provides necessary cover for bad singing. Mumbled lyrics, lack of holding a tune and general silence can all be masked by the sound of a powerful organ but this congregation had no such hiding place. The dominant singers were a clique of ladies whose faces were hidden behind their incredibly high and colourful hats in the front three rows but whose unashamedly high pitched voices were out in the open for all to hear. The clique found competition in the late addition of a suited gentleman in his 30s sitting at the back of the nave that had a loud, deep, resonant voice that undercut the female shrills. The two could of have formed a duet in complete harmony or at least have been drowned out by an organ but the two separate groups sung contrasting tunes leading to a cacophony. The hymns rigid formula was broken down into a dance of searching stares and polite pointing as the congregation could not disappear into routine but were forced to communicate in choral chaos. Sister Woolcock eventually put an end to the proceedings claiming that the hymn had two different tunes (this is often the case) but the interruption had led to the breaking of formality that had awoken the congregation to each other. Greetings, jokes and smiles were shared by all and the church felt more alive for it.

The service did spiral back into a snail’s pace but the injection of mannered anarchy had provided vigour to the church order. As I slipped back into a spiritual coma I began to peruse The Methodist Hymn Book. After The Holy Bible, The Methodist Hymn Book was the biggest relic within the ceremony and it pleased me that an honest misinterpretation of the book created such a sense of community. The majority of hymns within The Methodist Hymn Book were written within the mid to late 18th Century so you can forgive the congregation not knowing which tune was to be sung. In many ways the hymns existing at all is a tribute to the Methodist faith. A huge number of the hymns written by John Wesley’s (founder of the Methodist Movement) brother Charles Wesley and the hymns were a significant tool in bringing the gospel out of the rigid structure of  the Anglican Church and providing a more evangelical forms of worship and social outreach. The old hymns have no chance any longer of attracting new worshippers in modern Britain but have instead evolved into almost antique tradition. The Methodist Hymns now exist in the past even when sung in the present; to the congregation they provide a sense of communal preservation and a belief in the mystery of God. After all, the hymns have been sung longer than any man on earth has existed so who is to say what is the correct tune.


My internet gone rubbish so I will photos will have to follow at a later date

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