Friday, 6 January 2012

Goodbye God

Dear God
It’s been over a year since I wrote to you but as you know that’s because I don’t believe you exist. However I do firmly believe in the conviction of your followers and would like to thank all the Christians in the East End for being so welcoming to my agnostic quest.  The people who own your house are a very mixed bunch. After a year of Sundays I have met a far more diverse cross section of society than the entire nine years I have lived in London. So I have decided to end my blog with a letter to you so I could compare the initial intentions of my original letter to this week’s final conclusions. I guess you know it all but I will write it all down anyway so the reader gets an impression of my non-religious pilgrimage. 
The Failures
The clear failure is that I still don’t believe in you and I have wasted an entire year going to church to find faith. In all honesty that was never the entire reason for embarking on my non spiritual journey. My hidden voyeuristic motivations were church architecture, London communities and multiculturalism. But that it has still been disappointing to see how much joy you give the people who do believe in you knowing it is beyond me.
Besides missing a service in August (due to the church being closed) I have adhered to all the commandments I set myself last January. Arguably my “Third Commandment: One will always be honest about his or her reasons for attending the church service,” was considerably hard to implement. Often church members would take my silence as confirmation of belief. In conversation I would later inform them of my odd agenda and they would always smile. So many smiles all meaning different things, some not listening, some indifferent and some genuinely interested. Even I’m not arrogant enough to set about correcting everyone in the congregation that I was a non-believer but I am sure it would have made for funnier services. 
Originally I was interested in engaging and responding to academic and atheist critics like Richard Dawkins, John Grey and Steven Pinker who have been critical of religion. Despite liking their literature it really lacks any understanding of people who go to church and more focuses on the dogma. Academia seems entirely interested in the general dogma of religion not realising religion adapts to individuals who form it (more on this later). I did wish to bridge the gap between the individual within the congregation and the rest of the church but sadly my egocentric writing style, my church hopping structure and my lack of time and dedication left me to fall short of creating an accurate, thorough and definitive picture of a modern church going community. Instead my writing did at times feel reductive, cheap, clichéd and recycled but I contest I have always remained honest despite my repetitive limitations.
My writing has improved vastly, in that I’m consistently still writing other material all formed from the commitment I gave my blog. I even flirted with the idea of writing a play based on my experiences from my blog and erase the elements I dislike most from my blog (i.e. me). The blog provided the opportunity not just to meet church communities from all over the East End but to learn the history of the area. My favourite story was the Clapton Messiah (see post-dated 18/05/11) but I have become generally impressed by how often the buildings outlived their original congregation (see again post-dated 18/05/11). Sadly even the old Lutheran church occupied by Pentecostal pensioners I visited in January (see post-dated 16/01/11) is now vacant. Witnessing and understanding the changing faces of the church community has made me appreciate how history is in a constant flux and how quickly the past is forgotten (especially in London) which has added personal value to my blog. My love for church architecture existed long before the blog and has continued to grow throughout the year but has become slightly eclipsed by my new fascination with the varying processes of religious worship. The East End churches contain so many different ways to worship God that it outwardly demonstrates religious differences through the performance of ritual instead of sectarian rhetoric.  Christians are often portrayed as hugely self-righteous and dogmatic in the media (and these people do exist) but actually the majority I met were very peaceful and introverted, especially in regards to worship. Using the term Christian is too general. The biggest gift the blog has given me has been the opportunity to learn about the many different cultures and diverse people who call themselves Christians.
A Church for Every Sunday in the Year
So as I tally all the churches, my church appearance table reads like this…
17 Anglican Services
8 Pentecostal/Charismatic Services
6 Roman Catholic services
6 Evangelical services
4 Baptist Services
3 Methodist Services
2 Orthodox (Greek + Georgian) Services
2 United Reformed Church
1 Salvation Army
1 Jehovah Witnesses
1 Unitarian Church
1 Quaker Meeting
The table can be misleading as it inaccurately links the very different churches together because they share the same denomination. For example you can read my two conflicting posts on The United Reformed Church and see little similarities. One post concerns the small, white and contemplative congregation of the Round Chapel (posted 25/08/11) on Lower Clapton Road and the other a predominantly black and evangelical congregation (posted on 20/03/11) on Upper Clapton Road (both just a short walking distance from each other) they are culturally different worlds yet members of the same church and live very near each other. Most evangelical services can be mistaken for Pentecostal services as they are only separated by names and titles. Evangelists appear to be richer and more established than the more recent Pentecostal churches but the institutions differences in worship appear more cultural than religious. Also the Open Door Baptist church in Hackney (Posted 26/06/11) shared West African traditions of worship more commonly found in the Pentecostal church than in comparison to their Baptist neighbours in Victoria Park, Shoreditch and Stoke Newington. Not that any of the Pentecostal churches want to build bridges with each other, instead they appeared more interested in claiming that they worship the one true God. Many churches call themselves Pentecostal, Charismatic and Apostolic but few want to build a networked identity instead they prefer to remain small.  Cultural divisions within the denominations really indicated how it’s the communities that form the church and not churches forming the communities. Religion in post-colonial Britain has not become a relic of the old empire era but seems to have been transformed as a vessel of empowerment for the dispersed Christian communities.
The Future
