Last week Hackney fell from grace due to the London riots, Hackney was quickly rebranded from being the celebrated official Olympic borough to being declared an “unofficial war zone” (to quote the right wing zealots of Sky news). Similarly I fell from grace in that I was on holiday last Sunday and had to pay my penance by attending a midweek prayer meeting with a bunch of Pentecostalists in Hampden Chapel. Neither events are worthy of a comparison to Adam and Eve’s fall from grace but the word grace is the subject for this week’s post. An elder from Thursday’s prayer meeting informed me that the word grace appears 170 times in the Bible but after researching I discovered that the notion of grace is one of the most divisive concepts within Christianity. All Christians agree that grace is a spontaneous divine free gift of favour and love which God provides to his followers and it is essential in the salvation of all sinners, however some believe grace can only be sacramental (Catholics) whilst others claim grace is universal (most Protestants), then we have groups who believe grace is predetermined (Calvinists) in contrast to Christians who feel its earned (Baptists). Personally I see grace as a feeling of love and favour and Hackney has definitely lost a lot of love and favour with the rest of England in the last week. Unlike decent council housing, social mobility, employment and a fully integrated community, grace is only dependent on one’s relationship with God and hence is not worth the comparison. If grace is entirely based on a believer’s relationship with God it limits the experience of love and favour to the individual yet I weekly visit church communities who generate a sense of love and favour amongst each other. In light of the recent events, I saw Hampden Chapel’s history as a testament that grace is obtained though the creation of a community of worship.
Hampden chapel was built in 1847 and has a large mansion like entrance so common in Victorian public buildings. Originally built by the Baptist church under the leadership of Reverend John Hillman a pupil of the “prince of preachers,” C.H. Spurgeon (one of the most influential members of the Baptist movement of the 1800s) it was later sold to the Pentecostal Church in 1927. In contrast to the grand structure and magisterial entrance the nave was alarmingly modest with only a light brick crucifix marked on the back brown brick wall being the noticeable decoration. Hymns were sung from an overhead projector and the microphones used for hymns, prayer and testimonies had an old fashioned hum from a crackling amp that filled the half empty room. The church may have started life as a lavish building but the current congregation (predominantly elderly) had a far less materialistic view of Christianity. The congregation had not fallen from grace but had realised that all they need is a bible, some hymns and each other to worship the “lawd.” The contrast to a change in attitude toward material wealth was also documented in old photos depicting a brief history of the church. Currently the church feeds the homeless on Saturdays and Sundays but in photographs from the 1940s you can see a very smartly dressed congregation posing with a portable gramophone player decorated with the inscription “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin.” I am sure a tramp would appreciate a hot meal over the sound of a crackling choral piece on vinyl, yet ironically I am sure we had more homeless in post blitz London than we do now. The longevity and history of Hampden Chapel helped put the “unprecedented riots,” (another Sky news lie) into perspective and led to the appreciation of the durable nature of religion.
Arriving to at a midweek prayer meeting I was vigorously interrogated by my hosts which made me feel at first unwanted but later more appreciated. The church, currently without a pastor, was reliant on its elders to run the service. The main reading was led by the extremely wise looking Vanessa whose reading focused on the subject of grace. Vanessa had a sophisticated quality to her bible readings, a light Caribbean accent that spoke the Queen’s English with exceptional poise and clear articulation, you could have closed your eyes and felt you had been transported to an elocution lesson from Victorian England. Not only could age and maturity be heard in her voice but unfaltering faith that made every word seem so important. It was to her credit that her religious rambling which took a variety of quotes that mentioned grace from the Books of Timothy, Thessalonians, Titus, Corinthians yet never appeared unfocused. One of my pet hates during sermons (more often by evangelists) is the orator’s decision not to focus on a specific chapter but to stitch together a sermon by focusing on one word or theme that recurs throughout the Bible. I object to the need to create a Meta truth and simplify a highly complex book by linking sound bite quotes. My objection to this course of sermon is it mirrors mass culture’s inability to think and consider the nuances of subcultures and its need to reduce everything to a more simplified format so to patronise us into all sharing the same opinion. Despite my lack of love for Vanessa’s format I was transfixed by her reading on the subject of grace.
For Vanessa grace was the immeasurable gift of life that God has given us all and that we only need to accept for it to become a predetermined constant. Essentially her sermon was a plea to accept the life god has given us. Vanessa’s grace only had reward for those who believed and she knew I did not which created a far more interesting dynamic in our conversation in comparison to more regular Sunday conversing. I would see grace in the love and favour I feel from strangers I meet every Sunday but for Vanessa grace can only be given by God in your relationship to God and had nothing to do with anyone else. No one in the congregation that supports you, no minister who spiritually saved you, no family members; grace could only be achieved by you and God. I found this view too individualistic and while I don’t strive to achieve a state of grace like the majority of Christians I feel it’s important not to ignore the communities formed by celebrating God. Ironically, despite Vanessa’s firm belief in an isolationist salvation she was clearly loved and respected by everyone, every member seemed to talk to her, seek her approval, ask her advice, she was the queen of Hampden Chapel. Even though I did not agree with her I felt a desire to please her and gain her respect but I just fell short of her grace.
The reason I fell short or the reason I wanted her approval was that my main concern this week was to appreciate and be appreciated by the community where I live. The riots have been blown out of proportion and are being hijacked by politicians and media to garner fear for their own means which is destroying any sense of communal self-worth. I did not want to believe you can achieve grace through praying alone because at the moment I really needed to believe in people praying together as a community.