Never before has church felt like such a duty and not an interest, this Sunday I was a fake reluctant Christian. Unlike the hypocritical worshipper who attends church out of some sense of cultural obligation and then emptily repeats the same religious dogma as if they were still in Sunday school I had no obligation to anyone or anything but myself and l was finding it hard to connect with the phoney spiritualism inside of me. Not that I was suffering from a lack of faith in my project, the reason for my minimal motivation was not mental but physical. Currently moving between flats my body was shattered from heavy lifting and my mind preoccupied by furnishing logistics that I felt too distracted to question the existence of God, pontificate on God’s effect on his followers or even make architectural musings. I had become what all non-believers dislike in the church; I had become a non-spiritual Christian. Only in retrospect did I realise the importance in my conformity to my very own routine ritual.
My non spiritual epiphany came during the sermon at Saint Barnabas Church lead by Reverend David Silvester. Focusing on the book of Romans, and passage “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.” Reverend Silvester stated it was important to understand that only by being a slave to God and giving up little freedoms do we truly become free. The classic Christian paradox did not lead me to my epiphany but instead it was the Reverend Silvester reminding the congregation that just because we had reached the quiet time in the liturgical calendar we should not stop upholding Christian values. Stating that the recent Easter celebrations with the Day of Ascension, Feast of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday should not reduce the importance from the remaining Sundays till Advent. My sin was far greater than Reverend Silvester’s warnings as I had attended church and entirely forgotten about The Ascension, Feast of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday
The above calendar celebrations are not mentioned in my blog as I focused on other areas or was simply unaware of their existence. In defence of my ignorance the Day of Ascension always takes place on the first Thursday after Easter however some conversation surrounding the Ascension on my boring Sunday with the Methodists may have sparked some interest in a dull service. Pentecost took place when I visited The Georgian Orthodox Church so it’s not entirely my fault for not realising the third largest celebration in the Christian calendar. As for Trinity Sunday, my excuse is that the Open Door Baptists on Downs Road clearly regarded the moral substance of Fathering Sunday over the Holy Scripture. Despite my excuses I did feel partly ashamed of my ignorance but later I came to regard my sin as an attribute, the disparity of my experience from the Christian calendar acted as an important characteristic to my blog. Reverend David Silvester clearly wanted everyone to realise that to be true Christians they need to give up little freedoms and obey certain rules not just on the special Christian holidays but on every Sunday and similarly I had done the same for my blog.
When setting out on my blog I had only given myself 5 commandments as a clear outline but through habit and experience I have unconsciously formed rituals every Sunday or rules as (Reverend Sylvester would describe them) which have been used almost every week. The key rituals are
1. Walk around the building and play guess its architectural age/history
2. Quietly observe the service to form an opinion on the congregation
3. Focus on an individual or incident that is interesting or unusual.
4. Pay the tourist fee (give to collection plate) but don’t take the piss (never take part in personal blessings or communion).
5. Find and project a theme onto the experience mirroring the service you have attended
All of these rituals are constructs to help formulate my blog, they are artifices but they are integral to performing my duty as a non-Christian church blogger. The rituals have been organically shaped by my own interests but I think I am beginning to see the importance of repetition and routine of these rituals in forming my identity similar to the rituals I have frequently criticised within Christianity. To demonstrate their importance I will deconstruct this entry to outline their importance
I have visited all the churches more than once to generally to take photographs and scope out the churches origins. Visiting St Barnabas on a grey afternoon in March I was initially interested in how the building was built in a medieval style but had too modern looking sandy stone to be older than the 1800s. I wander around the grounds to find clues to the church’s origin before retiring to the World Wide Web for my answers. Online I discovered that the church was consecrated on 11 June 1847 as the parish church and built by Arthus Ashpitel (1807-1869) who was a resident of Hackney and architect of some note. I read various links about the church and if I cannot relate the history to my own experience I leave the information in the past like any good historian. Naturally If I love a building I will do my best to shoe horn it into the service and the congregation I meet.
The congregation of Saint Barnabas Church gave a distinctly Anglican welcome on my arrival. Unlike smaller churches who welcome you with shocked smiles, a few suspicious whispers and more genuine enthusiasm, the Anglicans are far more laid back and mannered as they approach you (like Catholics but without the guilt). Anglicans are uniformly welcoming to strangers (they are not shocked to not know a fellow believer) and respectfully remain distant from new arrivals. I can see this approach is the most polite response but often it can be infuriating when you are only visiting the church once and want to get to know the congregation’s personality in a short space of time. Maybe in future I should wear a sandwich board stating “I AM ATHIEST,” on the front and “PROVE ME WRONG” as the message on the back. Such a confrontational manner is not my style but I am sure it would at least provoke a response. Due to my lack of aggressive greetings I often spend the majority of the hymns and routine prayers discreetly staring at various members of the congregation attempting to piece them together like a puzzle or a game of Guess Who. After my eyes wander across the sandy rocks and white paint of the nave my eyes begin to focus on individuals within the service who could be my main subject for the entry.
When looking for a subject I attempt to focus on the cultural background of the congregation and pick an incident or an individual, which or who indicates a culture clash from my own. The multicultural congregation of St Barnabas had a few strong characters, behind me a small group of West Indian ladies gossipingly disapproved of the length of a young woman’s skirt who gave a Bible reading. The clear clash between the smartly conservative dressed black geriatric group and the lone white woman in revealing clothing was a great indication of the large variety of people who are part of the Anglican Church and their hypocritical differences. These characters were later upstaged by the late entry of the lone loud weird woman who came to stand in front of me midway through the opening prayer.
Dressed in a matching orange summer dress and plastic straw imitation hat she carted an old fashioned pattern shopping trolley into the nave like a smartly dressed bag lady from the street. Throughout the service she constantly tilts her head up to the right corner almost turning to meet my wandering eye while forever muttering how much she loves that hymn or dislikes that prayer and agrees with the reverend on that passage. Originally I think she is talking to me but then I realise that I have not answered and therefore she is definitely talking to herself. The self-consumed personal monologue only needs the congregation as stimulus for her extrovert behaviour and it reminds me of my own internal internet monologue. Many would disregard the lady as mad but the service provides a structure and a set of routines for her to channel her eccentric personality and generate a sense of community and self-worth. Kinship between her self-sufficient delusions and my writing aspirations are bound by the collection plate and then broken as the services finishes with the Holy Communion.
The collection plate passes in front of me to my mad woman and she does not give and I feel great that I do, not as an act of superiority but as a sense of balance. The mad woman was one of the many other extrovert lone worshippers who frequent Anglican and Catholic Churches; they clearly have a relationship with God that I do not and feel energised by the church in ways I can’t imagine. The act of her not giving demonstrates that her spiritual sense of enjoyment is not dampened by the economic and social infrastructure of the church but is actually supported by it. My act of paying is a necessary etiquette that does not feel wasted when paired with my mad woman. As everyone is slowly shepherded to the altar I try as anonymously as possible to stand away and remain in the back cloisters with those too frail. My only act of defiance to the service was an act of obedience; by not taking communion I expose my true undecided identity and breaking my assumed kinship with the congregation.
Despite sharing a lot with the congregations and churches I visit outside the routine rituals of the church I have my own. Like the lone mad woman I have my own solitary form of worship but comparison feels unworthy as my worship lacks spiritualism. The non-spiritual Christian has rules and reasons for his attendance but I am only beginning to realise that an individual’s relationship with God will always change but the rituals that will always remain.