I am not claiming that churches are no longer used as oppressive institutions but the new influx of non-Anglican and Catholic churches seem to be community led rather than imperialistically driven. Anglican and Roman Catholic Church feel very separate as far larger institutions but are very different: The Anglican Church is one of the most liberal of the larger religious institutions in the world and has a huge cross section of high, low, anything goes forms of worship in comparison to the universal ritualised dogma of the Roman Catholic Churches. Yet even the Roman Catholic Church have been adapting to the changing communities in London with many services in Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin to fit the influx of migrant worshippers. The central division in Christianity appears to be no longer a Catholic and Anglican divide but a small opposition of churches who citicise the Pentecostal/evangelical churches advocacy of the prosperity gospel.
The majority of the Pentecostal and Evangelical groups support the prosperity gospel in which financial blessing is the will of God, rewarding the rich and punishes the poor. It’s scary that it’s the poorest congregations (the majority which are West African and West Indian families) that follow this recent American interpretation of the Bible. I personally don’t have a big issue with Original Sin as a theological belief (often criticised by more liberal churches) but the prosperity gospel is far more damaging as it merges the material and theological world. The only time I have heard other churches speak against each other is concerning the prosperity gospel. Anglican, Baptist and Methodist ministers warned of the prosperity gospel telling their congregation not to look for reward from their faith. Personally I feel the prosperity gospel is a capitalist ideologue masquerading as religious belief and another example of how the changes in secular society have been mirrored in religion. Individualism has come to replace so many community based politics in our secular society that even churches have become more consumer/congregationally led in recent years.
So Christianity is abandoning dogma for individualism and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Quakers, Unitarians, the congregation of the Round Chapel and some Anglican/Baptist services all appeal to members to form a more personal relationship with God.  Moral dogma is in the decline in the white middleclass areas of the church but so are attendances. Despite my misgivings towards Pentecostal/Evangelical church’s prescription to the prosperity gospel, their worship is less formal and more joyous in the use of hymn and prayer. I never understood the concept of raising the spirit till I visited a Pentecostal Service and found myself dancing in the aisles attempting to bash a tambourine with a bunch of Jamaican grannies.  The year’s highlight was discovering how Pentecostal communities raise the spirit by creating an amazing atmosphere thorough prayer and song unrivalled in the more established churches. Other churches may feel intellectually superior but if they want larger crowds they need to tap into the importance of communal euphoria that makes the Pentecostal Church the fast growing in the world.  
Religion’s adoption of more individualistic aspects of society is just another indication that Christianity survives not because it upholds traditions (as everyone claims) but because it adapts (rightly or wrongly) to the times. Don’t worry God you’re not going anywhere, as you well know more people believe in you than not and maybe we atheists/agnostics should look to why this is and the positives you bring into their lives.
People go to church to reaffirm their identity with you and I have done the same. After weekly opposing the spiritual advances of your followers I can confirm I am forever a whimsical agnostic with passion for religious worship. The passion to embrace the unknown qualities of religious worship. Embrace the unknown pleasure within the silences of a Quaker meeting. Embrace the unknown communal joy of dancing with a bunch of strangers in a Pentecostal service.   Embrace the unknown joy to give oneself entirely to a being that they cannot prove exists. 
This blog would not have been possible without the kindness of strangers. Here is a list of some of the amazingly warm people I have met.
The many translators of Ministere De La Parole De Foi Hackney, the all loving Andrew Pakula and the tribe of Unitarians of Stoke Newington, Johnathan, the quiet man amongst even quieter Quakers, the grand Irish croaking voice of Pastor Mackay, the evangelicals of Lauriston Church who tried to cure my cough, the history of the elder Baptist statesman John Taylor and his loving wife, the chalk and cheese Spitalfield’s double act of reassuring Reverend Andy Rider and his feverish curate Johnny Douglas, the large love of Reverend Justus, the peculiar story of Abraham, the heart-warming life of Old mockney Maureen (sounding more cockney than most), the congregation’s circle of love that filled the Round chapel, the enthusiastic (never blinking) eyes of Reverend Georgina of the Shoreditch Baptists, the liberal candour and intelligence of Reverend Dr Fiona Stewart Darling, the reluctant approval of Vanessa, the grand high Pentecostal mother of Hampden Chapel, the impassioned charm of Father Sakutombo, everyone at the Bethel Revival Ministry but particularly the stewardship of  parishioners James and Derrick, the iron will of Pastor Patrick Yeboah, the peaceful and calming tone of Janet Buchan’s sermon, Pastor Brian Robinson, the whitest man in Hackney  with blackest congregation, Father Midlane and his brilliantly befuddled manner,  the Bible guidance of Reverend Sylvester and the blissful isolation of the mad woman of St Barnabas, the open arms of the open door Baptist church during song, the regal majesty of Sister Woolcock, the incredibly helpful Reverend Richard Bray, the immaculate Heart of Father Tony and the old dears of The Sight Eternal Life Church,   the all singing all jumping all dancing congregation of Hackney Apostolic Church, well-travelled storytelling of Minister Adi, congregation of Michael Caine like Grannies of St Chads, the incredible histories of John and Evelyn of the Sally Army on Lower Clapton Road, Reverend Clark and his brilliantly theological sermon, my surrogate Methodist mothers of Dalston, Little Antoine for cheering up a boring Catholic service, all the clowns of United Benefice  Holy Trinity ,the great grand old women of Greek Orthodox church, Sister Blessing and her amazing kindnsess, Minister Sonny for still sending me his mini sermons as part of his Textministy for entire year and finally the relocated Pentecostal pensioners of the old Lutheran church who told me to please  come again for “some pure spiritual worship no strings attached.”
The only thanks left is to anybody who is reading this and to you God. Thanks for existing in so many others people’s lives without you none of this would be possible.

