In the agreeably quiet residential backstreets south of Essex Road, this stone built church cuts quite a dash. Though it is not large, the crumbly white ragstone with which it is built sets it asides from the ubiquitous brick of the houses and flats all around. St James fronts a small public garden and the church tower and spire make it a local landmark. Built in 1873 and designed by little known architect Frederick William Porter, who also designed the Union Bank of London building in Chancery Lane, it is nothing to write home about architecturally speaking, but is agreeable and looks every inch the part of a small urban parish church. The interior has obviously been the subject of redecoration, new flooring, and other improvements in recent times. The result is a fresh but fairly traditional interior.
If the well laid-out website, parish bulletin and this service are anything to go by, this is a lively congregation with considerable emphasis on the involvement of young families. As the website says: ‘Most of the community of St James is engaged in discovering how to balance faith and intelligent enquiry with the demands of living in London today. But we do not believe that being sacred means being solemn.’ That is how it came across to this visitor.
The locality is that familiar Islington mix of gentrified early Victorian terraces and squares that now fetch some of the highest prices in London – and social housing, mostly built in the postwar years. In this vicinity it all seems to hang together reasonably well, and better since the wholesale demolition and redevelopment as new social housing of the adjacent Packington Estate, which was an extensive area of system-built, deck access housing that became a by-word for social deprivation and crime. The parish of St James therefore has a markedly mixed demographic.
The vicar and one thurifer.
What was the name of the service?Parish Mass for the Third Sunday in Advent.
How full was the building?
Comfortably full, with about 55 adults and a number of children from babes in arms to teens.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A member of the congregation said a cheery hello in the narthex. Inside, the duty welcomer greeted me and handed me the comprehensive service sheet. Her words 'You are very welcome' indicated she had clocked me as a visitor. So, in the round, a welcome well done.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pine pew was comfortable. After I was seated, I noticed the hymn book shelf in front of me, attached to the pew in front, was detached and waving about like a diving board. I checked that it was safe and later concluded it must have been victim of the filming that we later learned had taken place that week.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietly chatty conversations. Children being settled. One young lad flexing the slide of his trombone (silently) repeatedly. The vicar was in the vestry set up at the east end of the south aisle and not completely screened, so I noticed him vesting, reading the service sheet carefully, and praying in preparation.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.'
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Only the service sheet for the day, which had all the liturgy, hymns and music set out in it.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ; and a junior music group consisting of piano, violin, two cellos and two trombones.
Did anything distract you?
I found myself momentarily distracted to wonder whether I approved of the elaborately carved Victorian nave capitals being painted over with white paint (I don’t!).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Modern catholic worship with incense, but the only two in the sanctuary were the vicar and thurifer – no altar party or elaborate business. A member of the congregation walked up to kindle the third of the Advent candles on the altar. The prayers of intercession came from a member of the congregation who must, I think, have been sitting behind me. Whilst most of the liturgy was from Common Worship, some of the words in our sheets were imported from elsewhere and were in many small ways more modern and accessible – though none struck a false note. The psalm was replaced with a hymn and after the second reading there was a short silence 'as we recall what we have heard so far' (I would have been happy had it been not so short). As the worship progressed, I found an engaging embrace and respect for traditions of worship with judicious updating to make it a truly collective exercise. After communion the junior music group played ‘Silent Night’ in their unusual but effective ensemble.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The vicar spoke with notes from beside the front pew, though he referred to them little. He had a comfortably sonorous voice and needed no amplification. To my taste 14 minutes is a tad on the long side, but this was lively, accessible and meaty preaching, so no complaints on this occasion.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His theme evolved from an image of John the Baptist printed on the front of our service sheets that he had, at the beginning of the service, asked us to contemplate. It shows a sculpture made by Arnold Machin in 1944. (I looked up Machin later – he is best known for the image of Queen Elizabeth II formerly used on British coins and postage stamps.) This sculpture shows John as a boy, lips slightly parted as though about to speak, with uncertain eyes and hands held in prayer, again slightly uncertainly. The vicar pointed out that one shoulder is noticeably higher than the other – a common sign of anxiety. He riffed on his theme of expectation, uncertainty and faith, assisted by the readings for the day: ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near’ (Philippians 4) and ‘I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful that I is coming’ (Luke 3).
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The fine sermon on the charismatic image of St John the Baptist as a boy.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not hellish, as there was so much that engaged in this service, but I didn’t like the selection of hymns – not one of them! This is a deeply subjective thing, but there you are. Though the vicar's fine singing voice carried the day, the congregational singing was not memorable for its enthusiasm, so perhaps I was not the only one.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was a convivial after-service atmosphere and many stayed for coffee and socialising. I could not, as I was heading for lunch with friends, but the vicar spotted me as a newcomer and broke off from a conversation with his flock to greet me and chat before I left.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A hatch opened in the rear wall of the church from which after-service tea and coffee were being served in cups (for adults) or plastic beakers (for children).
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — It’s not very far off the track for me, so I will.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That three days previously the church had been filled with the excitement and chaos of a feature film shoot, a sequel to Four Weddings and a Funeral, with many of the stars of the 1994 film taking part. Whose will the fifth wedding be, I wonder, and will Hugh Grant arrive on time?