Above: The main entrance to the church from the road with decorated stonework incorporated into the building.
It is often said about the history of London that there is no need to make up stories about its buildings because, in many cases, the truth is stranger than fiction. The history of this particular church admirably illustrates this point.
Standing on high ground near Clapton Common is a church that is decorated with some of the strangest architecture of any in London. It was built 1892-95 in Gothic style, by Joseph Morris and Sons, for the Agapemonite cult as the ‘Church of the Ark of the Covenant’. Although a Quaker, Joseph Morris contributed to the purchase of the site on Rookwood Road and two of his daughters, Violet (also an architect) and Olive (a wood-carver and engineer) were residents at Spaxton, Somerset, where they were members of the sect. Seating about 400 people the magnificent church, decorated with elaborate symbolism, was erected at the cost of £20,000, paid for by the leader of the cult – Henry James Prince (1811-99). The name comes from ‘Agapemone’, meaning literally ‘the abode of love’. The Agapemonites, who held decidedly unconventional views on marriage and the role of women, relocated to Upper Clapton from their original community, established in 1849 in Spaxton, Somerset. They had obviously prospered by this time.
Above: The stone spire with bronze figures at the base.
Although the church has a conventional floor plan, the exterior stonework is covered with an extensive collection of statuary and symbolism. The main doorway is flanked with large stone carvings of angels and the four evangelists symbolised by a winged man (St Matthew); a winged lion (St Mark); a winged ox or bull (St Luke); and an eagle (St John). The same four figures, cast in bronze, look out from the four corners of the base of the spire.
Above: Closeup of three of the bronze figures.
The two weather vanes appear to allude to the words of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, depicting a fiery chariot and a sheaf of arrows (presumably of desire), while the main spire is surmounted by a spear. Inside the church, the stained glass windows, designed by the noted children’s book illustrator, Walter Crane and made by J S Sparrow, betray the unconventional nature of the sect as they illustrate the ‘true station of womankind’.
The Agapemonite cult had always been surrounded by scandal while based in Somerset. After the move to Clapton, this degenerated into a complete farce. The original leader, Henry James Prince, who claimed to be immortal, died in 1899 and was succeeded by the charming but philandering John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, who wasted no time before declaring himself to be ‘The Messiah’. Challenged by a jeering mob to prove his godhood by walking on water across Clapton Pond, Smyth-Pigott declined and retired to Somerset, where he was said to enjoy the favours of as many as seven ‘spiritual brides’ a week. Smyth-Pigott, who also claimed immortality, died in 1927, after which the cult went into decline.
The church was closed in the 1920s, having been abandoned by the cult. It was later acquired in 1956 by the Church of the Ancient Catholics and called the Ancient Catholic Cathedral Church of the Good Shepherd. In 1969 the church was designated a Grade II* listed building. The reasons for the listing included ‘An imposing and very complete, late-Victorian church with a tall landmark spire, a splendid hammerbeam roof and a largely intact scheme of original fittings … The stained glass is extraordinary and has more than special interest in the context of Arts and Crafts design … The special historic interest as a built manifestation of the plurality of religious ideas that emerged in the 19th century, evidencing the more bizarre end of the belief spectrum.’
In 2005 the church was used as a place of worship by the Georgian Orthodox Church – originally the state religion of Georgia, in Western Europe. The full title is ‘Georgian Orthodox Cathedral of the Nativity of Our Lord’.
In 2016 the listed building was at the centre of a legal battle over who should receive the proceeds from its sale for £1 million. As has already been mentioned, the originator of the church was Henry James Prince and when he died, in 1902, he was succeeded by John Hugh Smyth-Piggott. An 1892 deed stated that any funds from the sale should be used to promote the objectives of the sect. But since the group no longer existed, Smyth-Piggott’s grand-daughters claimed that, because he was the last surviving member of the original trustees, they were entitled to the proceeds. A statement to the court read ‘All the community members are now long since deceased and gone. The six named are the direct descendants of Beloved and his ‘soul-bride’ … and are therefore the rightful and only true beneficiaries of the trust.’ Judgment in the case was reserved.
The ornate church stands in Rookwood Road, on the north side of Clapton Common. Being built on high ground, the spire can be seen from quite a distance, particularly from Hackney Marshes which lie to the east.