Amen to that.



(Prophet of Doom)

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.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Ministere De La Parole De Foi Hackney (translates as Word of Faith Ministry) on Sandringham Road , 18.12.12

The more God’s will is translated for me the more confused I get. On my penultimate Sunday I deliberately chose a non-English speaking service so I could escape the moral contemplation of theology and indulge in the physical pleasures of worship i.e. singing, dancing and waving your arms around. One of my largest discoveries over the year has been to learn to appreciate the importance of singing, dancing and waving your arms around with a congregation of strangers. Dancing, singing and waving your arms around has become a cathartic ritual response to the blinkered moral musings of a number of sermons. However theology, morality and scripture are far more difficult to translate than the singing, dancing and waving your arms around. So when entering the Ministere De La Parole De Foi Hackney (translates as Word of Faith Ministry) on Sandringham Road I was looking forward to getting my gospel groove on and ignoring the daily dogma. In the past at the Greek and Georgian Orthodox churches I had the opportunity (due to the language barrier) of appreciating pure ritual over religious rationalizing. My hope was that the Ministere De La Parole De Foi would provide the opportunity to get lost in the music but I had forgotten that the Ministere De La Parole De Foi was a Western church and unlike Eastern Orthodox churches (who believe in the sanctity of the Holy Scripture) it was essential I understand the Lord’s Word whatever the language. 
Like most churches with lavish names in East London, Ministere De La Parole De Foi Hackney has humble surroundings. Positioned just off the Kingsland Road High Street its heavily decorated open front window stands out from the surrounding Christmas displays of Argos, Tesco and Boots. The church’s dramatic and colourful emblem is too extreme for any shop sign, peering out down the road it’s a symbol that demands attention from all, not just local shoppers.  Arriving late to a packed room, the congregation stared at this lone white faced intruder and slowly made space as they realised that I had not mistaken the ministry for the pound shops further down the road but was here to join the worship. The congregation, predominantly from Cote D’Ivore and The Congo, went across various generations and classes as illustrated by their fashion. Some dressed in African traditional clothing, others wore more expensive smart suits and long regal dresses,  while the younger generation where noticeably more casual in their attire wearing the latest designer labels. At first I could feel their eyes on me and a mixture of French and English whispers at my arrival before one of the many large mothers of the congregation came to question me. Warm and friendly she quickly adopted me and grew concerned that I needed a translator. I declined out of politeness but she reassured me she would find one. Appreciative of her charity I was yet to realise that one altruistic act was going to affect the entire service. After a quick hymn I sat unaware that my translator had taken to the stage and would devotedly attempt to articulate the minister’s rhetoric in the most dead pan pigeon English voice.
 Unintentionally my visit had prolonged the service running time all in an attempt to save me, ironically the only person that didn’t want saving. The trick of Christianity is that you can’t be cruel to people who are so kind. No matter how much I protested to the translation I would have been perceived as an ungrateful guest in need of saving. So I stayed, sat speechless and smiling in appreciation of the service and attempted to decipher the nuances of my translator’s audio commentary.
Most of the translation was unnecessary, even with my D in GCSE French could tell that “gloreux” was glorious and “benis” was bless. The congregation also seemed more interested in singing, dancing and waving their arms around with a live drummer, keyboardist, bassist and three female singers often undermining the clergy. Even the guest minister opened his sermon in song and throughout the majority of the service most of the testifying was accompanied by a gentle humming bass and slow melodic piano playing. The fusion of music and preaching coupled with my own audio commentary caused a confusing cacophony that was intoxicating but shallow. The commentary was a constant reminder that I did not fully understand the Lord’s Word and missed a morality hidden between the French and English words. My separation was not simply spiritual but essentially social. The minister would have his devotees in rapturous laughter but my translator looked lost to explain the comedic elements of The Book of Romans in French. Culturally the gulf between me and the congregation had never felt so big ironically due to the attempt to bridge an understanding between us both. I was apprehensive to draw conclusions from the unfinished sentences spoken within the sermon yet I realised projecting a personal interpretation onto open ended dogma is an essential element of religion.
From my hazy impression I took away some worryingly so called “moral truths.” The minister claimed that “It’s a sin to do nothing,” like “not have a job,” “be single “and “not supporting ones family.”  I was unaware that these mini sins were in the Bible regardless of what language it may have been written in. However I did not feel I could trust myself, let alone the church’s moral agenda as it all seemed lost in translation. Religion can be dangerous as the scriptures can lend themselves to egocentric interpretation, be it my own or the minister, or translator, or that edition of the Bible. Writing about being confused is very difficult as you attempt to articulate the unarticulable (which is not even a real word) but through the ritual of my blog I have been forced to retrospectively form opinions in an attempt to discover my own gospel.  The result is never the truth but a translation that inevitably loses the nuances, complexities and reasons behind a church’s belief. My accounts are just another layer of confusion to add to the mountain of personal delusions that masquerade as theological musings but at least you know not to trust the translator. Personally I am looking forward to not thinking so much and I will finally get a chance to cut loose to sing, dance and wave my arms.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Newington Green Unitarian Church, Newington Green, 10.12.11

File:Unitarian chapel newington green.jpg

In 1967 The Beatles broadcast a performance of "All you need is love," into 26 countries watched by 400 million viewers, creating a global profile for the hippy movement of late 1960s. Long before Beatles, hippies and bad fashion it was the Christian radicals of the 1700s that pioneered such humanist values and in particular the non-conformists of Hackney.

The non-conformist movement of the 1700s was Britain’s original Christian counter culture. They believed that liberty, freedom and equality were essential values of the Bible that had been lost under the oppressive dogma of the Catholic and the Anglican churches of the time.

Visiting the Newington Unitarian Church built back in 1704 I stepped on to the grounds that were not just the longest practising non-conformist church in London but also one of the most historically important churches outside the Protestant/Catholic hegemony. In these walls the role of Christianity drastically changed from being an oppressor to a liberator and even now the current Unitarian service has developed away from the religious dogma of so many churches into a diverse community with a shared sense of spiritualism. The service did not mention God, Jesus, and The Holy Spirit but did allude to the concept of a shared higher consciousness. The congregation were not asked to simply pray to God, but were given the choice to pray, meditate or reflect on ones thoughts. We had no Bible readings or scripture heavy hymns instead non-religious fables and speculative stories were used in the sermon and the music was a collection of organ reworkings of pop classics and gospel songs focusing on the need to change society through love. How had this church become so politically correct? Was it so politically correct it was blasphemous? And had I found the first church that would accept me as a voyeuristic agnostic and not see me as a potential convert? All these questions raced through my head and led me back to the history books.

