Sacred spaces, silly hens

by Jenny Taylor - 7th September 2011

A new tower is growing up on the site of the World Trade Centre.  Admirable resolve, or more of the same hubris?

Britain and the US are obsessed with building and re-building. A sign of hope, of the indomitability of the human spirit?  Yes, but how about a little more emphasis on the way to build the people who will occupy them?

It's even worse in Britain.  From my recent trip down Tottenham High Road, it’s clear that the ‘riots’ took place in a part of London that has seen millions of pounds of investment in buildings, street furniture, monuments, parks.

Yet angry, empty people burned much of it down again.  If the culture appears to preach and parade moral iconoclasm, it's going to stick somewhere, and result in physical destruction to match.

When we demonstrate with our profanity and materialism that the soul and what affects it are nobody's business but our own, the most vicious in society are likely to take us seriously.

New York is re-building its new tower on the same spot as those that fell.

But to what end?

A lack of realism characterises much of our regeneration. Our buildings will burn again unless we see the point about building better people to inhabit them.

Walpole Old Chapel, SuffolkOn Sunday I visited Walpole Old Chapel in Suffolk, built in the late 16th century that has been restored over the past ten years to the tune of £150,000.

It once housed around 200 worshippers, and was pivotal in the fight for freedom of conscience in the late seventeenth century in East Anglia.

It is one of twenty chapels taken on by the excellent Historic Chapels Trust, with money from English Heritage, the Lottery and private sponsors.

Beautiful and serene, its survival is a testament to the spirit of its builders, non-conformist Puritans who defied the established powers in their pursuit of liberty, and to the passions of its re-builders, one of whom is Trustee Lord Mawson.

Walpole Old Chapel is a national treasure - perhaps unique.  Yet on Sunday it hosted just the same ugly spiritedness whose outworking that was evident on Tottenham's streets only last month. 

The Grey Hen Press is an independent publisher of poetry by  'older women'.  They were giving a reading at the Chapel from their new anthology, Get me Out of Here.

A dabbling poet myself, I joined them with some anticipation, but began to wince almost immediately.  ‘Sh**’ was the first word, followed by an expatiation on the subject.  Another one was ‘Thai sandwich’ about a man having sex with two children.  ‘F***ing’ was a particularly popular adjective.  

And it then dawned on me that each of these 60s feminists was completely oblivious not just to the atmosphere and the spirit that created it, but to the fact that under the text from which they read, and on which they were propping up their poems, was another one: the chapel's open Bible.

To profane a Qur'an, even to place it on the floor, is deemed blasphemy, and in Pakistan that is a treasonable offence, often punished with summary execution.  In an old Suffolk chapel, the Bible has become simply a stage prop.

I later learn from the Walpole Old Chapel website that it was ‘Suffolk Puritans [who] transformed this timber-framed 16th century farmhouse into a simple but dramatic religious building . . . black robed ministers read from the Bible and preached the lessons learned from it.’

It needs more than resurrected buildings to transform today's baleful souls.

Building people

Mandy Gillen who used to work in relief and development in Afghanistan, is coordinator of a very different kind of building.

Galeed House in the formerly English working-class Sheffield neighbourhood of Darnall takes its name from an ancient Bible story about friendship and renewed trust.

Jacob and Laban in the book of Genesis decided to mark their renewed relationship with a pile of stones, and so the word means ‘heap of witness’ (Gen. 31:47, 48).

But unlike so much restoration work in Britain, Galeed House is much more than the sum of its parts.  It houses a sensibility. 

Galeed is a building that builds people.  Galeed springs out of a concern for the new demographic where Mandy Gillen lives in a part of Sheffield where mosques outnumber churches two to one, with populations from North Africa and South East Asia.

Galeed is a drop-in; a place for kids to play; a hub for whatever might be needed such as sewing classes, employment workshops: practical help, but in a context of spiritual succour, dispelling stereotypes, building people up from the inside out. Mandy, 51, seeks to establish common ground between the locals and other users who hail from Kurdistan, Somalia, Yemen, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Ironically the tenth anniversary celebrations of Galeed House will also coincide with the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City.

The special guest will be Revd John Mosey from Cumbria whose 19-year-old daughter Helga was killed on the fatal transatlantic Pan-Am flight that was blown up over Lockerbie in Scotland 23 years ago.

Revd Mosey, 71, is helping Christians form a collective response to acts of terrorism motivated by religious extremism, and all will be welcome to hear him.

He told Lapido: ‘Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean letting criminals off the hook, but it is more a case of refusing to hold onto anger and resentment of being wronged. God is the ultimate judge.’

He believes that better understanding of other cultures and religions both at grass-roots level as well as among world leaders could help deter future generations from joining terrorist cells.

He says: ‘Nothing will ever bring back Helga. But her death has made me examine my own faith and ask myself, is this for real or am I just going through the motions? I think I know the answer.’

It was a wise man who wrote:  ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain’ (Psalm 127).


Featured Publication

  • The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCE– 492 CE.

    IF ONE IS LOOKING for a critique of Judaism, or an ethnography of the Jews, Simon Schama's book is not the place to find it.  This is a broad panorama of Jewish history which traces a remarkable love affair with words, argues Lela Gilbert.