Newington Unitarian, London

Newington Green Unitarian, London, England


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Newington Green Unitarian
Location: London, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 December 2013, 11:00am

The building

Editor's note: We don't ordinarily allow reports on Unitarian churches. However, since the service was related to Christmas, we have made an exception. The church dates from 1708 though given a new facade in 1860. One commentator at the time described it as "a substantial brick building, of nearly square form." Inside it is a fairly small rectangular room with a full set of box pews and a large glass roof-light, which makes it bright and welcoming. There is a shallow apse and a raised Victorian Gothic reading desk (not used), along with the minister's seat and table. On the day of my visit there was also a Christmas tree. Several wall plaques commemorate notable persons from the libertarian movement.

The church

This chapel and other congregations nearby formed a centre of early Unitarianism and nonconformism. Newington Green was a hot-bed of religious dissent from the late 1690s for nearly 200 years, though the chapel is almost the last physical evidence of this. Among its many congregants of note was a certain schoolmistress named Mary Wollstonecraft, generally regarded as the mother of feminism. Her daughter, later the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, would gain fame as the author of a certain novel about the grotesque result of a bizarre scientific experiment. The congregation has another church off Upper Street, Islington, and holds services at both. During his words of welcome, the minister said it was a "radically inclusive place." In March 2008, they became the first religious establishment in Britain to refuse to perform any weddings at all until all couples, regardless of gender preferences, are accorded the right to marry. (As this will be possible three months from the date of my visit, I guess there may be pent-up demand for ceremonies in 2014!)

The neighborhood

Newington Green is on the boundary between the boroughs of Islington and Hackney and has a mix of 19th century terraced houses, most of which have been comprehensively gentrified over the last three decades, and substantial pockets of 1950s and 60s social housing, which have not. Newington Green itself is a garden square that still has its railings around trees and a patch of grass with an agreeable mix of buildings. There is too much traffic for it to be as restful as old prints show that it once was. Mary Wollstonecraft lived on Newington Green and opened a school for girls there, giving a feminist component to the remarkable radical and dissenting heritage of this area.

The cast

The Revd Andrew Pakula, minister.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Service.

How full was the building?

About 45 people, so the small chapel was comfortably populated. It would be difficult to characterise the assembled worshippers, as casual dress was very much the rule, as was informality. But there were not many ethnic minority members, which in Hackney is perhaps noteworthy, and I would guess the average age was 30-45 – that is to say, notably younger than most churches where I attend services.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. A woman with a friendly smile handed me the service sheet, which contained everything I needed.

Was your pew comfortable?

The box pews were too narrow and too upright for modern tastes, as box pews usually are. But a long cushion meant it was not too bad for a service of this length.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lively conversations were going on. The woman next to me was chatting on her phone about a trip to IKEA the next day. Two people smiled and nodded a greeting as I opened the door to my pew. Children were playing contentedly but quite noisily, which made me assume at first it was a "messy church" service. Everyone was called to order wordlessly by the minister striking a bell. As its very long resonance slowly died away, the first words were said.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Words from Barbara Kingsolver" [the American novelist, essayist and poet noted for her works on social justice]. There followed a substantial quotation.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We used the service sheets and two books: Singing The Journey and Sing Your Faith.

What musical instruments were played?

A grand piano, the small chapel organ, and the minister's iPod (connected to a reasonable sound system). The billed pianist and soloist were indisposed, so a pianist called Ezra had stepped in and gave, among several musical contributions, a spirited rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone."

Did anything distract you?

The minister fiddled with his iPod several times in order to play and again to stop the music, which was presumably in his iTunes library. He could have done with assistance here, so that his attention and focus could remain with the congregation.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was quite varied and free-wheeling. It began with the minister telling the children about the meaning of Christmas trees. After they filed out to attend their own program, the atmosphere became decidedly more adult. Near the beginning of the service was the lighting of the flaming chalice (a large candle), the symbol of the Unitarian faith. Prayers later on were accompanied by more candle lighting, with those who wished to do so coming forward to light a candle of joy or of sorrow and to say briefly who or what the joy or sorrow was. At the end of the service was yet more candle lighting, without spoken dedications, during the closing music. An unusual aspect was that we were all invited to write joyful messages on luggage tags, which were then used to dress the Christmas tree.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

Two of the messages were five and six minutes, respectively, but there were other shorter addresses at other points.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – The Revd Andrew Pakula presented like a liberal US campus rabbi. Afterwards, I discovered on the chapel website that he is indeed of Jewish heritage and from New York. I am used to less tentative leadership of services by clergy of various denominations, but perhaps the modern-day dissenters of Newington Green prefer his studied informality and inter-active style.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

There was no sermon in the sense of an explication of biblical text – and indeed no biblical reading from either Old or New Testament among the several texts used. However, the first message was about Christmas as the birth of Christ, whom I think Unitarians regard as wholly human.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The dedications of candles of joy and sorrow were the mix of expected and unexpected. A young man with a striking Mohican haircut lit a candle, saying that his thoughts were with the armed forces in un-named foreign countries "who have to face so much." He was almost lost for words. It was a moving and arresting moment that made it clear that gestures can sometimes be more eloquent than words.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I was, however, beginning to tire of the candle lighting, sincere though the dedications were.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The minister invited us to the rooms behind the chapel for tea and coffee. But once there, it became clear that the rota had broken down and no tea or coffee was prepared or even set up. Some of the regulars started to hunt for cups, jugs, etc., so I waited in anticipation, though nobody spotted me as a newcomer in need of a welcome. Eventually I headed for my lunch, sadly without a welcome from the congregation or even a friendly farewell from those on the door as I left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none while I was there – see above.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – On the one hand, the liberal politics and attitudes and lack of dogma is appealing. On the other hand, I would miss liturgy and congregational tradition. I want to have a foot in both camps: tradition and modernity.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

I am not sure that it did, except in the sense that it felt good to be with people of good intent.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The candle for the soldiers.

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