Sunday, 13 November 2011

Christ Church, Spitalfields, Commercial Street, 06.11.11.

File:Ch ch spitalfields.400px.jpgThis Sunday is my birthday or last Sunday was my birthday (if we go by the post date) and I gave myself a little present by going to my favourite church in the East End, Christ Church Spitalfields. An unoriginal choice, the church has rightly been heralded as one of the most beautiful religious buildings in Europe. The building is a symbol of the changing face of London’s East End. The church was originally built from 1714 to 1729 based on the designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor. Hawksmoor was under the government incentive to assert an Anglican dominance over the migrant sections just outside the city (particularly French Protestant Hugenots). However the church’s restoration from 1976 to 2004 mirrors the gentrification of the area from East End slums predominantly inhabited by low income migrants to commercial buildings that currently house one of the most powerful financial sectors in the world. Anglican dominance seems to have survived in the form of commercial gentrification, not that the Anglican church appear to be very pleased with the banking world if the current St Pauls Occupation is anything to go by. A church with such history is hard to comprehend and that is not even considering its stunning architecture or the actual church service.
The congregation seem very proud of the building’s history but they don’t let that distract them from God. Self-consciously the church rector Andy Rider and curate Johnny Douglas mentioned the church’s fame as a tourist site and the need to remind outsiders that the building was still a practicing church. One of the gentleman mentioned this directly after I had informed a lady from  the congregation of my agnostic pilgrimage, and that is was my birthday and how I had decided to reward myself by visiting the most architecturally beautiful church in London. As soon as my materialism had been mentioned within the service my weekly dose of guilt ran riot through my head. What was the true way to experience Christ Church? Not finding answers within the service like most believers, I took to the atheist’s bible, the Google search engine. My online discovery was that Christ Church has its very own Holy Trinity of websites, three very professional sites that explore three very different aspects of the building. They are listed below in order of importance (according to Google)
1.       The Father: The Friends of Christ Church, A website dedicated to the restoration of Christ Church of Spitalfields.
2.       The Son: Christ Church Spitalfields Venue, A website that markets all the venue potential for renting the church for private events.
3.       The Holy Spirit: The actual Anglican Church website dedicated to promoting the Word of God (Google clearly has no religious bias).
All of these websites are very impressive and are highly informative within their own fields. So impressive that it made my weekly blog entry even more irrelevant. It would be wrong to compare them and grade them but I was hard pushed to find a better way of illustrating the many dimensions to this geometrically astounding church. 
In the beginning there was The Father (God) but in the history of Spitalfields the oldest building of Christian worship still practicing is Christ Church. The restoration that has returned the Church to its original form was led by “The Friends of Christ Church.” The group are affiliated with the church but are also separate body and did campaign with the Hawksmoor Committee in the 1970s to stop a wholesale demolition of the empty building—proposed by the then Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddleston. True to form the Anglican Church later saw the opportunity “The Friends of Christ Church” presented and they began to work together. “The Friends of Christ Church” of Spitalfields started in 1976 and has raised and spent £10 million on an award winning restoration. The restoration was a long and patient process that was hugely praised for its attention to detail in recapturing Hawksmoor’s original design. The whole building restoration spanned from 1976 to 2004 and “The Friends of Christ Church” continue to raise money with the hope of restoring the 1735 organ. The website is great in exploring the history of the building and providing a context to the wonders that surround me. Anyone who has visited the church and was inspired by its beauty should visit the site but it does not speak for the building today and its modern use as a Church but also as a venue.

File:Christ Church 037.jpg
The Holy Spirit comes from the people within the church and it’s the job of the believer to keep it alive, so it would be a disservice (excuse the pun) to review the Church’s website in drawing conclusions about the congregation. People may provide the spirit of the Lord but a certain place will attract a certain congregation. The congregation appeared to be from richer, more educated and from more middle class stock than churches that are housed further from the city. It was not money that made an impression on me (despite sitting in a £10 million restored Hawksmoor nave) but creativity. The modern Christian hymns had an evangelical vibe, live bands putting Bible stories to the melodies of Snow Patrol, Cold Play or some other mediocre, inoffensive rock band. The atmosphere was impressive in comparison to the more rigid sung Eucharist practiced at more high Anglican churches across the East End and Communion was replaced by a community lunch. The congregation felt like a modern Christian community and was led by the rector Andy Rider, who carried the air of a man auditioning for Songs of Praise as he welcomed people to “join him in exploring the character of Jesus and partaking on a journey to see God in the everyday.” Andy’s casual but considerate English demeanour was countered by a passionate, in your face, Irish curate, Johnny Douglas. Johnny had the demeanour of a stand up, so articulate he verged on the poetic, his sermon creatively digressed until it felt like one man’s theological monologue written for the stage. Impassioned personalities are highly seductive and ultimately disappointing when you realise that for all Douglas’s dramatic and complex word play he was simply praising his love for Jesus. I was impressed by the service but like the websites it fell short of describing my love for Christ Church.
My love for Christ Church is ethereal, over the last year if I have learned anything from going to church is that love for a Christian is a belief that is only explained as a feeling despite the Bible’s attempts to articulate its meaning. So a part of me knows I will spectacularly fail to explain my love for Christ Church in this remaining paragraph and it will remain an elusive and private pleasure. To experience any building one should visit but hearing other perspectives can still enrich ones impression. So here is my web testimony, I would not call it a poem, musings sounds too high brow, I think pretentious drivel is more an accurate description but what do you expect when a man with an insufficient vocabulary is faced with a building of such magnificence.
The door drags you into its depths
While the spire stretches for the sky
It appears to looms over you yet leans away
Heaven should not be this hypnotic
Such seduction feels almost satanic
A Contorted Christian
The building simultaneously rises as it falls
The higher my head goes up the lower it sinks
Eyes caught between cocoons of time
God’s country knows no borders
As a Greek pediment perches on a collection of Tuscan Columns
This bricolage bastard is from Venice, Paris and Athens
An architectural migrant from the many motherlands
It marks where old countries end
And new ones are born
Born from the bones of the old
They have call it “British Baroque,”
Sounds so stupid it must make sense
Not a sense that can be explained in a sentence
Or the sense that helps you see, hear, smell, taste or touch
But the sense that helps form the sensual
The sense taken from sensational
A sense caught between senseless nonsense
Like Christ in a Church.

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