Anyone who enters St Mary Of Eton church in the London suburb of Hackney Wick to attend a church service is surprised. Instead of sitting in pews, people sit on camp chairs and chat. Blocking the view of the colorful altar are construction fences with framed photos of British athletes hanging from them, and right next to them a child climbs around on an inflatable piece of gymnastics equipment.
A cafe with an art exhibition and children's playground – not a typical sight inside a church. However, Vicar Reuben Preston, who came up with the idea for the gastronomic use six months ago, thinks it makes perfect sense. A moment ago he was advising a single mother in his office; now he gets a cup of English tea with milk and sits down in his new cafe. "I don't want to convert anyone; I just want to offer tourists what they normally need when they're out and about; I started from myself there." That's why he installed a wi-fi router and provided a multiple socket in the church – to charge cell phones and cameras.
Behind the counter, Sandra Rex fills up milk jugs and sugar bowls. The east London native moved to Essex, 70 kilometers away, seven years ago – but she has remained loyal to her parish in Hackney Wick. Since the Games began in London, she has returned here every day to serve guests. "I think it's a wonderful idea," she says. "Our church is so beautiful – why should we use it only during the worship service?"
Art and commerce
Art and commerce in the church? "Something like this would not be possible in a Catholic church in Germany," says church law expert Beatrix Laukemper-Isermann from Munster, Germany. "In a rite of profanation, one would first have to deprive them of their pastoral purpose." In the Church Of England, the Anglican state church of England, however, this is allowed.
Vicar Preston, now 47, was also once an artist himself before he began his priestly career. Until just under a year ago, he worked in a parish on the south coast of England, "but then I missed the variety". That's why he moved to London.
Here he finds the desired colorfulness, for example in the form of young artists who are looking for a platform to exhibit their works, even if it is only the construction fence in the church. In the photos posted there, a young gymnast balances on a balance beam, and a pregnant field hockey player poses with her stick in front of a bale of straw. Three years of work by photographers Ginny Jory and Laura Woolnough went into the two dozen portraits of British athletes.
The church tower is reached by 128 steps of a steep, narrow spiral staircase. Once at the top, Preston points to the Olympic Stadium and the Olympic observation tower – both of which can be admired from here. "At five pounds, our steeple tour is much cheaper than the one up the Olympic observation tower," Preston said with a laugh. But the hoped-for streams of tourists fail to materialize.
"Even though we're so close to the Olympic Stadium, few stray into our outlying district of Hackney Wick," says the clergyman.
"Signs will be posted only for the shopping centers and the route to downtown."
The church is all the more meeting place for parishioners and their friends during the games. Maureen Sinclair Benstead has made herself comfortable with a cup of tea and is reading. "To support the cafe operation, I also bring my friends and international Olympic guests with me." She hopes the proceeds will benefit the building project the church has been planning for 20 years. It needs a new roof.