There are a lot of places to go in London if you are looking for a hormone-fuelled meat market. The intrepid and daring do not need to travel far to find a venue where they can shimmy up against sweat-glistened flesh and buy their way into tomorrow mornings hangover. These kinds of bar or club are commonplace within any seething metropolis, but rarely does such a venue play host to such a perfect storm of debauchery that it achieves an almost mythological status.
The Church is dead. Long live The Church.
The news hit like a lightning bolt throughout the expat community when it was revealed late last month that May would host the final staging of The Church. After almost four decades as a meeting place of young Aussies and Kiwis, The Church would close its doors for the final time on May 24. No longer would Sunday afternoons end with scores of drunken revellers spilling out onto the street in (often bizarre) costumes. The locals cheered for joy. The howls of despair from London’s expat community were even louder.
To understand the important role The Church has played in the London expat community, it is important to take things back to the beginning. The temperature was dropping during a rather wet October in 1979. London was in the midst of a colonial invasion, with young Australians and Kiwis coming en masse to live, work and play in the beating heart of the Commonwealth.
It happened one Sunday morning when a group of weary backpackers rose to the distant ringing of church bells sounding across the city. They made their way to The Golden Lion, a pub in Fulham Broadway to take in the regularly scheduled striptease performance. This particular Sunday, the owner told them, the entertainment would be accompanied by a comedian. The legend goes that this was the day The Church was born, set to a classic rock soundtrack with The Knack’s My Sharona playing in the background.
Thirty-five years have passed since that fateful Sunday morning. The Church moved from its original location at Fulham Broadway a long time ago, popping up at eleven locations across London as its legend grew and attracted more and more expats looking for a good time. The experience changed gradually over time, ultimately turning into something far beyond that original day at The Golden Lion. The Church transformed into what was essentially a boozy costume party for adults, although the traditional comedian and strip show survived throughout each incarnation. By maintaining these connections with the past, The Church became more than a day for the colonials to overindulge in alcohol and turn feral. It became a tradition.
The legend goes that The Church’s moniker became a useful cover for young backpackers trying to maintain a semblance of piety after moving to London. During their weekly telephone calls and in letters home, they could reassure their loving parents that they were indeed spending their Sunday mornings at The Church. Its very name seemed to embody the spirit of the antipodean backpacker: it was tongue-in-cheek and irreverent, much like the event itself. There may have been more nudity than at your average Catholic cathedral, but what their parents didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, right?
The expat community in London tends to come and go in waves, with each passing along the traditions and culture to the next set of doe-eyed travellers to step off a Qantas flight. Although the Aussie and Kiwi community has become renowned for its transience, certain aspects have survived throughout the years and – unsurprisingly – many of these customs revolve around the expat social scene. The vast majority of young Aussies and Kiwis come to London without a safety net, knowing few people and relying on the experience of those they meet to negotiate their way around an unfamiliar culture and an often intimidating city. Since the late 1970s, The Church has been one of the staple parts of expat culture that has been passed down to each new arrival. Over two million people have been to The Church over the past thirty-five years, equating to around half of the current population of New Zealand.
The death of The Church – whilst undoubtedly a tragedy – seemed inevitable for several years, the latest incident in the prolonged decline of the Aussie and Kiwi community in London. It comes after the annus horribilis that was 2013, which saw the closure of the original Walkabout bar in Covent Garden and the sale of the bar’s flagship venue at Shepherd’s Bush. The notorious Redback Tavern closed its doors the year before, around the same time that Wimbledon’s Billabong bar and the Finchley Road Walkabout in north London also ceased operation. Each of these venues had their history within the Australian and New Zealander community, but none had the longevity and eccentric appeal of The Church. Its demise may be the latest in a long list of similar closures, but its impact is unquestionably the most significant.
As most people do in the information age, I learned about the end of The Church via social media. Unusually, it was not one of my fellow expat friends that posted in dismay about the tradition ending – it was my cousin, a woman from Australia with a family and children who lived in London around twenty years ago. Even then, The Church served as a rite of passage for backpackers that left its indelible mark – so much so that even decades down the track, its final days were noteworthy to those that experienced its unique form of revelry.
Like many others, I remember my first time at The Church in vivid detail. It was a November in 2012, and a group of us had decided to go dressed as mimes. It was a bonding experience as these burly rugby boys helped each other apply a full face of white makeup, only to step through the doors of The Church’s Clapham location to bump shoulders with men dressed as video game character Mario and a comedian wearing an inexplicable fake penis on stage. I’m sure the non-Church attending commuters on the local bus to Wandsworth were surprised when we crossed path later that night. It’s not often you see a grown man dressed as a mime and locked in a passionate clinch with a girl dressed as a cat, after all.
The demise of The Church is the end of an era for the Aussie and Kiwi expat community. In years to come, those of us that lived and played in London between 1979 and 2015 will reminisce on the times we spent there. Those that came after will cock an eyebrow and shrug in ignorance. All we will be able to do is sigh and shake our head. Maybe we could try to explain what it was that made The Church special, but it will be hard to describe what made it special. Like faith, you can’t prove it. You just have to believe in it.