Moored up in Hackney Wick is the Floating Church. This barge-come-chapel is run by Reverend Dave Pilkington, a man who is putting a fresh spin on ideas about spirituality for the community.
Hackney Wick has seen a huge amount of change in the last decade. Gentrification seeping into East London has brought with it a swathe of microbreweries, vegan cafes and tech startups – all the tell-tale signs of a hipster presence, new additions to what was once seen as an industrial, working class area.
Before lockdown, an evening stroll along the banks of Hackney Wick’s canal yielded sounds of clinking glasses and gentle laughter from one of the many cocktail bars near the water’s edge. Even during last summer’s restrictions, there was a constant ooze of reggae music emanating from one of the shaman’s barges further down the canal towards Stratford as residents went about their state-authorised exercise.
Now something altogether more contemplative can be found on the Lee Navigation moorings: the Floating Church. Essentially an experiment carried out by the Church of England, Genesis (the name of the vessel) has acted as a place of worship and hosts meetings for those in the community that want to learn more about spirituality since it moored up in 2019. After five years it will float along the waterways to other parts of London identified by the church as places which would benefit from its presence.
‘Basically, you’re not allowed to have any religious buildings in the Olympic Park,’ explains Reverend ‘Captain’ Dave Pilkington, who operates the Floating Church, named affectionately for the sea-worthy nature of his chapel.
‘The Church of England wanted a presence in every community – and they didn’t have one in Hackney Wick. So someone in my diocese suggested we just get a boat. It’s a lot cheaper than spending five million quid on a church.’
The role of the Floating Church is not, as Rev Pilkington emphasises, to evangelise and convert a Bohemian community to christianity. Rather, the Thursday night meetings that the newby vicar organises are a space for people to come and talk while exploring ideas about spirituality.
‘Out of the 15-18 people who regularly attend the meetings – there’s a real mixture. There’s people from different faiths who come – some aren’t religious at all. I’m not proselytising to them, in fact I don’t formally host the meetings. I’m just there to help give people a safe space to explore spirituality.’
The meetings take the form of the twelve step mantra, utilised by alcoholics anonymous programmes – a modern slant on the Church of England’s usual approach to teaching. Rev Pilkington is keen to point out that it’s not just for people with chemical addictions.
‘Yes there are people who attend that do struggle with addictions. But there are others who just come, say nothing and sit and listen for the evening. We go through the twelve steps – people can talk about problems they have if they want to, there’s no coercion involved.’
Unlike some tenets of Christianity, Rev Pilkington focuses more on a mantra of how to act day to day. ‘A lot of religion is escapism – a formalised panic about death. We are trying to get away from that, what does it mean to live? It’s a journey – what do you do on the way?’
Although there have been no physical meetings on Genesis since the pandemic began last year, Rev Pilkington continues to hold these meetings on Zoom every week.
Given the diverse nature of this part of London, a more pragmatic approach to teaching about Christianity seems to be having success. ‘Someone said to me the other day that they learnt more about themselves in a few months of just talking with the group, than they did in ten years of therapy.’
It must also help that Rev Pilkington is an abrupt departure from the public’s perception of what a “man of God” is usually like. As we speak on Zoom, looming into view behind him is an acoustic guitar. ‘I like to play as much as I can – and try and write songs. I’d love to have the time to write more.’
‘What am I listening to at the moment? Let’s have a look.’ After revealing a Coldplay CD stowed away on his computer, a brief debate erupts on Chris Martin’s best work, before 2004’s Parachutes is adamantly decided upon.
Although the term “cool vicar” is enough to make anyone cringe – on par in fact, with “cool teacher” – the wide rimmed specs he wears gives Rev Pilkington the look of Elvis Costello in a dog collar. Perfect then, for effortlessly cool Hackney Wick.
In a break with some of the area’s more obvious delights, the Floating Church’s leading man goes about his business in a more subtle way. Rev Pilkington began just chatting with locals in coffee shops and offering, but never thrusting help and guidance on those who needed it.
‘People say “Dave! Why aren’t you advertising more?” But that wouldn’t really be me. I’m not someone who’s going to stand by the canal with a megaphone raving about how everyone’s going to hell. Then no one would want to talk to me.’
Rev Pilkington’s organic approach is also at odds with the cultural landscape of today. ‘I don’t do social media – I hate Twitter. My daughter said I should TikTok – but I think that’s a bit of a long shot.’
‘Yeah, you might get some more people knowing about you. But if someone in Australia starts following me online, what good is that? My role in trying to help strengthen the community isn’t changed – that’s my goal. I’m not interested in being a local celebrity or anything like that.’
Another challenge the vicar faces is the glaciation of social change from within the church itself. ‘Sometimes you want to bury your face in your hands. We are much better on women now – there have been huge positive steps in that area – but there are obviously some people who’s views on sexuality aren’t great.’
Rev Pilkington moved to East London in 1994 where he has remained ever since – having started off by working in rehabs all over the area.
‘I’m born for East London really – my wife’s born and bred here. The first place I lived in the nineties was in Bow, just off the Roman. Then we moved to Fish Island but we’re back in Bow now. I just love the fact that there is still a massive sense of community here.’
After moving to London, the vicar discovered a different sort of challenge to his faith. ‘I’m originally from the midlands and was a Manchester United fan. I’ve since, however, converted to being a West Ham fan. If you want to talk about conversions, that’s a pretty serious one.’
As word of mouth spreads of the Floating Church, Rev Pilkington’s level of importance continues to grow in the community. His pragmatic, inclusive approach to religion and spirituality chiming with the diverse collection of creatives that reside in Hackney Wick. Long may it continue.
If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested in our feature on Reverend James Hugesdon
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