Sunday, 1 January 2012

St Marks with St Bartholomew, Colvestone Crescent, 25.12.11

Ring, ring, wake up, ring, ring, still still, ring, ring, must open eyes, ring, ring, come on ring,ring, it’s time to end this, ring, ring,  you just got to wake up, ring, ring, wake up one more time, ring,ring, wake up and let God into your heart, ring, ring, or at least turn up to church, ring, ring, come on it’s one final Sunday morning ring, ring, the ritual is almost over, ring, ring, wait a second ring,ring, it’s 9.45, ring, ring, alarm’s set for 10.00, ring, ring, phone, ring, ring, where’s my phone, ring,ring, body still slower than brain, ring, ring, oh shit ring, ring, Dad

After all my romantic planning I still failed to attend church on time and had to embarrassingly strut down the aisle half an hour late in front of the regular, loyal and dedicated congregation. My plan was that I would begin my blog with midnight mass and after a year of Sundays I would go to my final church service on Christmas Day. I felt that this plan had a natural symmetry that I had not created but adopted; like God had divinely designed the calendar for my own personal journey.
My choice of church was also an important decision to mark the occasion. St Marks is the self-declared “Cathedral of the East End.” Like St John of Hackney, my midnight mass church, it was my closest Anglican establishment. The Victorian church with its Gothic tower looms large over Ridley Road market and surrounding South Hackney. The church’s imposing presence had penetrated my consciousness and for almost a year had acted as a constant reminder of my religious duties. It seemed only fitting that the church which had made such a big first impression should be my last.

 For full circular narrative closure my final service would again be attended by my Dad. Dad joined me last Christmas Eve and like the year before he was my driving chaperone for Christmas Day. The Family were not best pleased with my religious commitment infringing on our secular celebrations. So turning up late filled me with a double edged pang of guilt. Religious guilt for rudely turning up late for church on the Holiest of Holy days mixed with family guilt for dragging my Dad to London only to insult him by not attending a full service. Very rarely do I manage to offend theist and atheist from one visit. My circle was complete and I had not only managed not to learn anything but had forgotten basic courtesy in the process. The journey had been less a circle and more a four year old’s scribbled attempt to a draw a square. A well intentioned attempt to write something balanced that became inevitably lop-sided due to my naïve and excited personality. 

Strolling into the nave late we were met by fewer stares than the average service. Our rudeness was a taboo that the Anglican Church had learned to tolerate during the Christmas period. The casual Christmas Christian was a scenario I should find comfortable but after the last year of pretending to be a devoted regular Christian it felt odd. I did not want to be tolerated but converted or at least be in the position to politely decline the congregation’s spiritual advances. Ironically, a more personal understanding of the church is lost at Christmas. The ritualised formality reaches a climactic saturation point on Christmas day. So much so that despite arriving late into the sermon it was unbelievably predictable and could be recalled in most priests’ sleep. One of Christianity’s biggest legacies to the atheist world is instilling a sense of duty at Christmas. For example my non believer Dad had driven to London to take his son home because no family should be apart at Christmas. Christmas may no longer be shared in church but a ritualised sense of duty and bonding is essential to the celebration.
The biggest disappointment for me and my Dad was the rush of the ritual union especially when surrounded by such a distractingly eccentric church. Instead of the garish Christmas costumes found on the high street buildings, St Mark’s architectural garments were permanent lavish fixtures. The building felt dressed not built which befitted the church’s history. Built by Dove Bros of Islington to the designs of Chester Cheston in 1870, the imposing tower with gargoyles was added seven years later.  The church’s first Vicar, Joseph Pilkington, described St Marks as brutally ugly and in his 25 years he added most of the interior adornments: the font, lectern, organ, intricate oak screen and mosaics, pulpit, tower, eight bells, barometer and a chiming clock, as well as stained glass windows. Of all the architectural embellishments my favourites were the gloriously decorated organ, the angel windows in the church roof and behind the altar the mosaic, with approximately 27,000 pieces depicting the last supper. Entering the nave we were ambushed by these permanent decorations, almost intoxicated by all-encompassing tributes to Christ. During the sharing of the peace I deliberately shook every congregational members hand with the ulterior motive of basking in the church’s design as I circled the entire nave. The church was the perfect tinsel to the occasion but at the top of the tree was my Dad.  

Dad had been my unintentional motivator. The turbulent relationship he had with the church and his Reverend father had inspired me to dedicate myself to religious exploration. Church was not a part of my childhood and I can never remember my parents endorsing the positives of religion. My parents, far too liberal to prescribe to any dogma, especially any one linked to spirituality did not tolerate my religious exploits but accepted them and supported them despite lacking any religious belief themselves. Religion had become my rock and roll, a conservative opposition to my post rebellion generation. Yet my Mum and Dad’s hippy/punk parenting already had indoctrinated me with questioning all authority but accepting all individuals. Rebellion was pointless but revisiting my family’s cultural past (particularly that of my Granddad) created a connection formed through ritual. Anyone who has read any of my posts will know that I am a non-believer but hopefully will respect my commitment born out of a sense of ritual and duty in replicating a church going existence.

Ritual and duty can be daunting as much as it can be rewarding. From the strained faces of Christmas shoppers on Oxford Circus or the poorly hidden grimaces of a family dinner table on Christmas Day to the joy on the faces of giver and receiver by the Christmas tree and the laughter of a moment shared between loved ones. As the priest led some off key carol singing and missed a few lines, these lost lyrics were an acceptable sacrifice in a group ritual. The carol was no less sacred for being sung incorrectly as it’s made important by the number reciting it. Building a ritual and a duty is essential to forming any community and despite my lack of belief I will truly miss the structure that church has given to my life, a structure born out of a desire to understand why people believe something I cannot. As my dutiful Dad drove me down the M11 and I ritualistically wound him up, the similarities of family and church became apparent. To a Christian, Church is family, your commitment to God is unquestioning and helps form a loving bond with the congregation. Family bonds can only be maintained through a sense of ritual and duty. I can only understand the unconditional love a Christian feels to God as the one I feel to my family.


I did not want to short change St Marks by using this post as my final concluding entry. So next week after my first Sunday not going to church in a year I will nurse a new year’s hangover and set out to write my final letter to God. Return to Sender.

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