Sunday, 25 September 2011

Clapton Park United Reformed Church, The Round Chapel, Glennarm Road, 25/08/11

Some churches in the East End dominate the imagination; they cannot be ignored and are an essential motivation for my agnostic pilgrimage. The Round Chapel of Lower Clapton is one of those churches. Built in 1869 by Henry Fuller, the building is the architectural crown to the non-conformist churches of the East End. The exterior has Romanesque styling with round arched windows and octagonal towers on each side, yet inside the large interior is designed like a Victorian theatre with tall iron arches framing the surrounding aisles. Like the non-conformist movement the Round Chapel is a mishmash of styles, the foundations undermine the hierarchal structures of traditional church architecture.  The horse shoe shaped front entrance merges the nave with the sanctuary and forms a coliseum styled auditorium. Hackney Christian history is full of non-conformist celebrities Daniel Defoe, Issac Watts, Mary Wollstonecraft all worshipped in Hackney and the borough is home to the non-conformist burial grounds of Bunhill Fields and Abney Park Cemetery. The Round Chapel along with the beautiful Union Chapel (sadly in Islington) are both the most grandiose non-conformist churches in London but now seem destined as music and theatre venues. So I was deeply saddened to discover the large Round Chapel was empty on my arrival.
The gardener informed me that the Nigerian church that had been using the chapel had been kicked out for not paying the rent despite the collection plate being full every Sunday. Not wanting to be deterred by the gardener’s cynical explanation I investigated the side entrance and was pleasantly surprised to discover a small but very welcoming congregation belonging in the Unitarian Church housed in one of the side rooms to the chapel. The Unitarian Church seemed not bothered by the grandeur and decorations of the Round Chapel and had instead chosen the more intimate surroundings for this very diverse family orientated congregation. At first I was disappointed but I soon realised that the diverse ages, races and backgrounds of the congregation actually created a very informal Christian community that entirely continued the progressive forms of worship of Hackney non-conformists of old.
The atmosphere that the congregation generated was not as aggressive as Pentecostal services but was equally life affirming. The entire congregation appeared peacefully calm but not insular and glowed with warm smiles. Church has a habit of creating the most welcoming strangers but this congregation seemed genuinely at peace with their faith and less concerned with saving my soul. Many factors contribute to create a good communal atmosphere. The warmth of strangers is an essential element to an inclusive atmosphere but it is little aspects that make your heart rise. The rustling of children in the aisles, the spiritual sincerity of the singing, the soft and contemplative voice of Reverend Elizabeth Welch’s sermon, an incorrect Bible reading that caused communal  laughter instead of embarrassment, the understanding and accepting smiles on hearing about my project. All of these small aspects contributed to one of the most enjoyable services I have attended since I started my journey in January.  The congregation seemed to have abandoned the dogma and dread found in some services for a spirituality based on empathy and a love for life. For once I did not stare at any architecture or clap enthusiastically to the Redemption Hymnal to have a good time instead I was intrigued by the structural foundations of this informal worship.
 The Non-conformist movement of the late 1600’s has changed a lot to keep its independence which is typically ironic given the movements name. The Unitarian Church is the result of a union between the Presbyterian Church of England and the Congregational Church in England and Wales in 1972 and has formed subsequent unions with other non-conformist groups but not the more established Methodists, Baptists or the Sally Army. The union of the churches represents a less hierarchical system to Anglican and Catholic churches and the structure enables various churches to remain independently run following the traditions of Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. Presbyterianism is traditionally run by church elders and Congregationalists have the most democratic of religious structures. The informal and inclusive feel of the service did seem to indicate that every member was involved and took pride in the running of the church, the parishioners seemed more active than passive. The structure dictates that the congregation are essential to the decision making and therefore more involved in the form of worship. The hymns felt like a mishmash of Christian cultures and the personalities within the congregation did not seem dampened by the structure of the service but enhanced. One gentleman with a rich voice sounded like Pete Seeger singing an African Traditional.  The more democratic structure seemed to accommodate many aspects of the Christian faith but coincidentally the sermon focused on a guest speaker who was actually from another inter-denominational church group known as the Street Pastors.
Street Pastors is an inter-denominational Christian group who voluntarily patrol the streets with the aim to respond to “urban problems.”  I don’t know what an “urban problem,” is but I presume that the majority of urban problems is drunken behaviour and attending to people alone in vulnerable situations.  The organisation was formed in London in 2003 by Reverend Les Isaac, Director of the Ascension Trust as a way of tackling crime by building relationships with the community that the police were unable to build. There is now over 150 Street Pastor projects in Britain and over a dozen international schemes. To enrol as a street pastor you must be a Christian, receive extensive training and pay £300 fee. Some of my left leaning Christian friends would say you do not have to pay to do God’s work but that is not to diminish the work the Street Pastors do.
Street Pastors were introduced into the context of the service as a possible solution to the Hackney riots. Talking to the very happy clappy congregation who did not seem to have a single aggressive bone in their collective body I was concerned that sending these sweetest of Christians out onto the East End high streets of Booze Britain was like sending lambs to their slaughter. My initial apprehensions were slightly quelled when the Street Pastors spokesman outlined the actual work they do across the night. They claim statistics have shown that their mere presence has decreased crime. Street Pastors most common activities is collecting bottles or broken glass, handing out flip flops to barefooted ladies and attending to drunken casualties. No doubt they are a positive force and being an inter-denominational church group I cannot see the organisation being used for Christian recruitment. Instead the organisation seemed to provide the opportunity for the more masochistic Christian personality to outwardly pursue caring for one’s neighbour. Personally I don’t think you can beat a soup kitchen, hospices and the night shelter as the most useful forms of charity; however Street Pastors appear to be a more sexy form of Christian outreach appealing to the more action man personality than the Florence Nightingale wannabe.  Disregarding my petty criticism it was touching to hear accounts of a Street Pastor’s night’s work. I just could not imagine any of the congregation on the streets at night.
The most pleasant aspect of the Round Chapel congregation was their infectious passive enthusiasm that I felt would be tainted by drunken abuse if they took the form of Street Pastors. Street Pastors are a crusade orientated Christian venture that has been designed to provide a practical solution to anxious Christians in need of saving someone but the Unitarian congregation did not seem to have any anxiety or fear within their faith. After stumbling across this small Christian community I wanted to protect their innocence but then who am I to protect anyone? I am sure the Round Chapel congregation would battle vigilantly with East End nightlife with hugs and kisses, prayers of forgiveness and beautiful renditions of cum-bay-ah but did not feel in the spirit of the Unitarians. Caring for one’s community is essential to leading a Christian lifestyle but it cannot simply determine ones faith because surely faith must be self-sufficient.  The current congregation have moved away from the showy nave of the Round Chapel and have collectively created a unique church community that is not defined by the opinions of people outside the church walls but those within it and far better for it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing about us in such a positive and reflective way. Just a couple of clarifications - its united reformed church, not Unitarian! Also, the big round chapel is now owned by hackney historic buildings trust and the church uses, along with lots of community groups, the rest of the building on powerscroft road