A tree and two shrines

WHILE TRAVELLING AROUND India, I have seen many trees that serve some kind of Hindu religious purpose. Often they are peepul trees, whose leaves are heart-shaped. Frequently, there is some kind of shrine next to the trunk, and often there are fine threads wrapped around the circumference of the trunk.

Near the middle of the market place in 8the Goan town of Mapusa, there is an old tree next to which there are two shrines. The tree’s leaves did not look like those of a peepul tree. What interested me was that at first sight both of the shrines, which resemble small huts, looked similar.

On closer examination, it could be seen that one of the shrines was, as I expected, Hindu, and the other was, to my surprise, Christian.

Whether this close proximity of the two shrines was pure coincidence or related to the fact that the tree provides good shade, I cannot say. Another possible explanation of the closeness might possibly be a symptom of inter-religious tolerance in this small Goan town. Who can say? Whatever the explanation for the closeness of the two shrines, it was heartening to see.

Baby Jesus with bangles

DURING SEVERAL TRIPS within the ex-Portuguese colony of Goa on the west coast of India, we have visited churches and other Christian religious establishments built under Portuguese rule. The Portuguese arrived in India several centuries ago, and finally left their colonies in 1961 when they became incorporated (or annexed) into India. One of the aims of the Portuguese was conversion of their Indian subjects to Christianity. Many of the conquered people became Christian, and many churches and seminaries sprung up in the occupied territories. We have visited quite a few of these.

In most of the churches we have seen in Goa as well as in the recently opened Museum of Christian Art in Old Goa, we have noticed that depictions of angels saints, and Christ himself have facial (and other) features that are typical of Indian physiognomy. This is not too surprising as many artefacts in the churches of Goa were created by Indian artists.

When we visited the Museum of Christian Art in Old Goa, we saw two depictions of Baby Jesus lying on what looked just like typical Indian ‘charpoys’ (traditional Indian beds). The Holy Child in each case is a tiny doll. What fascinated me is that the dolls were wearing the sort of tiny bangles that are often worn by small Indian babies. One of the tiny models of Jesus was also wearing earrings.

Moving away from Christian sculptures and paintings, which have incorporated Indian characteristics, day to day Christian worship in India often incorporates features with origins in Hindu ritual practice. One example is the use of flower garlands (‘malas’), which is just as common in Christian settings as it is in Hindu settings.

Christianity was introduced to India not only by the Portuguese, but by others including St Thomas (apocryphally), and various European invaders. However, despite its foreign origins, India was not only affected by the Christian religion but has also made its mark on it.

A strict and particular chapel

I HAVE PASSED IT often, and have long been curious about it, but until today I have not bothered to find out about it. I am referring to a small chapel on the corner of Kensington Place and Newcombe Street, which leads to the south side of a space where a weekly farmers’ market is held (on Saturday mornings). Called the Bethesda Baptist Church, its congregation was established in 1866. The building resembles a style commonly used in the late 18th century. According to a history of Kensington Place (www.hillgatevillage.com/the-facts), the chapel was constructed in about 1824. Over the years, it has been used by various Baptist sects. Currently, it is the home to a congregation, who believe in Restricted Communion and Particular Redemption. This sect was founded in 1866.

Bethesda Chapel, Kensington

Currently, I am reading about a clergyman, Conrad Noel (1869-1942), who believed fervently that the church should be both democratic and all-embracing. So, it was with some interest that I stumbled across a chapel in which people believing in ‘Restricted Communion’ gather to worship. The sect is a branch of the Strict and Particular Baptists, who follow the decrees of High-Calvinism. If you are finding this a bit difficult to follow, then you are not alone. Let me take a stab at giving a simple explanation of what the congregation in the Bethesda Chapel believe: a set of beliefs that are new to me. One website that seemed to clarify them well is www.sbhs.org.uk/membership/strictbapt/, from which I have attempted to extract the following information.

‘Strict’ refers to ‘restricted communion’. Unlike many branches of the Christian Church, which permit anyone who believes and loves Jesus Christ to partake in Holy Communion, the Strict and Particular Baptists believe that Communion should only be offered to those “who have been baptised by immersion as believers”.  The above-mentioned website explained:

“Strict Baptists see baptism as a rite by which believers testify to their faith in Christ, and associate it with church membership. The Lord’s Supper is for those who have joined the church in this way.”

As for ‘particular’, this lives up to the common meaning of the word. The Strict and Particular Baptists believe that:

“…Christ died to make certain the salvation of a definite number of people whom he has purposed to save, rather than to make possible the salvation of an indefinite number of people who might choose to believe.”

