St Silas Pentonville, Islington, The Angel, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Silas Pentonville
Location: Islington, The Angel, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 February 2020, 11:00am

The building

A Victorian church of 1860 designed by the well-known Victorian church architect SS Teulon and completed by others in 1884 after Teulon's death. The rear of the church has been divided off to form a church hall. Teulon specialised in rather hard, spiky, massive buildings for evangelical parishes. St Silas is more mellow in its architecture than most Teulon edifices, and became Anglo-Catholic in it worship. In each bay of the nave is at least one statue of a saint. A the front are the Blessed Virgin Mary and a male saint who I assume is St Silas, about whom I know nothing. This church achieved some publicity a decade ago when a solar roof was installed to power the church heating. Because of the shape of the roof, this is on full view, but as the solar panels are black and made to look like dark slates, you barely notice it.

The church

Quoting from their website: This is a ‘lively church faithful to the Catholic tradition of the Church of England. We enjoy our life together and we're committed to connecting with the local community.’ They sponsor a Happiness Course, which (again quoting from their website) ‘draws on scientific research, ancient wisdom and real-life experience to give you practical tools for a happy life.’ They also have several groups geared to reach out to the community; these include a play group for toddlers and pre-schoolers, a coffee and craft group, a theatre group, and an orchestra. There is one mass each Sunday, with an evening weekday mass on Tuesdays and a noon mass on Thursdays and Saturdays.

The neighborhood

Islington is such a mixed community with a good deal of ethnic diversity. But over the last two decades the wealthy of the area have become substantially richer, with the terraced houses fetching millions. And the gap between the wealthy of the borough and the poor has become dramatically wider and much more obvious. In this way it could stand as a microcosm of Britain. St Silas is near to a cluster of supermarkets and Chapel Market traditional street market. This Sunday, as I walked to St Silas, the usual good-value market vegetable stalls had given way to the smarter farmer's market, featuring organic and artisanal fare. So, even the street markets in Islington shout out the class divide between rich and poor.

The cast

The vicar led the service, assisted by two servers.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Mass.

How full was the building?

When things started there were just 12 in the congregation. This rose to 20, with some arriving as much as 20 minutes into the service. I was told afterwards that it was a low turnout today on account of school half-term holiday, and that numbers were typically a dozen or so more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. Two on-duty welcomers provided a warm welcome on this wet and blustery morning, gave me the paperwork, and opened the inner door for me.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was an upholstered chair and served well enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Informal, some chat.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘As [our director of music] is away today we will sing hymns accompanied by a CD.’ The first liturgical words were: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The hymnbook was the Celebration Hymnal For Everyone. There was a mass sheet, weekly pew sheet, and leaflet about Lent. The pew sheet had the readings in full.

What musical instruments were played?

None, unless you count those on the CD. This worked reasonably well, except that for the processional hymn the server hadn't heard the vicar's announcement about hymn changes and loudly sang different words.

Did anything distract you?

An announcement was made that in the light of the COVID-19 virus outbreaks we should not intinct the host at communion, but rather take the chalice to our mouths. I pondered this, as it seemed to me that the risk of the virus travelling by means of communicants' lips was greater than the chance of one dipping one’s fingers into the Precious Blood. I am well practiced at dipping just one edge of the host into the chalice, and take due care not plunge my fingers in.

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

Their website says that at the Sunday mass ‘people of all ages and backgrounds enjoy a modern celebration … [that] includes lots of singing [and] incense.’ I’d call it a traditional modern language mass celebrated at a brisk pace without frills but with incense. Sitting on the offertory table with the water and wine was a hand-sanitiser, and we were assured that the priest and his two assistants would use it before the consecration. I didn’t see whether this was instead of – or as well as – the usual Lavabo.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

7 — A straightforward, accessible sermon that stuck tightly to the gospel of the day and was all the better for that.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Forgiveness, prompted by the gospel for the day, Matthew 5:38-48 (‘turn the other cheek’). It is often difficult to forgive, but it is essential that we try. We might consider the modern understanding that ‘hurt people hurt others because they themselves have been hurt.’ But at the end of the day it is a Christian obligation to forgive, for forgiveness is an approach to Christ's perfection.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The warm welcome. At the door when I arrived, at the peace in the mass, and afterwards, when I was immediately spotted as a visitor and welcomed. How important this is. How well it is done at St Silas.

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

A little girl was seeking attention. At several points she was making a terrific noise with a bag of sweets she was eating throughout the mass. Rustling of sweet wrappers is annoying in a cinema, and more so in church. The little girl clearly didn’t want to be at the parish mass at all, and this was her (rather effective) form of protest. There were several other children present who were, by contrast, as good as gold.

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

I was invited to join the parish in their hall (the west end of the nave, as converted). As this was a rather low turnout Sunday, not many stayed, but I was told that more usually do.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Mine was tea, freshly brewed and flavoursome, as I like it.

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

7 — The welcome at St Silas is outstanding and I may well return on a non half-term holiday when the organist is on the bench.

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 warmth of the welcome.

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