FORTIFIED BY mulled wine and mince pies from a conventional carol service in central London, I took a one-hour bus journey into the East End, destination the Round Chapel in Hackney.
The Round Chapel is indeed large, splendid and round but it isn't a church anymore. In a microcosm of what has happened to the Church as a whole in England, the spectacular Victorian building is now a centre for the secular performing arts, and the remnant of the faithful meet in the schoolrooms at the back.
Clapton Park United Reformed Church is small but it is still a fire, committed to warming its very multicultural community. Hackney has long been a place where immigrants to Britain make their home, and currently over 100 languages are spoken in the area. The local government of Hackney is notoriously inefficient, and much depends on voluntary organisations glueing the social fabric together.
So the Christians of Clapton Park are highly active in a variety of schemes that bring people together and support them through the poverty, unemployment, bad housing and poor schooling endemic in the locality.
HOST IS THE evening congregation of the church, meeting every Sunday for a half-hour service on a rotating theme: Word (discussion), Sanctuary (ambient, healing), Local/Global (issues), Communion (meal), and the fifth Sunday could be anything or nothing. Numbers attending are 10-25, and there is no separate leadership the congregation is the team!
The services are brief and low-key to ensure that the worship serves the congregation rather than the other way around. Host do not wish to become purveyors of spectacular events. They see worship as support and sustenance for authentic Christian living.
However, on occasions such as Christmas, they push the boat out a little. Tonight they had set up a tent of hanging muslin in the upper schoolroom, with images projected from all sides, and were welcoming churchgoers with mulled wine and mince pies in the adjacent meeting room. When all was ready we were ushered into the tent for a period of ambient stillness, to get people into the frame of mind.
THE CONGREGATION was large for Host around 35 and that seemed the average age too, between the children and the greyhairs. We were invited to stand for the Gospel, and three people stepped forward. Two began to gesture and mouth silently sign language and lip-reading! Only when we had time to realise this did the third person begin reading the famous words of John chapter 1, "In the beginning was the Word..."
Thus beginning with the Word, we moved on to consider and sing about creation, which is by this Word. And then, via a Jürgen Moltmann quote "If we are to live, and our children are to live, we must consciously desire life" we heard personal stories illustrating desire, or lack of desire, for life: a coma victim clinging on, the death of a grandparent, a sister's suicide.
Crosses torn from tissue paper were handed out, and we listened to the voice of Terry Waite telling how he celebrated Christmas Day Communion, in the dark cellar of his five-year captivity as a hostage in Beirut. His bread was a piece saved from a sandwich; his wine a cup of water; his cross torn out of paper.
We were then offered three small rituals, as options for our response. In one corner was bread and water, with a communion prayer; in another was a bowl of water and a towel, for renewal of baptismal vows; and we could kneel for laying on of hands in healing prayer.
After a quarter of an hour we reconvened for songs. A nativity scene was set up, coloured lights came on, and pictures of Jesus were hung from the tent top. The music and singing became loud and upbeat, and the mince pies and wine were brought in and handed round. This marked the end of the service, but no one was in a hurry to leave.
TO ITS MEMBERS, Host doesn't feel "alternative", it feels normal. People move between the more conventional morning service and the Host evening services naturally. They are not separate worlds and congregations as so often happens, just different ways of doing things. The fact that so many "alternative worship" people now have children obliges a move into the morning service, and the new challenge is how lessons learned in warm clubby darkness can be applied to broad unenchanting daylight, without losing power or seeming like a takeover bid to more traditional worshippers.
The challenge is less likely to cause problems at Clapton Park than anywhere else, since the minister for the church as a whole is an alternative worship man. Doug Gay was a leading light of Glasgow's Late Late Service before his ordination and the move to Hackney. As a writer of worship songs (often with Andy Thornton) he is one of the most literate and fluent currently working in the genre. Lucky Clapton Park.
One he didn't write was Frankie Goes To Hollywood's "The Power of Love", which played as the congregation were leaving. It was wonderful to hear it in church at long last. There wasn't "alternative worship" back in 1984, so we had no way of sneaking it in, for all its impeccably Christian lyrics.
"The power of love, a force from above, cleaning my soul..." the majesty of it kept me warm on the long ride home. Make love your goal.
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