That is, only the ‘select’ few, known as the ‘Elect’, will be saved. The sect does not accept infant baptism, even by immersion, as being sufficient to become part of the Elect. Another website (www.baptists.net/history/2022/07/the-articles-of-faith-of-the-gospel-standard-churches/) explained what is required to become a member of a Strict and Particular Baptist sect such as that which uses the Bethesda Chapel:

 “At a regularly constituted church meeting … the candidate (whether already a member of another church or not) shall make a verbal confession of faith, and declare what he or she believes God has done for his or her soul. If accepted by a vote of the majority of members present and voting, signature in the church book to the Articles of Faith and Rules will be required. Thereafter, at the earliest convenient opportunity, the person shall, unless previously baptised by immersion, be so baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and be formally received into church fellowship at the next observance of the Lord’s Supper.”

The Articles of Faith, and there are many of them, are strict. Thus, despite my oversimplification, it would seem that the Strict and Particular sects are, unlike the open-door church espoused by Conrad Noel, extremely exclusive and restrictive.  

PS: A little way west of the Bethesda Chapel, there is an institution that is, unlike the chapel, far from exclusive: it is open to all children regardless of faith, providing they live in its catchment area: Fox Primary School. This state school, which was founded in 1842, is housed in modern buildings. I mention it as a postscript because its walls are decorated with several attractive, colourful mosaics.

Third time lucky at the theatre

DURING JULY AND early August (2022), we visited theatres three times. First was a performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre by the Thames near Southwark Bridge. The seats were far from comfortable, and the production was not among the best I have seen. Next, we watched a play (in comfortable seats) at the Young Vic in Waterloo. Neither the play, “Chasing Hares”, nor the acting was up to the usual high standard that we have enjoyed in the past at that theatre. After these two disappointments, it was with some trepidation that we made our way to the Bridge Theatre, which is next to Tower Bridge and faces the Tower of London across the Thames.

At the Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre, housed in a 21st century building, was opened in October 2017. It was developed by Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner, who is both a theatre and film director. His productions at the National Theatre, where he was artistic director for several years, were wonderful. With comfortable seats and good sightlines from every seat (even those designated as ‘restricted view’), the Bridge is an excellently designed theatre. Not only are its stage and auditorium optimal, but also is the spacious foyer, from which there are good views across the Thames towards the Tower and the new skyscrapers in the City of London.

The play we saw at the Bridge on the 4th of August was “The Southbury Child” by Alex Jennings. Filled with humour, this work raises several serious questions. One of them is whether the Church of England should be authoritarian or whether it should be a democratic organisation responsive to the needs and wishes of its congregation. To avoid giving away its excellent plot, all I will say is that the play is highly enjoyable.

We have now seen 5 plays at the Bridge and not one of them was disappointing. In fact, they were all above average in quality. So maybe it was not a case of ‘third time lucky’ when after two poor performances elsewhere recently, we went to the Bridge.

Burnt rather than baptised

COGGESHALL IN ESSEX is an attractive place to visit. The small town contains over 300 buildings of historical interest, all of which have given protected status. Amongst these is Paycockes House, which I will describe another day. One of the many other old buildings in the centre of the town is a large house, once the home of Thomas Hawkes.

House of Thomas Hawkes in Coggeshall

Hawkes was a retainer of John de Vere (1516-1562), the 16th Earl of Oxford, who became a supporter of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary, who became the monarch in 1553 (following the deaths of the Protestant King Edward VI and the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey). Mary decreed that England should return to Roman Catholicism and the Earl of Oxford concurred with this.

Thomas Hawkes, a fervent Protestant, decided to leave his ‘employer’, who had become sympathetic to Mary’s religious cause. He returned to his home (known as ‘Constantynes’) in the centre of Coggeshall. Unwilling to partake in any Roman Catholic practices and a vocal opposer of that branch of Christianity, Hawkes soon became regarded as heretic by the Catholic authorities.

Under great suspicion by those then in power, Hawkes did something that got him into really bad trouble: he refused to have his newly born son baptised into the Catholic faith. He was arrested and taken to Newgate Prison in London. From there, he was taken to the palace of Bishop Edmund Bonner (c1500-1569) several times, and asked to recant. Having refused each time, on the 9th of February 1555, Bonner condemned him to be burnt at the stake. After Bonner had given him one last chance to recant, he is believed to have said:

“No, my lord, that I will not; for if I had a hundred bodies, I would suffer them all to be torn in pieces, rather than I will abjure or recant.” (https://coggeshallmuseum.org/thomas-hawkes/)

 After some months, Hawkes was taken to Coggeshall, where on the 10th of June 1555 he was burnt at the stake.

Hawke’s house still stands and is marked with a commemorative plaque. It was built in the mid-15th century, but has been much modified since then.

On a very steep street

WE CAN EITHER travel into the centre of Funchal by bus or walk. From our guesthouse,  the steep Caminho do Monte drops steeply down to the city centre. Most of the way, this almost a mile long  thoroughfare has a gradient of 40 to 45 degrees. Walking down this slope does wonders for one’s lower leg muscles, especially the calves. The first time we descended it, my calf muscles began to go into tremor.