The Newington Unitarian Church only stands out because of its age, lacking the gothic architectural glamour so common in the Anglican churches of 17 hundreds. An almost square building, its modest front entrance was decorated with understated Tuscan pillars, a small pediment and low key arched windows. Inside the tiny church is a collection of wooden pews, boxes and a gallery that makes the space feel not cluttered but close; The miniature size unavoidably but pleasantly smothering you with its presence. Sitting in the boxes I found it impossible not to contemplate the legacy of the church’s past congregation.

File:Richard Price.jpgThe Newington Unitarian Church history of radicalism began in the 1700s when Newington Green was an agricultural village outside the city of London. After The Restoration of Charles II many non-Anglican church groups faced persecution. Non-conformists found refuge around Newington Green in which alternative theological and political ideas could freely circulate. Alternative education establishments were formed by Non-conformists named Dissenters Academies, creating the only alternative non-Anglican higher education. Most notably the Newington Green Academy is praised for its intellectual aristocracy and for propagating new ideas from The Enlightenment. By the late 1700s Newington Unitarian Church became the haven for political and social reform under the leadership of preacher Dr Richard Price (looking very stern in the far right). Price was a republican,
libertarian and supporter of the French and American Revolutions. Enormously influential, Price gave counsel to the founding fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Pain and was a mentor to Mary Wollstonecraft (a key founder of feminism). Price died before Newington Unitarian Church could practice non-Trinitarian worship publically (After the government Act of 1813) but many history books have vaguely described his beliefs as "Unitarian,” due him criticising the claim that Jesus had eternal existence. After Price’s era the church continued to propagate liberalism within society, many of the congregation were abolitionists, supporters of the suffragette movement and campaigned against the legal persecution of Jews in the1800s. I have become particularly interested in how the Unitarian Church, from its radical roots, has continued to adapt The Bible so it challenges the inequality within society instead advocating the status quo.

In recent years the church has continued to challenge institutionalised inequalities in our society by supporting gay marriage. In March 2008, Newington Green Unitarian Church became the first religious establishment in Britain to stop any weddings at all until all couples have equal marriage rights. The current incumbent minister Andrew Pakula stated that the same-sex couple "are being treated like second-class citizens when they are forbidden to celebrate their unions in a way that heterosexual couples take for granted." Andrew Pakula is sweetly small, warm and charismatic New York Jewish man who has been Minister of Newington Green since 2011, Pakula, like Price, shares a belief in equality but I wonder would Price recognize the origins of Pakula’s liberalism as his own? Unitarian faith more than any other strand of Christianity seems to have helped develop society for the better and in doing has developed itself away from the Holy scripture and towards promoting a shared social consciousness. In the development of the Unitarian faith God has not been lost but he now shares the throne of omnipotence with Buddha, Shiva, Allah and many more.

So what is Unitarianism in the modern world? The You Tube videos below give you a general impression.

A key facet I personally took from Unitarianism is the rejection of the concept of original sin and the conscious decision to not ask the congregation to believe in something they know not to be true and respect their individuality. So this Sunday was a service without communion, sharing the peace, liturgy and Bible readings and instead new rituals replaced them from the reading of a poem, lighting of a candle, shared prayer/mediation/contemplation, a sermon on the importance of hope and individuals sharing the highs and lows of the week. The general atmosphere was like a group therapy session except nobody had experienced a real trauma (to my knowledge) but that did not stop people from "sharing," and nor should it. It was refreshing that a service was dependent on the congregation’s participation and lucky that they were an affable bunch. Personal stories ranged from the touching to the slightly mundane but at least everyone felt they had something to say and more importantly people wanted to listen. Oddly this inclusive environment did leave me in limbo as I did not feel I had anything to "share."

The lack of scripture and context led to words being debated instead of parables. We were asked to contemplate the meaning of "hope," and I imagine other services may debate the importance of "tolerance," "freedom," "equality." The problem with the lack of context means the debates become hugely personalised which is good but does lead to the parishioner being unchallenged in their views. The congregation were asked to write down a subject on a postit which they had lost hope in and then decorate the nave with their reflections.  I and the incredibly warmed hearted elderly woman sitting next to me both felt we had never lost hope in anything on principle but after longer consideration I could use the exercise to cathartically express my feelings. I wrote "I hope I don’t feel guilty." I found it strange that in a church environment that did not believe in original sin and advocated the acceptance of all I would feel so guilty but I did. I felt I was not participating to the extent I should and no longer had the excuse of being unbeliever.

The reason for myself loathing is that I don’t go to church for myself, I go because I am interested in people and enjoy meeting people who hold a different theological perspective, these people fascinate me and asking to look to myself I was caught off guard. My views on spiritualism had been defined in opposition to the people I had met over the last year but when asked to form a belief without countering my experience I was lost.

