Going to church. And mosque, temple, synagogue…

We’re currently half-way through a four week project (with 5-8 hours a week spent on it) in which we have to produce a piece of theatre based on a place we’ve observed. We’ve split into four groups and I’m in the “religious spaces” group. It’s been a great opportunity to have a look at some places I’d never otherwise have been to:

Hindu temple, Neasden - 1The hindu temple at Neasden (or Shri Swaminarayan Mandir to give it its correct name) is an amazing building. Huge, carved white towers rising behind suburban houses just off London’s north circular. All the stone and wood is beautifully carved and it’s well worth a visit. We had a tour round the vast room used for cultural events by a friendly guide who patiently answered all our questions. We went up into the temple itself and tried not to be too conspicuous while we watched people worship individually, and later some of the group returned for a more organised ceremony. It was a very cool and calming place, with carpets and marble under our bare feet, and it was strange to look out the doors and see a normal London road outside. If you go, be sure to go to the cafe, just off the shop in the car park opposite, for cheap, and very tasty, food.

Later in the week we went to St James’s Church Piccadilly for morning prayers. Unfortunately we were the only people there and the two priests entered the church, took one look at us spread out among the pews, and carried on walking to the corner of the church where morning prayers apparently take place. We sat there for half an hour, just about hearing them and two church workers do their stuff before we were left alone again. I guess we were optimistic about the levels of Christian devotion during the week.

On the Friday we had two appointments. First we went to the mosque at Regent’s Park where we’d called ahead to make sure we’d be welcome. And we mostly were. As we walked with the crowds towards the mosque itself we felt very conspicuous and a little nervous, given the position islam currently has in the eyes of many Britons. This wasn’t helped when a large guy accosted two of us, asking, “Where are you from? What are you doing here? Are you going to pray? You can’t pray! How will you pray?” before disappearing to fetch security. Thankfully the security guard was much more relaxed, saying it was fine, not a problem, to stay near the back and not to walk directly in front of people while they pray.

The event itself was interesting, not that we could understand anything the imam was saying, and then, suddenly, all the men (the women were up in a fenced-off balcony) started jostling for position in lines, ready for prayer. In all these places I’ve wondered whether it’s wrong to join in, given I don’t believe, or wrong to stay out of it, given this will be very noticeable. I’ve settled for joining in, feeling this is least disruptive for those who believe in what they’re doing, but it still feels a bit wrong.

We then had an interesting discussion with a chap who works in the library, about islam and worship, before heading off. I must admit that it felt a relief to leave. Not because we weren’t made to feel welcome, apart from that one guy, but because I felt so completely out of place. We’d stood out in the hindu temple but somehow that had felt a little more relaxed about it all.

After a bite to eat we had an appointment down the road at West London Synagogue of British Jews. After the (possibly self-imposed) tension of the mosque this was a real pleasure. Admittedly, as some of them said, these were extremely laid-back Jews, but we were made to feel completely welcome, allowed to poke around the building (constructed in the then fashionable Victorian Moorish style) and were even name-checked in both the services we attended.

And then the Sunday took us to a service at St Peter’s Italian Church on Clerkenwell Road, somewhere I’ve often travelled past but never been into. It’s a huge space, all white paint, marble pillars and gold ornamentation. The service was in Italian which didn’t mean much to most of the group but it was interesting enough as I’ve never been to a Catholic service before (not that I’ve been to many non-Catholic ones either). I had concerns here about whether I should, for example, cross myself or not here, but mostly I just followed the crowd, as I had at the mosque. The priests were very friendly afterwards (it helped having an Italian among us) and we were invited to have a look round the social club building next door.

And that’s it, apart from a trip to a more orthodox synagogue that a few of the group managed later. It’s been fascinating to see so much I’d never witnessed before and to try and find parallels and differences between them all. How we’re going to create some theatre out of so much varied observation is another matter, and something I’m currently not very confident about…

25 Jun 2007 at Twitter

  • 06:44am: Was so very close to staying in bed all day. Just because.
  • 08:04pm: Just spent 90 mins navigating oodles of browser tabs to laboriously book a train and a hotel. I love that the web makes things easier.