From eternal and enveloping darkness upon the face of the deep, God created – first light. For many of us when we pray we find ourselves back in those dark, embracing waters of our Creator – we need to find ourselves in that place of void for all else to happen. For some years at S. Bartholomew’s we have been exploring Sacred Blackness. This very much characterises who forms the Body of Christ in the parish here on Stamford Hill and South Tottenham – as in so many of our churches.
Each year we celebrate a particular Bible figure or person from Africa. We started with S. Simon of Cyrene one Holy Week, then travelled with the Magi Balthasar through Advent another year. In 2017 we kept the Easter season with the Ethiopian eunuch (known to the Orthodox as Simon Bachos) who is the first individual in the New Testament to receive Christian baptism. Each year we have commissioned a painting or a drawing as a focus for our devotions and distributed prayer cards of the image widely around the parish and church networks. What I hope we are achieving is a black sacred space where for people of colour there is an immediacy in our theology and spirituality. As one of the churchwardens says, Black privilege is Black spirituality.
But for those months in 2020 when we could not gather as the Body of Christ and I was in church alone for the Offices and the masses we felt the loss of our charism. Within our Catholic Anglican faith presence is everything – the real presence of Christ and His chosen corporally present and in communion. It’s why we make a fuss of the saints – and pray that we might be touched by sanctity. We are made for holiness but a horrifying 9 minutes and 29 seconds on 25 May 2020 showed us with awful certainty that our presence to one another can be brutal and destructive. As we regathered as the Church after the first lockdown we wanted to tell stories of hope and strength from our sacred blackness – the season of patience was over, there was now an urgency that mattered. The hooks for the hymns boards were looking very forlorn with no singing permitted, so week by week from February 2021 until Easter we placed a black saint’s image and told their story in sermons and (recorded) music. A local British-Ghanaian artist Obed Owusu Sunkwah drew the portraits on hard board with chalk, charcoal and pencil. We started with a picture of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1809 -91), the first black Anglican bishop, a saintly pastor and scholar, who came from Nigeria to school at S. Mary’s Islington (our own Stepney saint!).
Fr Calebmark Onyemaobi from S. Anne’s Hoxton came to give us our first sermon (and annoyingly set the bar far too high!). We remembered S. Bernard Mizeki – protomartyr of southern Africa, our Holy Guardian Angels, S. Martin de Porres – patron of nurses, S. Monica on Mothering Sunday, SS Perpetua and Felicity in Passiontide and ended at Pentecost with the glorious list of all the people of the known world at that time including the Egyptians and Cyrenians. We celebrated how Africa, which had been Christ’s safe cradle and bore Him as the New Moses from Egypt, was then the cradle of the Desert Mothers and Fathers (giving the Church monasticism), and the home of great Early Church theologians and martyrs. As Anglicans we have a particular inheritance of faith from S. Augustine of Hippo (but that must wait for another picture).
A few weeks back each of the Confirmation candidates took as their Confirmation name one of the African saints; I was moved that it mattered to them to do so. It is important to be recognised and to recognise.
Fr Charles FSJ
Vicar S. Bartholomew on Stamford Hill