The Newington Unitarian Church was built in opposition to corrupt religious institutions and continues to advocate equality but when you do feel free and have nothing to oppose, what are you left with? I have never viewed life as a struggling trial that leads to heaven and have been critical of religions that advocate this perspective but faced with spiritual freedom I can see the comfort. I would like to think "All We Need is Love," but love means many things to many people and the cost of love can be great. The highest praise I can place on The Newington Unitarian Church is that in the more modern and liberal era it continues to ask questions than provide answers and for a church that’s hugely refreshing.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Quaker Meeting, St Mary's Community Centre, Daniel Defoe Road, 4.12.11

my names Joel (hand out)
this is my first time
at a Quaker meeting
No, its jus
Ohh sorry!
It’s very hard to transmit absence
Personally I blame Gareth, not because I blame him for most things but because he was my Quaker chaperone. Gareth is a great friend and has Quaker ancestry. In recent ventures to Quaker meetings he has continued a family ritual that stretches several generations, symbolically and spiritually bonding with his ancestors. To my knowledge this was my family’s first Quaker service and my ignorant entrance was hopefully forgiven in keeping with the Christian spirit. Despite my presumed forgiveness my noisy introduction did haunt my one hour silent service. In particular Jonathan, the Quaker elder’s mystic explanation “It’s very hard to transmit absence” kept echoing in my mind. To people as ignorant as me let me explain the structure of a Quaker service.
Quakerism is a Christian movement which stresses the religious doctrine of priesthood for all believers.  My non theist translation is that they believe we all have a personal relationship with God and have the ability to preach the Good Lord’s Word. In comparison to the other churches they deconstruct the classic hierarchal Church system for a more democratic forum called Quaker Meetings. Quakerism dates back to late 1700s and was established by the Religious Society of Friends in England but quickly spread across the rest of the world, most famously in North America, East Africa and India. Naturally the international spread of Quakerism led to fragmented forms of worship and practices. However, often worship can be split into two distinct practices, the programmed and the unprogrammed. The majority of Quakers (predominantly outside the UK) practice programmed worship. Programmed worship consists of prearranged hymns, Bible readings, guest sermons and planned silences. The minority of Quakers (predominantly from the UK) practice unprogrammed worship. Unprogrammed worship is based in silence. The silence begins when first the person sits in the meeting and ends when one person from the group (more often an elder) shakes the hand of the person to their side leading to everyone finishing the meeting with a handshake. Such a fine and proper way to bookend the worship, you can tell the movement started in England. In silence one is supposed to communally connect with God and free their mind of all other distractions. However the group mysticism is intended to be practiced within the everyday. Quakers are most famous for their pacifism, opposition to alcohol and political activism. In comparison to other Christian groups who deliberately avoid politics unless politics infringes upon their faith it is vital for a Quaker to understand God in a modern world and not just wait for the afterlife. However the Stoke Newington Quakers of St Mary’s community centre on Daniel Defoe road camouflaged their evangelism within the silence making for my most quintessentially English service so far.

From my opening brief and awkward conversation to the long shared silence that followed, a particular type of Englishness hung in the air. A type of Englishness that belongs to the middle classes, comedy sketches, afternoon tea, the south, BBC period dramas and Gardener’s World . The only other words spoken before the meeting descended into communal quiet was when Jonathan politely hushed a fellow friend (all Quaker’s refer to each other as friend) who was making tea in the nearby kitchen warning in a stage whisper “meeting comes before tea.” The mannered telling off in the calmest voice was so brilliantly formal it could only be spoken by an Englishman.
As the group gradually entered the silence I began to see the unspoken acceptance of each other within the confines of a formal setting as a national treasure. Unlike other loud and theatrical evangelical groups or the more established dogma of Catholic and Anglican churches Quakers seemed to realise that the best way for everyone to get along was to abandon the majority of ceremony and obey a few simple rules so the individual can form a personal understanding of God within the silence. Everybody was so polite and respectful of each other’s silences that no one told the woman who continued to drift in and out of consciousness to actually wake up. Some unwritten rule seemed to be unspoken within the group which allowed the woman to snore her way through the majority of the hour undisturbed. It would just not have been the done thing to wake her and who could say she was not having a spiritual moment within her slumber. After the meeting and several cups of tea and biscuits with my new best friends I felt entirely at home. The group were your typical liberal middle class Guardian reading, Radio 4 listening, east Londoners who preferred thoughtful contemplation to impassioned prayer. At the beginning of my journey this group would have filled me with self-loathing but now with only three Sundays left of the year I felt a sense of comfort in the familiarity. No longer isolated from my non theist perspective, the Quaker meeting provided me with the opportunity to digest my relationship with God in silence, I only wish I remembered what I’d thought.
