Monday, 15 August 2011

Hackney Methodist Church, Mare Street, 7.08.11

How many ways can you worship God? Each week I discover another Christian community who celebrate Jesus in their own unique and personal way but this week I found a church that conducts three different Methodist services on the same Sunday. What makes these services so different yet belong to the same doctrine? Hackney Methodist Church advertises 10.00AM Morning Worship (Quieter Service), 11.00AM Morning Worship, 2.00PM Zimbabwean service. Sadly my planned Christian marathon did not live up to its masochistic expectations (eventually being reduce to the average one service per church) instead the Sunday was eclipsed by the charismatic personality of Father Sakutombo.
My expectations were quickly quashed when I arrived at 10.00 AM to find the doors closed. Arriving on time and discovering a church is closed is always disconcerting, several times I have panicked and immediately set off to what would be my closest back up church. I used to have a romantic and naive hope that all church doors are forever open but this year I have been continually disappointed to find them closed. Loitering outside closed church doors does make you feel very odd and strangely criminal, like you’re going to commit a spiritual burglary on a faith that should not have been closed off from you.  After panic my next emotion is blame, often directed at myself.  I asked myself is there a Christian holiday that no one has told me about? How ignorant could I be of the Christian calendar? Could the first Sunday of August traditionally represent God’s day off?  A non-Christian holiday for Christians! It would make sense that God would get sick of every holiday being about him. My realistic fears are that I have chosen the day after the congregation were celebrating a late night vigil, or are on their annual visit to Clacton on Sea.  Now my experience has taught me not to panic and expect that the majority of non-Anglican and Catholic services start at least half an hour later than advertised. So I stood around till 10.45 until I learned that the “Quiet Service” was so quiet it did not exist. Luckily I had a backup service at 11.00 (which predictably did not start till 11.30) and would then go on to the Zimbabwean service (the climax to my Sunday).  Disappointingly the Zimbabwean service had to be cancelled due to Father Sakutombo’s other commitments; luckily Father Sakutombo would be taking the regular service. Although I was unable to go to the three planned services, the shared key element besides God, the Holy Bible and the church building was Father Sakutombo.
Father Sakutombo was not the greatest spokesman in the world, he did not give the most clear bible readings, his sermon was at times erratic, almost incomprehensible and you were never sure if he was conducting the service or the service conducting him. Regardless of these superficial and technical faults he was an absolute pleasure to be in the company of and the entire congregation clearly loved him. The loud cackling laugh, the spontaneous singing, the incredibly wide smile and his infectious sense of joy which led to an eccentric sermon was clearly the source of his faults and his success. Born in the Zimbabwe but moving to England in 1970s Father Sakutombo candidly said that his recent success with the  Zimbabwe Methodist community had come with recent migrations due to civil unrest in their homeland back in early 2000 to the present. Father Sakutombo clearly stated that though he and the Zimbabwean members of the congregation were Methodists their service was not separated purely for language purposes but had clear culturally specific rituals that would not be found in the regular Methodist service. Interestingly Father Sakutombo when reading from the Methodist book of worship appeared to be reminding himself and the Zimbabwean contingent (the majority of the congregation) of the standard formula to the Methodist service.
Luckily the Methodist church really prepares its congregation by handing out the Book of Hymn and Pslams , Good News Bible and Methodist Book of Worship. Certain congregation members used the books with noticeably more energy and dedication than your average weekend worshipper. In particular a very sweet faced but linguistically struggling male was still looking for the correct page number to partake in a communally read prayer but when he eventually reached the page he could only shout the final word “Amen.” Not all congregational members struggled with the language barrier and the congregation appeared very culturally mixed. Noticeably a recent female graduate gave a clear Bible reading from the Book of Zephaniah (even priest’s struggle when reading aloud Old Testament passages) and talked of her charitable plans to work in Malawi. Despite the wide variety of personalities within the congregation it was the Zimbabwean contingent that dominated my attention and particularly the ladies fashion.  Three rows of ladies dressed in white cotton dresses and blue head scarfs were off set on the other side of the nave by a smaller group also dressed in white dresses but with satin white cloth hats. I wanted to know the reason behind the different uniforms but my English reserve held me back. I presume the separation was of family or maybe of certain regional differences but could not be sure. Both these female groups appeared to struggle with some hymns yet when the collection plate was passed both groups spontaneously began to sing an old traditional tribal song and the room came to life with dancing and music. Hackney Methodist Church’s culture clash within the service provided some of the most sweetly surreal church moments of my agnostic pilgrimage.
The ying to Father Sakutombo’s loud and joyful yang was the quietest congregational member, an American pianist who I never learnt the name of.  Without the piano she would have been invisible, only noticeable for her silence. Yet the piano made her personality fill the room. The use of the piano in a service provided great novelty and classical tone to the old Methodist hymns which were predominantly written in the 1800s for an organ. The strangest moment came during the communion in which the music partnered with Sakutombo’s strong, sharp east African accent created a mismatch of  Christian cultures. The communion transformed the fairly nondescript room into a magical shared space that reflected the Christian cultural lineage from the original evangelical Methodist hymns of the 19 century England to the present globalised multicultural urban Christian existence.
There seems to be no end to how many different ways you can worship God and I should never worry that people may run out of original ideas to celebrate God.  What’s more important than different forms of worship existing is that they also co-exist and may even create new forms of Christian worship together. Father Sakutombo’s ability to bring the congregation together led to one of the most unexpectedly rewarding services. A service that made you feel happy for the variously conflicted ways people worship God and the culture it creates.

Apologies for the late post but I have been away this weekend on my holiday and was unable to access the internet. It has not been easy to go to church mid-week due to the recent riots but hoping to have a post ready for this Sunday. Thanks for all the calls, emails and texts concerned with my wellbeing but personally I feel the riots in Hackney have been totally sensationalised. According to Sky News I have been “living in a war zone,” over the last week which is total rubbish. Week in and week out I highlight how friendly and forthcoming  theresidents of Hackney and Tower Hamlets are and I feel upset that the media, the government and the police are exaggerating the problems within my area. I am not supporting the rioters or claiming that a serious crime has not been caused but the my personal view as a resident of the east end for 9 years is that people are not in fear of each other but in fear of the police. I personally blame the government and the media whose heavy handed approach has empowered the few over the many.

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