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Chapel, Highbury & Islington, London
The church: Union
Chapel, Highbury & Islington, London.
The building: Built
in a 19th century Victorian Gothic style by James Cubitt, a
specialist of non-conformist church building design (and author
of Church Design for Congregations), the church appears
from the front to be little more than a broad tower. Inside,
the main body of the building is roughly square, with tiled
floors leading down toward a stage at the front, with balconies
on three sides. As well as being the home of the church, it
is one of London's foremost small concert venues, so there were
signs of stage show lighting and sound equipment, though these
weren't used to add razzmatazz to the church service.
The church: The
congregation began life as a meeting of Anglicans and evangelicals
around the turn of the 19th century in Highbury and soon moved
to the site where they now are, though the original building
was torn down and replaced with the current one in 1877. The
church runs a project called Margins, which works with the local
homeless; this was visibly evident during the service, as a
few people came in for some coffee and were headed off for a
Sunday lunch that the church provides afterwards.
The church is just outside Highbury & Islington station, which serves neighbouring districts of London of quite different character. Islington is a very well-to-do part of north London, and just down the road there are lots of very nice (and expensive!) boutique shops. Highbury is less salubrious: home of both London Metropolitan University and Arsenal Football Club (the latter moved here in 1913, having originally been based in South London).
The cast: The
whole service was led by the minister, the Revd Karen Stallard.
The date & time: Sunday,
6 April 2014, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
"I Thirst." During Lent, they named each of their
services after one of the last sayings of Jesus on the cross.
How full was the building?
Virtually empty. I counted a total of 17 people in a building that can accommodate 800.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Upon my arrival, some 20 minutes before the scheduled start
of the service, the doors were still locked. Seeing a notice
that entry could be obtained via the vestry at the back, I embarked
down a deserted alleyway only to find that it was also locked.
By the time I'd walked around the whole block and was on the
verge of giving up, I saw the front door had now been unlocked.
I was the second person in there, the first being the minister,
who came down and greeted me and we had a pleasant little chat.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was, which was a rather pleasant surprise. It was a plain
and fairly well-worn pew, the kind that normally presents problems
with the lower back, but this was fine.
How would you describe the pre-service
Some might say peaceably quiet, others may say deserted. Take
your pick. With so few people in such a large building, there
was never going to be a vibrant hum of activity. The few that
were gathered were very friendly, though, and I got the impression
that this was a committed community, bound closely to one another
in friendship and fellowship.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good morning all. If you find the service a bit boring, you can make Easter cards on the table at the back."
What books did the congregation use during the
We had a blue hymn book called Common Praise and The
Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. We also had two
leaflets, one with the notices (including hymn numbers and scripture
readings) and the other containing a scripted liturgy that was
used during communion.
What musical instruments were played?
A fine organ, custom-built for this space by Henry Willis in
1878, and which has recently been restored.
Did anything distract you?
There was a great temptation to look up at the great wooden ceiling and the stained glass windows. Also, during a period of quiet meditation, someone took up the invitation to make Easter cards, so there was a fair bit of rustling going on.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
For a non-conformist church, it was relatively stiff-upper lip. With a tiny congregation, it was difficult to get much gusto into the singing.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
8 The Revd Karen Stallard began with a demonstration
involving three volunteer children eating dry crackers and then
sucking vinegar off a sponge to show one aspect of Jesus' crucifixion.
She spoke clearly and thoughtfully, though I didn't agree with
everything she said.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
Based on Jesus' words "I thirst" and the demonstration
above, we were encouraged to "imagine" Jesus' suffering,
even though doing so might make us uncomfortable, in order that
we might understand it.
Which part of the service was like being in
Unusually, it was the notices. There was a lot going on and
every member of the church seemed to be actively involved in
something, making it a highly active church that is disproportionately
busy for the number of people there.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Part of the service was spent in meditation whilst we listened
to a piece of music called "The Last Seven Words of Jesus"
whilst looking at an Edvard Munch-like image (think The
Scream) entitled I thirst, which showed Jesus
in agony on the cross. The combination of the music and the
image was highly evocative, but not at all pleasant. It wasn't
that I thought it was badly done it wasn't, but it was
far more hell-like than heaven-like.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
A few people smiled and said hello but without trying to engage
me in conversation. A lot of visitors started to come in, either
for the lunch meal for the homeless or the tour of the building
that took place at 12.15. So I had my coffee and looked around
a bit before making my exit.
How would you describe the after-service
It was reasonable. All hot drinks were served in teacups with
the option of a saucer as well, though it felt slightly odd
drinking coffee from a teacup. I couldn't see what type of tea
or coffee was being served. There was no sign of any biscuits.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 If I lived in the area, I would consider it. I hope the small size of the community is not indicative of its continuation being under threat. As a concert venue, it is well known, but the church community is a bit of a hidden gem.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes. It was a slightly odd mix. It labels itself as "liberal,
inclusive, non-hierarchical and non-conformist," but there was
a great deal here that one would find more at home in a conformist
church than a non-conformist. For example: the wooden pews,
beautiful stained glass windows, and a scripted liturgy for
the communion. But that mixture, combined with a congregationalist
approach, made for a wonderful expression of the Christian faith
that is just right for this community.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The music and image of Jesus crying out in thirst.
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