Before I could communally share the voice of God or the light (common Quaker explanation for spirit) I had to shed my surroundings. I had to not only let go of the physical world of St Mary’s small and drafty hall but also mentally clear out my thoughts to find an inner period of calm in which God/light can enter. Physical clearance proved troublesome and mental clearance almost impossible. First, the physical distractions became mental as I listed the clutter in an attempt to discard them but instead my list accentuated their existence. Oddly the absence of hymns, prayers, sermons and testimonies seemed to root me in the physical world as my list built to a rhythmic pattern in my head. The absent beat went something like this
A 30 second blast of heat that is heard more than felt and 2minutes cold to keep me awake, vase of flowers on a table with bunch of books, sound of traffic in the distance and hum of mowing from outside, why is the chair next to me smaller than the rest, another woman enters no one looks her in the eye, is the tea lady asleep?
 And another 30 second blast of heat that is heard more than felt and another 2minutes cold to keep me awake, are those flowers dying or is it for show, Bible, Quaker Bible, Qu’ran, Quaker Bible, next week could I bring my own literature? Sound of traffic is even further in the distance and the mowing has stopped, maybe the small chair is for a small child, I’d hate for a child to be better behaved than me, thinking how I do, another woman enters room, remember not to look her in the eye, I think the tea lady’s now snoring so definitely asleep.
 Again a 30 second blast of heat longer than the one before which continues to be heard more than felt and now 4 long minutes of cold to keep me awake, the flowers are definitely real so why has no one watered them? Are they are a spiritual statement I am not getting? Next week Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Hughes and Auden will lay on that table, I still can hear traffic or is it in my head maybe I am struggling because the mower is back and closer than before, the chair is not for a child or a colouring in book would be on the table, the small chair must be for someone who is not here, who is not expected to appear, at least not physically, God most likely, another man enters, we have another man entering the room, it’s no longer just me, Gareth or the older guy, no this guy is the older guy, that other guy will have to be renamed the other guy, don’t meet his eye that would be double standards, this is not the place for double standards, well she is clearly snoring and no one is going to say anything, especially me.
 Maybe this 30 second blast of heat will be quicker, maybe it will make me hotter rather than hurt my ears, the cold cannot be quick, the time quadruples under such low temperature, as four minutes stretches into 8, hot and fast offset by cold and slow, the flowers need to be changed, how can you make a statement through the symbol of something dying, should I pick up the Bible? Might get my mind back on track, it’s too late now, it would just send a clear sign I am not thinking about him, as for the Qu’ran that would just be dismissed as a desperate attempt to make a loud first impression, I would read Steinbeck, can you read atheist literature at a Quaker meeting, not just traffic but the sound of parking, parking will help me chill out, with the mower finished I am bound to drift off and hear the voice of God, I am sitting next to his chair so if he does arrive I will  have the best seat in the house regardless, however we are full now, so anyone arriving late is going to have to sit down in that incredibly small chair and look like an adult with special needs kept back at primary school, but no one is entering the room, the room is definitely spiritually full yet it only contains six women and four men but anyone adding to the collective might tip me over the edge, I mean how are you meant to forget more than ten people? Everybody needs to sit still so I can forget them and concentrate on our collective, conscious prayer, I am so glad no one can hear my thoughts, I would really ruin everyone’s experience, maybe they can sense it, no I look calm and collected, might even pass for spiritual, I feel confident I am going to look them in the eye and then  when they look into my eye they are going to see nothing because my mind is elsewhere, my mind is traveling on a different spiritual plain, yes I can just leave without moving, just don’t fall asleep like the tea woman, her snoring has really held you back, it would be inconsiderate to fall asleep not that anyone would wake me, maybe I am asleep, no I can feel the cold, need  to consider consciousness, remember your absent and present at the same time, absent and present.
 So the repetition of my thoughts built a rhythm to reach a euphoric point of silence in which I don’t remember what I was thinking but I was pretty happy. The nearest epiphany I reached was pondering my silent and strange happiness. So I decided to contextualise my experience in broad terms. First, I concluded that a society which is a literature culture writes down what makes one happy in the hope that others might understand, but the limitation of words leads to dogma and misunderstanding. In our visual culture we communicate through images so our concept of happiness is more a feeling, a recording of a moment, making our idea of happiness more fleeting and less theoretically obtainable but at least less dogmatic and dangerous. So my silent happiness, happiness at the absence of everything was an isolated sense of euphoria. A happiness which cannot be recorded with words. A happiness they can’t captured from a photograph. A happiness that many call God. A happiness that I personally find impossible to explain.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Evangelical Reformed Church, Laureston Church, 30.11.11

