All Saints, Haggerston (Exterior)

Annual Grimaldi Service, All Saints, Haggerston, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Ken T. Poste
Church: Annual Grimaldi Service, All Saints
Location: Haggerston, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 February 2017, 3:00pm

The building

Built in the mid 1850s from Kentish rag stone with an ashlar dressing, it was designed in the Gothic style by Philip Hardwick the Younger, famous for several grandiose Italianate banking establishments as well as the great hall at Euston Station (now demolished). Later extensions were added by T E Knightley, the architect of the legendary Queen's Hall, first home of the Proms, reduced to rubble by an incendiary bomb in 1941. The nave is fairly wide, with three aisles separating four sets of pews. The whole church is flanked by extra seating in the balconies. As one looks up, one is struck by the beautiful dark wooden ceiling beams that criss-cross one another in the centre. The roof is held up by a series of white pillars and there was a large stained glass window behind the altar.

The church

The church is twinned with nearby Holy Trinity, Dalston, which is known as the Clowns Church, sharing a vicar between them. The latter church houses a small museum of clowning. It also serves as a focal point for the spiritual life of clowns from across the world. An annual service remembering the life and work of Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837), known as the father of British clowns, has taken place since 1946. The Grimaldi Service was first held in St James Church, Pentonville, which is where Joseph Grimaldi was buried, but that church has since been closed, with the service then moving to Holy Trinity. This year, though, it was moved to All Saints, as this building has a larger capacity.

The neighborhood

Haggerston, part of the London borough of Hackney, is in the heart of the East End. Its home to a rich mix of cultures, ethnicities and ages. It has become increasingly gentrified in recent years, partly due to its proximity to the tech centre of London, Old Street. This has led to some of the diaspora communities being pushed out of the area, with elements of hipster culture coming in. This can be seen by observing the number of vaping shops on the main road, as well as the number of places selling craft beer and a curious bar that is themed around board games. The Regents Canal runs through Haggerston, making for a genteel escape from the buzz of the city, whether walking or cycling alongside it or going down it on a narrowboat. The area is marred by a higher than average crime rate, as was illustrated by the fact that the church had been burgled only a week beforehand.

The cast

The service was led by the vicar, the Revd Richenda Wheeler. There was a puppet show put on by Dave Andrews. A poem was read by Gingernutt the Clown. Grimaldi's poem "Adieu to the Stage and Advice to His Son" was read by the clown known as Lord Pandrum. The beatitudes were read by Pip the Magic Clown.

What was the name of the service?

Seventy-First Clowns International Annual Grimaldi Service

How full was the building?

The downstairs was pretty full, though the balcony was surprisingly sparse. All in all, I estimate there were about 200 or so in the congregation, with another 30 or so members of the press milling about.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The advice given to people was to arrive at least one hour early. I heeded that advice and arrived an hour and a half before the service began, when a few people had gathered outside – mostly a mixture of press photographers and a few clowns. The doors of the church were opened an hour before the service was due to begin, whereupon I was greeted with a smile and a hello and was handed the order of service.

Was your pew comfortable?

In a word: no. In a few more words: it was a hard, wooden pew that was numbing on the buttocks. They had clearly seen better days, and when more than one person shifted, the whole pew rocked backwards, threatening to tip over.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was marvellously chaotic. And cold. It was a chilly day and the church was really draughty. The church filled up pretty quickly, with a roughly 1:2 split between clowns and non-clowns, with the clowns wandering about, posing for photos, performing the occasional magic trick, and generally teasing the congregation with a great variety of tomfoolery. There were bubbles, balloons and buffoonery aplenty, while a few people went around selling tickets for a raffle. The poor chap sat next to me was accused of having dandruff in his hair, when he was sprinkled with confetti that had been hidden up one of the clowns sleeves, only to be brushed away by an oversized comb. By the time the service began, my face was aching from smiling so much.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Friends, we come together today through the desire of many clowns once a year for encouragement and worship."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We had a little orange service booklet with a frightening number of typos in it. The reading was given from the Good News Bible.

What musical instruments were played?

All songs were played on an organ, with occasional accompaniment from a kazoo.

Did anything distract you?

A church full of clowns – what could possibly distract us? Well, the press could. For much of the service, photographers were wandering up and down the aisles, with bulbs flashing and odd bits of equipment on tripods.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was quite unlike any church service I had ever been to before. The clowns processed in while singing "The Lord of the Dance," though the congregation were so busy taking photos that the singing was rather lacklustre, and no one actually danced. After a little bit of liturgy that I'm pretty sure wasn't in the Book of Common Prayer ("For the times when we have failed to see the joke, and lost our sense of humour and perspective – Lord have mercy"), we had a short puppetry show that involved an elephant puppet spraying people with water. There then followed a short gospel reading and an address from one of the senior clowns. There was a short poem called "Dear Lord" that was read with great comic timing. After the remembrance part of the service, the clowns all read the Clowns' Prayer. There was a 20 minute break for "a tea and a pee," as one of the clowns put it, before the lights were dimmed and several clowns put on their acts. The finale was the raffle draw, which was officiated by someone from the office of the mayor of Hackney.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – If one is given the brief to do a homily at a memorial service for clowns, it may be hard to judge the tone. But the Revd Richenda Wheeler got the tone just about right, even if the exegesis was as theologically wobbly as a novel by Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, perched on a blancmange.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The vicar quoted from a story by Trevor Dennis, former vice-dean of Chester Cathedral, called "Child's Play." The story begins with God teaching Adam and Eve how to skim stones off the surface of a river in the Garden of Eden. It was an idealistic time, before the Fall, when God and humans could share in a bit of fun. "So it was once in Eden," the story goes on to say, and "so it can be still." In a world of refugees and "alternative facts," there is still laughter: a precious gift from God. Don't take oneself too seriously.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

In the midst of all the joviality, this was a memorial service. That was brought home with great dignity with the lighting of candles that were taken to the front of the church by the children, while we sang "Be Still For the Presence of the Lord."

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

For anyone susceptible to coulrophobia (fear of clowns), the whole afternoon would've been a nightmare. For those of a more conservative bent, seeing men wearing hats would have been a cause for disgruntlement. Though for me, it was the poor sound quality that meant it was very hard to hear what was being said.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The congregation dwindled throughout the afternoon, with many choosing to leave after the main service was over, while others drifted out during the post-service show. I pottered about, taking photos, but no one came over to say hello.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was a long queue for the drinks and I was slightly annoyed that the two people in front were taking and changing orders for their friends, which made life difficult for the people serving the drinks and held up everyone else in the queue. They were charging 50p for a large cup of tasteless instant coffee in a paper cup.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – I cannot comment on the regular church as this was a thoroughly irregular service; but it is a service I would happily come back to in the future and would encourage others to do so.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

While it was clearly a Christian service, the Christianity aspect did feel distinctly toned down (or was it just drowned out by the loud tones of the clowning?). But it certainly made me feel glad to have gone along, as it demonstrated and evoked a great sense of joy and mirth.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The banner that was processed in, depicting a clown and which bore the words: "Here we are fools for Christ."

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