St Paul Bow Common, Bow Common
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St. Paul's, Bow Common(http://www.stpaulsbowcommon.org.uk) has a history going back to the original large Victorian church built in 1958 in the middle of rhubarb fields when this really was Common land! This church was built by William Cotton a governor of the Bank of England, philanthropist and property developer who believed that people had deep spiritual needs, whatever their material needs. He bought up Bow Common but first built the new parish church of St. Paul out of his own pocket to serve some of the poorest people in London.
This church was at the centre of life in this area until the 2nd World War when it suffered two hits during the raids on the nearby London docks and was reduced to a shell in March 1941.
Ten years later a radical young priest, Fr. Gresham Kirkby(+2006), came here and when permission was given to rebuild the ruined St. Paul's, Bow Common, incorporating part of the neighbouring parish of St. Luke, Mile End (hence out parish is called the parish of St. Paul with St. Luke, but the church is still just 'St. Paul's, Bow Common'), he gathered together young architect Robert Maguireand designer, Keith Murray (+ 2005), both only in their 20's and neither had built a church before!
The vision and inspiration was that of Fr. Kirkby, deeply influenced by a radical political outlook as well as by the Liturgical Movement which had brought innovative ecclesiastical architectural forms on the Continent but not yet in Britain. What they produced together is still regarded as the most important example of post-War architecture in Britain and although the outside is enigmatic and gives nothing away,, the interior seldom fails to cause a intake of breath! In October 2010 this church was chosen by the BBC to represent the whole of modern 20th C church architecture in its 6 part series 'Churches: How to Read Them' by Dr. Richard Smith and shown on BBC 4.
Built entirely on liturgical principles, nevertheless, the genius of Maguire, Murray and Kirkby has been such that we discover all kinds of new and apt uses of this great space for the use of the community as well as the church. Robert Maguire used the phrase 'inclusive space' with regard to the use of this church for worship - that wherever you are within it, you feel included in the central action going on at the altar. In 1998 the present incumbent discovered that this building is a wonderful space, for instance, for art displays and associated events. Thus a display at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Shamiana, A Moghul Tent which had its genesis in our part of East London through the beautiful textile work of local Asian women expressing their hopes and aspirations) was expanded to almost twice the size and displayed in this East End Church – a courageous but highly successful thing for them to do! The space and configuration of the church clearly proved itself so appropriate to this kind of use.
Over the years since then there have been many other art events – especially with the Trust ‘Stitches in Time’ which was launched from St. Paul’s, Bow Common as the ‘Tower Hamlets Millennium Tapestry’ in 2000 and has been a regular annual venue for the extraordinary works which continue to be produced by SIT (www.stitchesintime.org.uk) .
Starting on June 25 th AND NOW EXTENDED TO 1ST OCTOBER the artist and mosaicist, Charles Lutyens is having a retrospective exhibition of his life’s work.( www.charleslutyens.co.uk ) Charles Lutyens spent 5 years creating our remarkable cycle of mosaics of ‘The Heavenly Host’ – 800 sq feet of mosaics which are among the largest to be found in any church in Britain and the largest created and executed by one artist on their own. See church website for details and images (www.stpaulsbowcommon.org.uk)
We have welcomed a variety of events into the church, all rooted in the life and activity of the local community – not only our own church celebrations – religious and social – but also a conference on Child Development (see www.toyhouselibraries.org.uk) , a seminar on Mental Health and Faith Groups (www.safh.org.uk), a Christmas party shared by homeless people and volunteers who befriend them – the great enterprise of a church member Lidija Mavra. Called Sockmob (www.sockmob.org). This remarkable church has also proved to be an ideal space for 71 Vietnamese Roman Catholic pilgrims to (literally) camp out for a week on the church benches and in our huge open space, who were here on a mission at a local RC Church! Our church primary school (St. Paul with St. Luke) holds larger school events in the church including an annual Eid celebration, when the faithfulness of our common ancestor in faith, Abraham, is celebrated.
And, of course, we find this to be a wonderfully versatile space in which to worship God in creative and beautiful ways – our chief work is, above all, that of prayer and praise and worship of God and trying in small ways to build God’s Kingdom in our midst.
At present we are very solidly engaged with the major St. Paul’s Way Transformational Project (www.stpaulsway.org.uk) as a community partner (in fact the first to be on this patch back in 1858!). We are trying to enhance our existing community facilities to be of more and better use to the local community and are looking to expand our facilities in the future.
People come literally from all over the world to visit this church and it is a remarkable place. But for us whose home this is, it is a place which aims to open its doors to all who come our way to share the love of God and to try to live out that love, even in modest everyday ways.
Ralph Beyer(+2008) designed and executed the lettering around our entrance porch (he later went on to produce a remarkable major series of inscribed panels at Coventry Cathedral) which quotes the words of the patriarch Jacob, on waking after his dream of the ladder fixed between heaven and earth, ‘Truly this is the House of God; This is the Gate of Heaven’. Jacob discovered that a place which had seemed like nothing special – just somewhere to lay his head at a time of much trial, was indeed holy ground. We dare to say that we learn this for ourselves every day, in the ‘House of God and Gate of Heaven’
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