I went along to St. Luke’s Holloway expecting a vibrant family congregation with creative worship in the post-evangelical tradition – these were my categories and whether or not they are recognised by the church themselves is a different matter! It was easy to enter, get settled, meet someone to sit with and find a loo before the start of the service – all relatively minor aspects of worship but essential for a visitor to get into the right frame of mind to encounter God! It was a beautifully presented 1860 building with cruciform shape, parts of which were rebuilt after bombing in WWII.
It was a communion service and we sat in chairs around a hexagonal communion table, clothed with a middle eastern rug and candles, situated in the middle of the nave where pews had been removed several years before. As a theologically educated Anglican it was easy to read the symbolic meaning of this rearrangement and the carefully formulated communion prayer reinforced an everyday sacramental theology. There is no need for special times or places because God is met in the margins and the commonplace moments of human lives.
Another clever interaction with reinterpreting the tradition was in the use of contemporary art around the space and it was unsurprising to discover they have an artist in residence program. There were several portraits of congregational members placed on easels in the same position that Orthodox churches place icons, across the front of the chancel. Where the alter originally sat is a beautiful brass and silver cross, standing just shy of 1 metre tall on the floor before a tripictic with contemporary depictions of traditional alter scenes. The work is very good and very engaging. On the ceiling above the chancel is more contemporary art. The ceiling is covered with leaves ‘that are the healing for the nations’ from Revelation 21. On each of the leaves are names of contemporary saints – not as deemed by the Roman Church, but as nominated by the congregation – names of people who inspire them in their walk with Jesus.
The arrangement of the fixtures seemed strange and disruptive to my new friend, also a first time visitor, who happened to have a PhD in English church architecture! It was difficult to hear at points in the service and my friend’s comment at the end was ‘why did they feel a need to struggle against the building?’ Interesting question indeed! I explained to her the theology which provoked the rearrangements and we had an interesting discussion about living with inherited buildings. It seems to me that our relationship with the buildings in which we worship are like that of teenage children struggling to grow up and assert our uniqueness over and against our parents. With old buildings the disjuncture between the mission and ministry context for which it was designed and the contemporary one can be large and the struggle difficult. The aim being to find the right balance of inherited traits and unique personality and different personalities choose different paths to assert their independence. The building at St. Luke’s represents an inherited Church of England tradition, the community that meet there are working hard to make a home there that is genuine to their own experience of being a church in this part of England. However, the setting and the service were both characterised by reactionism – one that I related to pretty well which meant it worked for me and clearly for the regular congregation who meet in this space! Not for everyone though. What a dilemma this is when we are celebrating the universal gift of God in Jesus.
There is much more interesting things about this community at St Luke’s than I’ve written here and it is well worth checking out their website, which gives even more of an idea of how they mediate being a contemporary community in an ancient building. Really great.