St Andrew’s Church; The Theatre of Love
By Martin Cooke
St. Andrew’s church seems like a rather anomalous and surreal sight in downtown Moscow. The quintessential English vicarage is the only residential house and garden in the city. Normally you’d have to be a billionaire to own such a house in such a spot. To the casual eye though, St. Andrew’s is just a typical neo-gothic building; one which would not be an unusual sight in virtually any part of the UK. Many of these old church’s in Britain have become dilapidated and been converted into carpet warehouses and bingo halls, art centres, workshops and even people’s homes. Nobody blinks about these conversions. There was a time when such buildings in England had a widely supposed supernatural or sacred significance but this is no longer the case. Churches are closing at a rapid rate. A flamboyant reverend friend recently showed me around his Anglican Church in Twickenham; it was almost a carbon copy of St Andrew’s, like the 3D printed building of its day; absolutely detested by Thomas Hardy for one. Most churches are as empty as a discarded beer bottle, nowadays. My flamboyant friend certainly yearned for an influx of people. I regarded the splendid vaulted canopy and rows of creaking pews without a bum to support; and concluded ‘they have don’t pack ‘em in like in the old days.’ Good thing/bad thing? Discuss.
Meanwhile, here in Moscow, there is a slight variation on the churchgoing theme, partly because St Andrew’s has several purposes. It is an education centre for underprivileged children and young people; it is a typical parish Church which administers the holy sacraments and it is an established venue for classical concerts; hence the friendly, open doors atmosphere and the continual hubbub associated with the comings and goings of a wide variety of people. Expats use the church as a kind of social centre where they can engage in pub quizzes and Scottish dancing and hold art exhibitions and whisky raffles. It’s a normal “hub of the community” sort of place with plenty of things going on: Funerals, weddings, bar mitzvahs; (Well, ok, maybe not so many bar mitzvahs.) The occasional film company use it as a unique location. The usual happy mix of community activities in other words. Just recently however, under the guidance and inspiration of Father Clive Fairclough, some of the church’s events have begun to develop a contemporary dimension. Modern music and a younger crowd, a throbbing buzzy atmosphere, a revival of interest in the best qualities of the church’s mission as a place of welcome and refuge. Refuge from what? What refuge do underground electronic composers warrant when there are so many orphans in need of shelter? You know, the majority of people who enjoy contemporary music and post structural art forms really love to gather and enjoy themselves in a conducive place which respects the person and does not automatically seek to rip them off. People who come to gigs at the church feel happy not to be treated like a credit card on legs; and it’s true, the church’s unique atmosphere is really palpable to those who are normally at the mercy of con-merchants, wheeler dealers and spivs. It’s a real mercy for them to find a place where they are made welcome to express themselves without being subject to economic or conformist harassment. It is to the church’s eternal credit that it offers a place where people can express their creative nature. It is a place for the soul. The soul being a synonym for the non-material aspects of life. Once we are lucky enough to be fed and sheltered, what next? Singing, dancing, playing, painting; Giving service. Of all the places creators should be welcome, it is in the church. Why? Because art is useless and immaterial – it exists to support our sanity, our morale and our sense of complicity. Art is an expression of togetherness and mutuality; art is for everyone and brings people together regardless of race, colour, and creed. There are myriad reasons why the Church is an appropriate place for new theatre and underground music – here we gain social intercourse, encouragement and opportunity, innovation and development. Since the theatre of love project was invited to bring our events to church in the summer of 2016, we have managed to attract at least three thousand new people to Macbeth, Treasure island, Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Queen’s Garden and more: many of our spectators are hungry to experience the welcoming atmosphere, non-commercial motivation and historical status of the church. That’s when the ‘brave o’er hanging firmament, [the] majestic roof fretted with golden fire’ becomes filled with the spirit of art and the church is temporarily transubstantiated into a place of wonder, delight and spiritual refreshment once more.