After 47 Sunday services my agnostic faith had begun to fatigue. Not in my mind but in my body. Inflicted with a seasonal cold and cough with aspirations to degenerate into a fever I sought solace in the Evangelical Reformed Church on Laureston Road.  After weekly witnessing devout but decrepit bodies summoning the spirit to go to church I had no choice but to leave the confines of my bed for a so called better life.  Speechless in fear of the cough within me I sat to the rear of the nave hoping to go unnoticed. Luckily, the restrained and equable congregation respectfully left me to stew in my sickly sin. Unlike the singing and dancing of previous evangelical episodes, all theatrics were reserved for the Northern Irish guest Pastor Samuel Mackay Desperate for the routine ritual to remedy my poor health I was instead treated to a sermon heavy service in which Pastor Mackay provided a lesson in the power and poetry of religious language. My vulnerable state became enslaved to Pastor Mackay, who at the height of his power almost exorcized the sickly and sinful ailments that plagued my body. Physically drained I felt spiritually vulnerable, easy prey for Pastor Mackay, passion to bully me into belief.
Pastor Mackay was not a handsome man. Youth looked forever absent from his face. Pale, balding, portly, bespectacled, he had no physical reasons to be confident. The charisma, the charm and passion were clearly sent from his great Lord.  Preaching to a predominantly black congregation, Pastor Mackay’s rough Belfast accent crackled across the nave. Fire and brimstone rhetoric of the old homeland clogged up his throat and transported his followers from South Hackney to Northern Ireland. It was not just God’s Bible that had given grace to his gruff voice but the church created an environment so his words would echo across the hall with glorious gravitas.  The church’s exterior suited his small but commanding stature: the late Victorian modestly sized building reached for the heavens with small but defined architectural features.  Two extremely pointy spires stabbed the sky with spiritual importance while a large arched front window opened itself to public and potential converts. Originally built by Congregationalists in the 1800s the church has sustained a still feeling of suspense when entering the nave. It was an unknowing suspense like waiting for something intangible, ethereal or predictably something God like. The atmosphere did not transport you back in time like older churches but more created a feeling of stasis outside time which could only come from a building that has been undisturbed from renovation. Waiting filled the anteroom, the belfry, the cloisters, the nave, the surrounding gallery, the sanctuary, and any unseen room or crevice.  Amongst this wait came Pastor Mackay standing firm in the pulpit surrounded by a collection of dark varnished wooden pews, stairs, tables, chairs and Holy folly.  Pastor Mackay was a king overseeing his kingdom or somebody more prophetic, regardless of the title he was a great orator. Very few priests actually use the pulpit but Pastor Mackay had a traditional and conservative personality that was entirely comfortable with being placed on such a high pedestal. Standing only just below the large but fairly quiet antique organ his voice could not be dwarfed by anyone except God.
A great speaker can get you so lost in the language that you become so impressed you don’t really care about the speaker’s point. TV personalities, politicians and Priests are all guilty of speaking with style to disguise their lack of substance. Not that all TV personalities, politicians and Priests are great speakers, most are sound bite bores but a chosen few have an elegance of elocution that provoke great reaction by saying very little. Pastor Mackay was not only a great speaker but perpetuated the cultural legacy of the Holy Irish man.  A religious figure of Old Testament testosterone he mixed words taken from the scripture with out dated language to create a non-existent nostalgic grace. In describing early passages from the Book of Joshua he used some stereotypical but no less powerful religious phrases: “Righteous Wrath of God,” “Calvary Cross,” “The Blood That Cleansed The Blind,” and my personal favourite “The Tale The Tongue Cannot Tell.” These words wore me out and wrapped themselves around my ears that I became so enraptured at the poetry of his performance leading me to completely forget about the Book of Joshua.  Despite the overt violence of his words these strangely opaque but didactic statements are to be cherished, just maybe not worshipped. But I fully understand how such powerful imagery from one man’s mouth could inspire such worship. I would be a fully-fledged fan of Pastor Mackay’s passionate poetry if I could discover its source: The Book of Joshua, Jesus or God. Predictably Pastor Mackay’s powerful imagery did not provoke my spiritual side but instead stoked my cynicism. 
The Book of Joshua is mainly concerned with the history of the creation of Israel and documenting some pretty savage tribal politics but Pastor Mackay managed to centre on the more palatable opening verses of God’s instructions to Joshua instead of the familiar Middle Eastern conflict.  Leaving the more factually grounded history for universal spiritualism is essential for any priest yet often the priest will use the language of the Bible to create phoney authenticity to his words. The very specific struggle of the Israelites became comparable to the everyday struggle of the congregation so that the romantic rhetoric enriched the dull drudgery of modern day life. Amongst all the energy, eloquence and entertaining theatrics Pastor Mackay just wanted everyone “To let Jesus into our hearts,” without even telling us who, why or where. Preaching to the converted naturally breeds complacency but within the predictable praise my body had a violent reaction. The overpowering word play, the suspenseful atmosphere, the calm congregation, something tickled my throat and my cough erupted. Hoarse heckling from the back of my larynx bounced back off the walls of the nave and caused a non-protest to the weekly dogma. As Pastor Mackay encouraged us to get close to Jesus I was wheezing between my knees hoping my badly behaved body was caused by infection and not some unknown demon hidden within me. I tried as best I could not to distract others from Pastor Mackay’s words but charitable Christians are forever looking for a cause. Handkerchiefs, water, Bibles were passed to me but I could not stand the embarrassment and had to leave. Despite the kindness of strangers the word of God did not fill me with pride but persecution and my sickness felt like a strange pagan karma. I did not deserve such charity because I was not one of them I had not let Jesus into my heart and as result I had the flu.
Retired and rested I realised I did not need the kindness of strangers as it did not fulfil my narrative. Much as I had appreciated Pastor Mackay’s word play, the church’s subtle and suspenseful atmosphere and calming congregation that filled it, I desired the role of the outsider. Like the Pastor Mackay I use language to create my own world. However Pastor Mackay wants you to join him in his world for one giant liturgy while my world wants to create the image of an outsider looking into another world he feels he does not belong to. His language continues a tradition of colourful conformity and dramatic dogma while my language is limited in so many ways it can only come from my dyslexic brain. Opposition is where I feel most comfortable despite Pastor Mackay’s promises of eternal salvation. My problem is that I have yet to know from what I need to be saved except the common cold that plagues my body.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Stoke Newington Baptist Church, Stoke Newington High Street, 20.11.11

