After one month and not having attended church, I summon all my will power to attend church today. My hesitation had nothing to do with a scarcity of churches to attend as there were many churches around but I just did not have that impetus to attend any one of them. The one closest to me is a redeem church, converted from a rather majestic looking old monument, and the next is a catholic church – pure beauty to behold. Eventually, I pick out one from the internet that is Anglican, a bus ride away from my home but which I hoped will provide that solemn service that I am sort of used to back home. The name of the church ‘St. Martin in the Bull ring’ sounded quite unchurchy to me but that did not bother me. Although, back home I was used to orthordox churches having ‘Saint’ as a prefix followed by any ‘reasonable’ name in the bible as a suffix; pentecostal churches, on the other hand have such creative names that Martin in the Bullring sounds like Jesus Christ of the Latter day saints. Pentecostal churches in Nigeria will probably get international awards (if there are any of such) for having the queerest, most creative church names ever invented by man or the angels in heaven.‘Run for your life ministries’ and ‘Heavenly arrows divine international’ are the only ones I can remember as I write this. After shutting down my computer I check the clock and realize I will need to get out as soon as I can if I was to get to the church for the 11am service time as indicated on the church website. It is about 10 minutes to the time so as quickly as Naijaboyly possible, I jump in and out of the shower and make a beeline for the spire line. After waiting for a bus and walking the remainder of the distance, I finally get to church about 30 minutes into the service. The sermon is just about rounding off and they were about to go into communion. 30 minutes and sermon is over? I thought they were joking. They should still be singing praise and worship! Church, as I was used to it, was 3 or more hours and at 30 minutes we were just starting. Na wa o!
Need I digress here that I’m the one who always seem to be ‘taking things easy’ here. Every other person is either running or in a hurry. First day in school when they gave us our essential reading list, I did not go to the library to look for the books till two days later. By the time I got to the library, all the books had been borrowed. Ha na wa o!. Also, when I approach bus stops and the bus is about leaving, I am usually the only one not running to catch it. I simply mutter to myself “that one is not for me” and I wait for the next one. As much as I suspect, I am afraid to say this but I am so used to ‘comfortable’ time that I honestly don’t stretch myself. Like I’d rather book open tickets I can use at anytime than timed tickets and I try to give myself some lee way of time rather than stick to the second like everyone does. I honestly think I’ve got to improve…. or….. SHUT UP IFE! and Get on with the story jare, who cares about your tardiness.
Sorry! So back to Saint Martin in the bull ring. If there is one word that will describe it, it is ‘OLD’. Not in the sense of being ramshackled or anything of that nature as it is very well kept, but in its mere age as emblazoned on the marble commemorative plaque fixed to the church walls. The church was built in 1263. Even as I type this year, I laugh because in this age of internet dating and gay marriages its almost unbelievable that the year 1263 ever existed, not to talk about a church being built in that year and still standing. In reality though, much of the original 1263 church had fallen apart except for the spire, which had been redone in 1873 (okay I can easily relate with that, albeit distantly). All said, the mere longevity of it still intrigues me. All I could think about as I read that plaque were the Anglo-Saxon peasants that had come this same way before me in peasant robes. And the nobles probably in gold and finery, with their squires and man servants. Need I say that if I allow myself wander into that past, this episode will turn out into a poorly constructed Shakespearean imitiation so I’ll pass.
In addition to the impact of time and obsolescence, some part of Saint Martin had also been destroyed by German bombs in the world war but much of the church had survived the blitzkrieg. The saint after which the church was named was famed to have cut his cloak into two in order to clothe a naked wanderer and subsequently had been ‘sainted’ (oops pardon my creative English). His name was probably Martins. And the ‘Bull ring’ appendage coming from the bull ring market, which is closely situated and forms a core part of the history of Birmingham. The architect who redesigned the 1873 church happened to be a great-great-grand-relative of the original architect who designed the 1263 one, and I can’t begin to imagine how many generations that relates to. Nonetheless, all of these history was available on pamphlets we were given and which I later got down to reading after I had settled to round off the service Bull ring style.
As the sermon drew to an end and the choir came up, I could not help but stare continuously at the lofty cloisters of arches and fluted columns and clerestory windows. If I’d be honest with myself, I ended up as a tourist in that church than a worshiper at the end of the day. Merely looking up brought memories back to me and I appreciated the efforts my undergraduate History of Architecture teacher put into describing these features to us. Seeing them did not appear as if it was for the first time. All of it had been in my minds’ eye long before now; and now, it seemed only a mere recollection but I still could not help staring in awe. The careful detailing of the cloisters, engravings on the wooden arches and the details of the stained glass is humbling. And I use the word ‘humbling’ because by scale, you appear small in the scheme of things much like the architecture was constructed to ‘humble’ you as God’s presence would. In addition, you will see that it took enormous amounts of time and detailing for the middle age workmen who have all worked on this Collosus over the last 8 centuries. It was simply surreal. The pipes of the organ fell from the heavens like stalactites touching the earth and their tongues barely licked the sandstone pedestals on which they were mounted. Like I once heard a black man say while looking at the St. Pauls Cathedral church in London, “Human beings cannot do this. It has to be the work of God”. This one was really out of the story books. What these churches symbolized was more than just workmanship or history. For me it symbolized a people who believed that the least they could do in return for God’s grace was by giving their best to Him by the way of creating great edifices to house him. And even though I have not been to other religious sites in the world, this capturing of grandeur and relentless detailing is what makes old religious buildings all over the world eternal landmarks. From a social perspective, I also see a people who not only thought of themselves or the ‘present’, but thought about creating legacies that will last well beyond their lifetimes thus conferring upon them immortality indirectly through the works of their hands.
After the sermon, we move on to a brief communion session which is very much what I’m used to but the outlook and order of service is so alien to me. I need to tell you about it. We were told to give our offerings to God and the rector pointed to some white boards standing around the church and some side stools beside it that held coloured pencils, markers and crayons and the rector told us to give our ‘creative’ offering to God. He said we are free to write poems, draw images and just do anything for God to tell him how we feel. That was novel! so I join the procession and I write out a truly heartfelt message and it felt good considering that I had already being thinking, ‘What was the point anyway, if I only got in in time for the closing prayer’. While we later began giving what I will now like to refer as ‘financial’ offering, taxpayers were given separate envelopes to put their offerings in order for the church to claim some deductions or something like that. That again was novel, what did church and tax have in common back home? Nothing! not even the words that spell them.
Another thing I notice is that some of the priests are women and I am not used to seeing Anglican priestesses back home. In fact, they don’t exist. I assume the male-female attitude back home simply reflects ‘who we are’ and this cultural bit of us has overlapped religion in that manner. Anyway after the service which ended shortly after I came in. We were ushered to receive refreshments and also buy some creative stuff the church folk had made. I looked around a while and not long after, left the church to go back home. As I gazed back at the disappearing spires on my way back home, even though I had also given some ‘financial’ offering, I realized for once that one could actually give more to God without giving a penny and oftentimes that makes more sense. That is something I will keep with me for the rest of my life.