Union Chapel, London

Union Chapel, Highbury & Islington, London


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Union Chapel
Location: Highbury & Islington, London
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 April 2014, 11:00am

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 neighborhood

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.

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 atmosphere?

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 service?

"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 service?

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 what?

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?

17 minutes.

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 heaven?

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 coffee?

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 another visit (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 Christian?

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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