The economic apocalypse is nigh. Don’t fear war, pestilence, famine and death but instead run to your Bible and pray to stop the rise of cuts, inflation, unemployment and debt. Not that all cuts are bad cuts, some cuts can free communities from needless bureaucracy. Inflation is also fine as long as it remains low and stable in conjunction with the rate of employment. Unemployment would not be the end of the world if you have a good welfare state providing financial and social support. Even debts can be solved by low interest bank loans. No, the economic crisis is not comparable to The Book of Revelation as the international news media would like you to believe but this Sunday even God became victim to the global recession.
 God and money have an odd relationship, all men are created equal in the eyes of God but money is often how we attempt to measure a person’s worth outside the dogma of religion. Money is a value system formed long before science knocked religion off its creationist perch and is the longest provocateur to religion. Christianity sees money as an essential tool in spreading the Lords Word but Bible is not so kind towards money. Money appears in the Bible as the tool of the oppressor and the religious prophets are far poorer and humbler in their existence. For example: Jesus is not a rich man- it's essential that he gave everything to the poor and the needy. The majority of non-believers criticism of the church is that they take money from the poor and sell them hope through the promise of heaven.  Non-believers feel uncomfortable at the site of wealthy churches and often think would Jesus approve of such extravagance. So when I arrived at the modest stone face of the  Stoke Newington Baptist Church and entered the fairly rundown interior of the nave my heart lifted that this was a church rich in ways not so obvious to the eye.
The church was filled with understatement; a modest altar, a very low tech projector and a small stained glass window marked the sanctuary out from the collection of black chairs that filled the nave. A few religious decorations hung across the nave’s walls, leaving the colours of beige, brown and cream to blur into one nondescript glow that was strangely affecting. This corporate like conference room had been spiritually converted and despite the placidity of its design it had risen to a higher purpose. The lack of grandeur and glamour did not indicate a lack of care from the congregation but mere signs that life took precedence over material spectacle. The environment should not have been inspiring but the large mixed congregation led by Pastor John Taylor generated a community atmosphere not found in the architecture of government buildings. The service’s ramshackle beauty was typified by the church band, an odd collection of saxophonist, keyboardist, Organist and Violinist; who naturally struggled with some hymns until the late entrance of the resident drummer; a young black kid no older than 14 with low hung jeans, baseball cap and Nike raincoat and who acknowledge nobody as he waltzed up to the kit before he began to pound the drums mid hymn. The music should not have worked, technically it did not work but you could not fault the harmonious joy the audience and band shared. The humble and modest yet still joyful and triumphant congregation of Stoke Newington Baptist Church had spirit for these economically tough times but I was yet to learn the precarious practicalities of their situation.
Pastor John Taylor carried a statesman like air of importance when he spoke with a realist’s modesty. His untypical sermon was not concerned with the spiritual transformative love of Jesus Christ but the practicalities of the church’s annual budget and outlining the amount that would be apportioned for Christmas giving.   Perhaps the sermon lacked the romanticism of the Holy Scripture for the majority of the congregation but I personally found his speech enthralling as I discovered how the church spends its money. The most heart-warming aspect of the church budget was learning that alongside the money given to the Baptist Union, Christian Fellowship schemes and International aid was the name of one family household who needed help after falling victim to hard times (to one of the economic four horseman no doubt).  Charity within a community is something so rare to in fragmented London it filled me with early Christmas cheer. However after Pastor John Taylor asked the congregation to discuss with him during the break any issues some may have, he returned from the break stating no one had talked to him. I guess the community trusted their pastor as they were far more familiar about the church’s spending and would prefer to sing, dance and praise the Lord than worry about how the collection plate is spent. It’s rare that a Church would be so transparent with its budgets yet Pastor Taylor was keen to indicate that the annual micro budget was necessary to contextualise the larger economic problems facing the Baptist Union.
Just like businesses, nations and continents, churches are economically failing. This year the Baptist union ran approximately one million pounds over budget, it can sustain the same deficit next year but if the Baptist Union funds don’t improve in 2013 it realistically will see churches close down and subsequently merge.  A symbol of the economic decline is the Baptist Times (running since 1855) which will be discontinued this year as it loses the church money. Like secular forms of the print industry whose economic interest has declined due to the digitalisation of the media, the Baptist Times is not a viable source to spread the word of God. The prospective changes facing the Stoke Newington Baptist Union did not seem to worry the congregation. A large portion of the congregation were from Africa and particularly Angola, and some elder members had the sermon translated into Portuguese. The congregation were very helpful in explaining that the church had once been predominantly white but in recent years Pastor John Taylor had shared the pulpit with an Angolan minister. As time passed the Angolan minister returned to Africa but the influx of an African congregation survived and integrated. Services went from being held in English and Portuguese to just English. Arguably the unison between the elderly white church members and the new African arrivals is not simply a spiritual meeting but one that is economically formed through globalisation of the 1990s. The church in many respects has already proved its ability to adapt to a changing economic environment so why should they not believe the congregation can overcome such future struggles.
The central reason for the congregation’s resolve is that they have faith in a higher power and The Rapture is a far scarier prospect than the current global economic downturn. Secular society could easily dismiss such faith in higher powers as blissfully ignorant but maybe we should look at ourselves and our own ignorant faith we have put into the financial market. In the most simple and reductive explanation to our current economic crisis  I would state that the crisis in the US, UK and rest of Europe is born out of the ability to trade off debt through credit that is supplied by banks under the guise that the company/country/continent will make a future profit. Clearly the global economic system is not that simple but neither is The Bible which is far more publically renounced than our global financial market.
 The market and the Bible claim to be based on truth, their power comes from a faith based language in which words only have importance if you believe in them. Borrowing and lending is a part of human nature which has offered a practical solution throughout history in building trust within communities (like loving your neighbour or treating others how you wish to be treated) but when you enter the world of derivatives, futures and hedge funds you are creating a language and belief system to legitimise an impractical monopoly. I don’t believe that derivatives, futures and hedge funds are a real solution to our economy but are a fiction that has been given political currency and have been used to enslave the many by the few. Take the last sentence and replace the words, derivatives, futures and hedge funds with the words God, The Holy Ghost and Jesus Christ and you would replicate the a typical criticism the church receives within an atheist media. However God is not making me redundant, The Holy Ghost is not reclaiming my house and Jesus Christ comes for free. To be religious you have a choice but we have no such choice in belonging to our current Capitalist society, we are told this is truth and we must accept. Not even God can escape the four horseman of cuts, inflation, unemployment and debt but at least his followers can sing and dance waiting for a better life. Congregation's belief can make even a small church made from a pile of stones as rich as the kingdom heaven.

Not wanting to patronise the reader but please see below for my biased definitions of derivatives, futures and hedge funds:
A derivative is a contract for payment between two parties that is a dated transaction and has no independent value but whose price is derived from an underlying asset (commodity, stock or share). Controversially a derivative has legal exemptions (in the US) and is an attractive proposition in extending credit despite the value of derivatives fluctuating based on the market.
A Future is a future contract for payment between two parties for a specific asset of standardized quantity and quality for a set price, with delivery of the asset occurring on a future date. In the future the asset may have lost or gained profit so it will always be gamble for the buyer and the seller and never a fair trade.
A hedge fund is a private pool of capital managed by an investment advisor. A hedge fund is only open to investment from accredited or qualified investors. Hedge funds look for trends in the global financial market to trade and their activities vary but they would not be as powerful if derivatives and futures did not exist. Arguably derivatives and futures can be used to counter balance the risk of trading, hence the term “Hedging,” in which the fund has the opportunity to make money from money. 
Personally all of these financial tools have no grounding in reality and merely make money from money or makes money from the belief people have in money, like gambling without the sport.