A Sacred Heart

Our next attempt was altogether easier. On the way downhill, we passes a religious institution: a seminary called Colégio Missionário Sagrado Coração. Being Sunday, the gates were open for people who wanted to attend the Sunday mass. The institution is named in honour of the Sacred Heart. On either side of the door leading into the simply decorated chapel, there are car ings of hearts encircled by thorns.

There is a sculpture of a lion in the place’s large courtyard. Two busts of important religious figures stand near the chapel. One of them stsnds close to a terrace from which a wonderful view of part of Funchal can be enjoyed.

Although walking down the incredibly steep slope is slow, it is a wonderful way to observe deatails of life on the hills high above Funchal, and to meet locals standing on terraces over the road or in the entrances to their homes.

Two similar churches, one in Kensington and the other in Wiltshire

ENNISMORE GARDENS MEWS IS about 380 yards west of Exhibition Road near South Kensington. It is the site of a church with an Italianate façade, now the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God and All Saints. A tall bell tower stands to the right of the façade as you look at it from the street. Pevsner described the style of the façade as “Lombardic Romanesque”. He noted:

“The Early Christian/Italian-Romanesque style was a speciality of the 1840s…”

Russian Orthodox church in Kensington, London

Although many of the fittings in the church are typical of Russian Orthodox places of worship (e.g., iconostasis and icons), the interior is not typical of edifices built specifically for the Orthodox church. The coloured panels above the arches (supported by iron pillars) lining the nave are not typical of the kinds of images usually associated with the Orthodox Church. They have captions in both English and Latin, but not in Cyrillic. The church was designed as the Anglican Church of All Saints in 1848-1849 by Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871). The tower was constructed in 1871. Most of the decoration within the building is in the late 19th century Arts and Crafts style.

The Anglican parish, which was based in the former All Saints, merged with another in 1955. Then the church was let to the Russian Orthodox faith and its name changed to its present one. In 1978, the Sourozh Diocese purchased the edifice. The Sourozh is under the control of the Patriarchate of Moscow. The church in Ennismore Gardens Mews has a multi-national Orthodox congregation.  I asked a bearded priest how the cathedral differed from the Russian church in Harvard Road, Chiswick. He replied:

“We are the Orthodox Church based in Moscow, but the other one in Chiswick is the Orthodox Church based outside Russia … it is very complicated.”

Wilton in Wiltshire is almost 80 miles southwest of the Russian church in Ennismore Gardens Mews. Famed for its fine carpet manufacturing, the town has a church, St Mary and St Nicholas, whose façade looks not too different from that of South Kensington’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The Wilton church has a similar bell tower, but it placed on the left side of the façade. The church was commissioned by Sidney Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Lea (1810-1861), a close ally and supporter of Florence Nightingale of Crimean War fame. Sidney was a son of George Herbert, 11th Earl of Pembroke and his Russian spouse Catherine (née Yekaterina Semyonovna Vorontsova). The church, completed in 1845, was designed by Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880) and his assistant David Brandon (1813-1897).

With many features borrowed from Italian Romanesque architecture, and some from Byzantine designs, the edifice at Wilton, despite being an Anglican parish church, felt to me slightly more like an Orthodox church than the converted ex-Anglican, now Orthodox, church in Ennismore Gardens Mews. However, the interior fittings in the church in Wilton borrow from what can be found in traditional Italian churches rather than in typical eastern Orthodox churches. But, the mosaic covered cupola over the chancel in Wilton’s Anglican church, with its depiction of Christ with two saints resembling what is often found in Byzantine churches, contrasts with the undecorated cupola over the chancel in what has now become the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Kensington.

Placed side by side, many differences could be discerned between the church in south Kensington and that in Wilton. But it is the similarities between two churches designed by different architects that are remarkable.

A church transformed

THE VICTORIAN GOTHIC Westbourne Grove Church (with a Baptist congregation) is on the corner of the Grove and Ledbury Road. Built on the site of an earlier church, this building was constructed in 1866. On examination, it is obvious that it has been modified considerably. According to the church’s website, westbournegrovechurch.org, in 2001:

“… the church worked with the Manhattan Loft Corporation to redevelop the site. Our vision was to use the church building to serve the local community, as an expression of God’s generosity and love. The church retains space spread over the entire ground and first floors of the building, while the project was funded by development of apartments in the top four floors of the converted building.”

The church now shares its building with retail outlets and residential units, the rents from which help finance the church’s activities and maintenance.

The parts of the ground and first floors used by the congregation have been redesigned imaginatively and beautifully in a simple contemporary idiom. Airy spaces simply but attractively decorated, flow neatly between each other giving the interior of the church a cubist sculptural feel. The rooms at the base of the two towers on the south façade of the church are used for exhibitions and meetings. In short, the spaces used for ecclesiastical and pastoral purposes provide a wonderful example of successful modern interior design. The current vicar is Chris Thackery. His wife Charlotte is an architect, and was involved in overseeing, and advising on, the modernisation of the church.

A visit to see this wonderful new church is well worth making. It is not far from Portobello Road and is a treat for lovers of imaginative architectural design.