Sunday, 28 August 2011

St George in the East, Cannon Street Road, 21.08.11

This week I went back to the beginning, back to the moment of inspiration, back to the feeling before I made up reasons to begin my blog. So what led me to embark on the decision to give up my Sunday morning lay in and spend time with good Christian folk? The inspiration was predictably the east end churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor and particularly his church St George in The East. I am not proud of my unoriginal choice of architectural muse but Hawksmoor and St George in The East opened a love in my heart for architecture. Walking through the large doors in the spring of 2009 I did not realise it would lead me to an interest in theology, local community and east end migration and that these themes would become tenants of my very own blog.  On my first visit I was too busy falling in love with the time shifting architecture. I should also celebrate the work of Arthur Bailey as well as Nicholas Hawksmoor, as it was Bailey who was the architect who rebuilt the inside of the church in 1964 after the nave had been destroyed during The Blitz in 1941. The reason I attribute so much importance to Bailey is I first became enchanted with the building when I stepped into the nave and had the idea that I had been transported from a building built in 1729 to 1964 in the spring of 2009. The concept that architecture and particularly London architecture could create a sense of time travel got me to read the works of Ian Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Will Self but this was merely my blog’s inception. Eventually I became more interested in the congregations I met, my lack of faith and the morality of the weekly sermons than writing a piece on church architecture, yet despite these new interests my love for St George in the East has grown and developed like the building’s history.

Oddly my mum and aunt have unearthed some ancient family history in the last year that binds me to the original congregations of St George in The East.  My 5th great grandfather Alexander Ray was baptized in the church in 1744 and later baptized his daughter Susannah in 1768, who later married Thomas Walker in the church in 1800 and then subsequently christened their son Thomas Dixon Walker in 1802 on the same grounds. My distant relatives were mariners of Stepney and Wapping which back then would have been the busy regional dockland entrance to London in comparison to the present densely populated urban landscape which houses rich bankers and poor Bangladeshi migrants.  I do sometimes find ancestry a nauseating self-indulgence but knowing that my relatives and I shared a love for the same building makes the time travel feel more real and unattainable. Unattainable, as my love for the 1964 nave is not the same building in which my relatives were married and christened. I guess time attempts to erode everything and that is why unearthing family history becomes so magical. My personal history with St George in the East is not unique but merely another example of how the building has changed with its congregation. Many writers have commented that Hawksmoor’s large looming churches in the east end were built with the intention to instil authority over the new migrant underclass (some my relatives were Huguenots) but another reoccurring facet of Hawksmoor’s architecture is its diverse Baroque style, which celebrates different forms of worship throughout the ages.
St George in the East’s history is unbelievably vast and the church’s website is like an online library dedicated to a single building. In comparison to other Hawksmoor church’s websites, the flash graphic design of Christ Church at Spitalfields website or the user friendly format of St Anne's, St George's is more interested in historical substance than online style. The website is a sprawling labyrinth of information and a testament of love to the church’s history. A catalogue of links feature information on the changing developments of the parish parameters through the ages, Hawksmoor’s original construction of the rectory and his unrealized plans to create a “primitive Christian settlement,” a historical account of the ritualism riots of 1859-60, a brief history of “St George in Ruins,” a prefab church built in 1943 situated in the ruins after The Blitz and a complete chronology of the architectural developments of the interior, the exterior, the tower, the crypt and the surrounding garden. The overwhelming amount of information indicates the unbelievable changes the church has gone through long before The Blitz. The website correctly attacks guide books that claim you only need to appreciate Hawksmoor’s exterior and not the Bailey interior. I would support the argument and claim that the modifications made to the building before and after The Blitz actually reflects Hawksmoor’s original architectural intention. Hawksmoor was striving for a new primitive form of church that combined many past spiritual architectural designs; you can see Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Gothic influence in the architecture of St George's; the most obvious example being St George’s “ pepper pot” tower decorated with six Roman circular sacrificial altars . St George’s overall style with its use of arches and columns is also reminiscent of a Jewish Temple (see picture).  In short Hawksmoor was forever interested in combining different forms of architectural worship from the ages and St George's unlike the restored Christ Church and St Anne’s has adapted and changed throughout the ages. Luckily for me the adaptations of Christian life and worship were the subject matter for this week’s sermon.
The visiting Reverend was Dr Fiona Stewart-Darling whose sermon focused on the book of Romans and used later passages of the book to outline the unique adaptability of Christianity. Stewart-Darling indicated how Christianity unlike other religions such as Islam and Judaism does not adhere  to strict laws and rules to display ones faith but instead bases its faith on the transformative love of Christ. Key passages in Romans support this notion, Romans 13:10 "love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of law." Unintentionally her sermon’s pleas for pluralism and acceptance within Christianity can be found in the church’s diverse architecture.  The large rear glass wall allowed light to flood into the 1960s nave and brighten the white and yellow walls but the same light had passed though the grand baroque exterior, two eras of Christianity living as one. It is ironic that before the later section of the book Roman’s which calls for the transformative love of Jesus the earlier passages have been interpreted as homophobic and Zionist. Talking to Reverend Stewart Darling after the service she was quick to point out and unprovoked that the homophobic and misogynist aspects found in the King James Bible had now been correctly removed in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Reverend Stewart Darling was passionately liberal and inspiring in our brief chat. She outlined how aspects of Christianity seem old fashioned and conservative but was merely the example of the gospel being corrupted by its time and circumstance. A good modern example of misguided religious education was that she supported Church schools but not Faith schools as she believed in religious choice not dogma. I agreed with everything that came out of her mouth but I felt that the certain negative aspects of religion should not be forgotten or edited out because one should recognize the other despite its differences. My reasoning was once again entirely influenced by the surrounding architecture.
St George's embraces so many eras of Christianity yet seems entirely current due to the very fact it’s a product of many times. Unlike the historical fully restored churches you do not feel transported back to a specific era but instead on a constant journey through time, a journey that is the present because it is so clearly formed by many pasts. I don’t want a definitive God, I don’t want the correct reading of the gospel, I don’t want a fully restored building I want the journey without the destination. The power of St George's is it makes you constantly think due to its astounding history, a history so vast  that when you return you never come to the same conclusion. I always find myself caught in contemplation still changing my perception of what a church can actually be. The power does not merely come from the preservation of the land since 1729 from but from the land and building's ability to change and adapt to think outside one time.

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