St Clement with St Barnabas and Matthew, Finsbury, London

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Clement with St Barnabas and Matthew
Location: Finsbury, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 September 2020, 10:30am

The building

Built in 1822, the church was designed by classical architect Philip Hardwick, who designed Euston Station and its famous (now demolished) arch. It has a front of tall columns facing onto King Square, and is the only surviving building of the original square. St Clement’s has a thin needle spire and large clock but it is rather hidden today behind the trees of the square. Both church and square were badly damaged in 1940 in the World War II German bombing of London. The interior is quite a surprise. The post-war interior was reconstructed inside the bombed walls by church architect Norman Haines. It is lofty and light and fitted out with grand and tall Corinthian columns. There is a spacious sanctuary; the altar sits under a baldaccino. Continuing the classical theme, two large urns sit either side of the altar, whilst an 18th century pulpit was imported from another church

The church

Like most UK churches, the St Clement community has been meeting online only, which is a struggle for the elderly who are not computer savvy. Now, face-to-face worship is slowly returning – St Clement’s has a Sunday sung mass again. St Clement’s is known for their Anglo-Catholic approach, which their website admits ‘can seem a little overwhelming … but … is a way of recognising the wonder of God’s presence … and brings us close to heaven.’ They are aligned with Inclusive Church, which (again quoting from their website) ‘does not discriminate, on any level, on grounds of economic power, gender, mental health, physical ability, race or sexuality.’

The neighborhood

Finsbury lies in the approximate centre of Greater London, immediately north of the City of London. Once London’s principal medical district and home to numerous hospitals, including St Mary Bethlehem (better known as Bedlam), Finsbury now hosts only one remaining hospital. The immediate neighbourhood of St Clement’s is in transition. The rented social housing around the church is subject to renewal, whilst immensely tall new luxury flats now compete for attention with the slender steeple of St Clement’s. For sheer height the flats win, hands down. For gracefulness St Clement’s hold its own.

The cast

The vicar, an assistant priest, and a server. The music was recorded.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Mass.

How full was the building?

It was tricky to count given the way our chairs were so spread out, making the church seem full. St Clement’s is a lofty and handsome church inside, but not that large, so I guess we numbered 25-30.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A face-masked welcomer was on duty and gestured to the hand sanitizer. which I used with obviousness before accepting the service sheet from her. It is difficult tell when people wear face masks what their facial expression is, but the welcomer's body language was definitely welcoming-at-a-moderate-distance; that is quite tricky to pull off.

Was your pew comfortable?

We had individual chairs dotted about in splendid isolation, at least two metres apart in all directions from other members of the congregation. Comfortable, though one or two of the elderly worshippers seemed to miss a chair close in front of them to steady themselves as they stood when the liturgy required.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Rather nice pre-recorded music was playing, creating a prayerful atmosphere. This was briefly interrupted by an outbreak of excitable and loud chatter, but that died down after a bit. I can’t blame them; after months of isolation, friends and even near neighbours surely welcome the opportunity to chat.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning.’ There then followed an announcement about practical matters to ensure social isolation (and compliance with government and church regulations about public worship at the present time of plague). We then went into the liturgy as printed on our sheets.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The service sheet and an insert with the four hymns for the day gave us everything we needed. Not that we sang the hymns (see below).

What musical instruments were played?

None. We didn’t sing the hymns, but listened to them on a recording accompanied by an organ. The mass was said (this service in pre-Covid times was a sung mass). The regulations for church services in a time of plague don’t currently permit congregational singing (though you can do all sorts of close proximity things in secular settings, including getting a facial, a tattoo, or a haircut, or play football). Given that the congregation were already physically distanced and wearing face masks, this regulation strikes me as a bit severe. Had we sung, the hymns might have sounded rather muffled by our masks, but we would have felt more engaged.

Did anything distract you?

Old Testament reading (Numbers 21:4-9) and gospel (John 3:1-17) referred to the serpent of bronze that Moses lifted up in the desert to banish the venom of the real serpents the Israelites encountered there. Heh! I thought, I was taught that the caduceus (a serpent winding around a pole) was an invention of classical antiquity (before it got appropriated as a logo by big pharma companies). Maybe the Greeks got it from the tribes of Israel? Maybe its one of those symbols that miraculously occurs in different cultures independently? Maybe ...? Somewhere in this blizzard of thoughts my concentration returned to mass at St Clement’s, only to spin off again when the sermon took as its theme the word ‘cure’ and images of serpents wrapped around poles returned. Damn! Why can't I concentrate better? Maybe I should have skipped a second cup of breakfast coffee.

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

As your Mystery Worshipper visited St Clement’s two years ago for what was then a sung mass, this return was to compare that with what is allowed today within the complex and changing regulations for church services in a time of plague. Apart from the spacing out of chairs, there was incense – but nothing was chanted or sung. The priest santised his hands with gel no fewer than three times during the liturgy, making a solemn ritual out of it, holding his hands high as he did so: at the preparation, before the consecration, and before the distribution. Catholic liturgy normally incorporates hand-washing, but this wasn’t the usual genteel dipping the fingertips in a bowl of water. This was a thorough job, done for real. Well, if a priest celebrating mass can’t justify a bit of virtue signalling, who can? The biggest change was the distribution of communion, which was in one kind only, no chalice. We didn’t go to the sanctuary or altar rail; the priest walked around the church from chair to chair. It felt a bit like table service, but avoided the milling around post-communion, with its risks of proximity. The other change was that there was no invitation to stay for a chat and coffee afterwards. We were asked to leave the church and chat outside in the park opposite if we wished to do so.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes

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

7 — Perfectly adequate; I really have nothing to say one way or the other.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The vicar riffed on the idea of ‘cure’. The cure of illness, the cure of souls that is every priest's duty, the idea of curacy.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

During the distribution of communion, when Lotti's Crucifixus was played on the sound system. This was Holy Cross Sunday and the vicar had asked us to contemplate the instrument of torture that is the cross.

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

Far from hellish – perhaps I should have listed it as a distraction – but in spite of some energetic wrist action, the server wasn’t getting much smoke from the thurible. A bad charcoal day. I rather enjoy clouds like those that used to come from Soviet factory chimneys. When a thurible is properly lit, the incense will gently reach out its tentacles across a church to bind us together by tweaking that most intimate sense: smell.

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

We were asked not to, and I didn’t. I walked straight out of the church and home in the bright sunshine.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

7 — It’s been two years since my last visit, but maybe I should not wait so long.

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

Definitely.

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

Having communion brought to me individually.

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