Sunday, 2 October 2011

St Paul and St Jude Parish, Mildmay Grove, 25/09/11

Every week I commit sins and cause offence, this can be an intentional or an unintentional act, the only difference this week is that I broke one of my very few rules by mistaking an Islington church for Hackney parish. St Jude and St Paul is a gorgeous late 1800s church with Kentish ragstone rubble, Bath Stone and a roof of Welsh slate forming an exterior that nestles on the quiet corner intersection of Mildmay Grove. A little lavish construction with a particularly stunning spire: in retrospect the building screams Islington for its understated wealth and not to be mistaken for the larger churches of Hackney. My pschogeographical senses should have served me better but boundary maps are never clear as definitions in your mind. Ironically I learned far more about the personal lives of this small Islington congregation than I had of the many local Hackney residents I had visited in over the past few months. The reason I was able to familiarise myself with the congregation was that I had stumbled across St Jude and St Paul’s Back to God Sunday Breakfast. Back to God Sunday Breakfast was an opportunity for regular church members to invite friends and family back (or for the first time) to church by sitting down at tables and eating breakfast interspersed with some Bible readings and hymns. For once my agnostic ignorance was in a forum in which it was instantly forgiven.
The only person disappointed for mistaking Islington for Hackney was I as it exposed my ignorance but in the past I have often disappointed others without even making mistakes. My naïve agnostic ramblings have a tendency to cause offence (in a couple of weeks I will compile a list of some of criticism I have received) but as early as February I had fears that my blog could be misinterpreted. Reverend Jane Thorington Hassell at Victoria Park Baptist church outlined this fear when she described her frustration at the rise of new age spirituality mixing religions “buffet style.”Hassell’s criticism of other religions seemed to relate to my own worst fear that my blog merely reduced the churches I visited into consumerist products. The only way to tackle such a fear is to deal with it head on and this week’s service provided the opportunity to write the remainder as a culinary review of St Jude and St Paul’s Back to God Sunday Breakfast.
The majority of the congregation were eating food that looked like themselves, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, nieces, nephews, uncles and aunties.  The tables appeared to be segregated into friends and family which left me on a table of a random collection of individual cuisine not atypical to the entire congregation, however all tables were joined in feasting on the largest meal of the morning, Reverend Justus. A mandatory dish, Reverend Justus was the meal that no member of the congregation could turn down or even ignore. His stature was as large as his name but behind his huge round belly and glowing black face was a very soft and sweet voiced personality. Everyone enjoyed eating Reverend Justus because he was so well cooked judging by his sweating brow and stains across his shirt. Justus rushed around the nave conducting hymns, greeting members, listening to testimonies and orchestratingBible reading. I have never seen somebody large be shared so quickly amongst the congregation. After a bite of Justus you could not help but feel satisfied that you had just tasted a fine long standing St Paul and St Jude staple. Perhaps he was a little too much to chew on and could have been little less bland but like any good carbohydrate dish his dense texture was the foundation to a larger meal and his presence gave you a huge amount of energy for the remaining service. Justus for one Sunday morning had become the sacramental wine and bread that the entire congregation shared. 
The sharing of Justus brought a ritual unison to the congregation but my own personal menu choice was a rare and exotic dish named Abraham. The origin of Abraham’s distinct flavouring is hard to place! On the surface he appears like a regular black male in his 30s dressed in an ill-fitting but smart suit for Sunday worship. Only after playing with my food and talking to Abraham did I learn that he was born in Sierre Leone (unlike anyone else in the congregation), raised in Liverpool and commuting to London visit his Muslim mother but yet following in the spiritual footsteps of his dead Christian father. The more I gnawed away at Abraham the more I learned about his culturally rich life; now working in music PR but also helping church music get off the ground, he was a 21st century Christian entrepreneur. At times his spice was too overwhelming and you had to take a few seconds to digest before you could enjoy Abraham’s company. An endearing image was his lone swaying and singing to pop church anthems that left the majority of the congregation comatose. Abraham was that rare meal that you are conscious you may never have again so you bask in the enjoyment so much more. A childlike enthusiasm trapped in a 30 year old body he left an infectious aftertaste in your mouth, wet and wanting more.
The palette can get too overwhelmed when visiting church, for all the intoxicating and rich flavour of Abraham it’s important to have a sober tonic to bring balance to ones meal. My palette cleanser came in the form of Nick and Shell, individually they may have more zest, smack, bang or kick to their personalities but together they nullified my spiritual taste buds. Nick and Shell should have been the culinary equivalent of a hot comforting Shepherd’s Pie because they were getting married in the very church we sat in but it was apparent they were not regular members or Christians and looked slightly horrified at the idea of meeting other congregational members at the Back to God Breakfast Sunday celebrations. I do appreciate the dedication of people who want church weddings but are not Christians yet are prepared to jump through certain hoops but this Anglican ritual would not be found in the more evangelical Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal churches.  Arguably they might have been equally unimpressed by me, as I fully explained my project they seemed to understand the purpose but not the point. I, like them could not provide any spiritual nourishment instead our familiarity bred contempt.  Nick and Shell acted as a lemon garnish to my main meal, providing a bitter punch that complimented the more exciting dish.
My final course at the St Paul and St Jude café was an old favourite, a traditional meal that might have been forgotten with the influx of new and exciting foreign tastes but Maureen was old fashioned cockney cuisine. More fish and chips than eels and mash, this parish was Islington not East London after all. Maureen had been coming to St Paul and St Jude’s since the 80s and was incredibly knowledgeable of the area and its local churches. The conversation was overly familiar as we listed the Christian tourist sites of Christ Church Spitalfields, Stoke Newington’s long running non-conformist church, St Leonard’s musical productions and spoke of the history of migration of the East End from the 17th century Hugenots to the modern Bangladeshi community. The conversation was ideal comfort food, like warm cod and chips the taste was a reassuring experience and one to be repeated.
Maureen was the most satisfying meal of the morning but at the end of the service I was inexplicably touched by the announcement that Susan a congregational member had passed away last Tuesday in Homerton hospital. Looking across the nave I saw mainly blank faces but amongst them you could spot a the trickling of tears fall down a select number of elderly faces and no face shone more from the reflection of wet face of Maureen standing beside me. I almost choked on what I had eaten, to see the emotional concern on her face I felt sick with sadness. It was not my intention to come and feast on the emotion and honesty of others when I began my pilgrimage but it would be dishonest to not admit that every week my voyeuristic, parasitic tendencies feed off the spirituality of others because I lack the belief to create my own.

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