St Clement, King Square, Finsbury, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Clement
Location: King Square, Finsbury, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 October 2018, 10:30am

The building

Photo: © Marathon and used under license Built in 1822 in what was then a new outer suburb of London, 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. Inside, the church 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 and altar is 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

Officially St Clement with St Barnabas and Matthew, they are known for their Anglo-Catholic ritual, 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.’ There is a sung parish mass each Sunday and a said mass on Tuesdays. A fellowship group also meets on Tuesdays.

The neighborhood

This inner city neighbourhood is mostly working class families living in the social housing round St Clements, with a significant number of students attending the nearby City University. King Square as rebuilt after wartime bombing is social housing, recently augmented with new buildings in between the older ones. The rebuilding is not kind to the church, as the local shopping centre now turns it back on the church. The gardens of the Square are today a public park and attractively planted with trees. Unfortunately, however, this hides the church almost totally until you are close to it and makes it very difficult to see from the main road and bus route nearby.

The cast

The vicar.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Mass.

How full was the building?

About 55 people – so the compact church felt comfortably full. There were people of diverse nationalities and sexualities and ages.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. There was someone with a friendly smile on duty handing out service sheets. Two others who were gathered in the porch also bade me a friendly welcome.

Was your pew comfortable?

Traditional chairs, but not rickety or squeaky. Comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Some friendly quiet chat. I think the elderly couple nearby were conversing in Portuguese.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘The first hymn is in the book right at the end, beyond the index.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns Ancient and Modern, with several added hymns pasted into the pages beyond the index, like the vicar said. A service sheet included the readings printed in full.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, a fine instrument of 1867 by ‘Father’ Willis, which was imported here from another bombed church that was not rebuilt.

Did anything distract you?

The light fittings had LED bulbs – which is good for the environment, but they were too bright and tended to dazzle.

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

Modern catholic, without frills. No incense, and only a minimal gospel procession of a few steps.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

7 — The vicar preached informally and approachably without notes from the front of the congregation – like a rabbi among his people.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The referendum in the Irish Republic the previous day, approving a constitutional change to remove the statutory offence of blasphemy, had been carried. Whilst God didn't need this law to protect him, Christians should take seriously such criticisms as God allows suffering. God suffered too on the Cross, sharing in our pain and travails.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Quite a lot of it: a service in this lofty, sunlit church interior among a friendly congregation.

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

Not hellish. But the peace was the comprehensive sort – I think everyone, including the clergy, greeted everyone else in the congregation. This is friendly for visitors, especially when as here I was recognised as a visitor and told I was welcome, but it did take several minutes during which the mass ground to a halt. It reminded me of the intermission at the movies when I was a child: I enjoyed the ice cream but often lost track of the film entirely.

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

After the service, the vicar and churchwarden appealed for increased giving from parish members. The vicar cited the recently repaired roof, saying that it was the first time in his 16 years of ministry at the church when on a rainy day they had not got buckets out to catch the leaks. Later, I queued to enter names in the list to be remembered on All Souls Day and those in the queue chatted to me. There was a convivial atmosphere in the spacious church entrance area as people chatted.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Instant, I think. Under doctor’s orders I am off the bean, and no alternatives seemed to be on offer.

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

7 — A friendly, welcoming church where the liturgy is conducted with dignity. My only gripe, really – and it is admittedly a petty one – would be the interruption caused by the peace ceremony.

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


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

The vicar's after-service appeal.

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