For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Saturday, 8 June 2013

St Barnabas, Dalston

If you go to this photo-documentary site and enter the search term St Barnabas' Church Dalston, you will see the interior of the church I had the pleasure of being shown round today. I was meeting with a group of friends for a philosophy discussion; one of them was good enough to invite us to use his church hall. He belongs to a fledgling Anglican group, who when they were looking around for a place to meet in Dalston, had this neo-Byzantine late Victorian gem offered to them by the diocese. Apparently it was a bit like Miss Havisham's house: the congregation had dwindled away and it hadn't been used since the 1970s. There were dusty choir robes in the vestry, half burnt candles on the altar, and even the vicar's coat and hat in the cupboard. He had died on the job.

It is so hidden away in a little courtyard behind the Merchant Tailors' charitable mission (now their church hall) that the locals hardly even knew there was this sizeable, solid and lovely building around the corner. The mission for boys and young men in the Hackney slums preceded the church, and the church was built for them in the late Victorian era; so many of them died in World War I that the church limped along with scarcely a quorum until it was closed in the 1970s. The photographs do not do the height and space of the place justice, which is a very much of an era: a very good example of an Anglo-Catholic inner city parish, formed and fired by mission. There are moth-eaten altar cloths in the vestry - a particularly beautiful one for Lent; there are lovely sanctuary lamps; there is a low side chapel for the Blessed Sacrament; and of course that chunky chancel screen and rood, in the almost garish electric blue that somehow manages to give a discreet impression when one is standing in the building.

I am not sure if, or how it will ever happen - for there is no foreseeable chance of the Ordinariate receiving this kind of place on loan from an Anglican diocese - but one feels very much that such a place would be their natural home. The folks I was with today - and may God bless their endeavour - have their ritual space in the nave, where their communion table is, and the high altar and original ritual significance of the place is a bit lost. The building has been thoroughly spruced up, but it is still sitting in the metaphorical dust, from that point of view. The Ordinariate rite, a proper east-facing rite with Coverdale's sixteenth century translation of the Canon and the hymns of Keble, would be perfectly at home in such a building. It is rather difficult, one feels, for the Ordinariate to live out its charism whilst sharing a ritual space in a busy parish, where (quite rightly) they cannot simply take over the best times for their worship and re-decorate the place in their own style.

But more than the ritual significance, there is also the urgent task of the Ordinariate: to bring to life the kind of evangelical zeal that built this kind of Anglo-Catholic parish, and to unite a sacramental and unhurried worship with the service of the poor. One can hope, and pray.

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