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Green Unitarian, London
Worshipper: Cool Dude.
Green Unitarian, London. [Editor's note: We don't ordinarily
allow reports on Unitarian churches. However, since the service
was related to Christmas, we have made an exception.]
Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. The denomination
is known in the United States as Universalist
It dates from 1708 though given a new façade in 1860. One commentator
at the time described it as "a substantial brick building,
of nearly square form." Inside it is a fairly small rectangular
room with a full set of box pews and a large glass roof-light,
which makes it bright and welcoming. There is a shallow apse
and a raised Victorian Gothic reading desk (not used), along
with the minister’s seat and table. On the day of my visit there
was also a Christmas tree. Several wall plaques commemorate
notable persons from the libertarian movement.
This chapel and other congregations nearby formed a centre of
early Unitarianism and nonconformism. Newington Green was a
hot-bed of religious dissent from the late 1690s for nearly
200 years, though the chapel is almost the last physical evidence
of this. Among its many congregants of note was a certain schoolmistress
named Mary Wollstonecraft, generally regarded as the mother
of feminism. Her daughter, later the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley,
would gain fame as the author of a certain novel about the grotesque
result of a bizarre scientific experiment. The congregation
has another church off Upper Street, Islington, and holds services
at both. During his words of welcome, the minister said it was
a "radically inclusive place." In March 2008, they
became the first religious establishment in Britain to refuse
to perform any weddings at all until all couples, regardless
of gender preferences, are accorded the right to marry. (As
this will be possible three months from the date of my visit,
I guess there may be pent-up demand for ceremonies in 2014!)
Newington Green is on the boundary between the boroughs of Islington
and Hackney and has a mix of 19th century terraced houses, most
of which have been comprehensively gentrified over the last
three decades, and substantial pockets of 1950s and 60s social
housing, which have not. Newington Green itself is a garden
square that still has its railings around trees and a patch
of grass with an agreeable mix of buildings. There is too much
traffic for it to be as restful as old prints show that it once
was. Mary Wollstonecraft lived on Newington Green and opened
a school for girls there, giving a feminist component to the
remarkable radical and dissenting heritage of this area.
The Revd Andrew Pakula, minister.
The date & time:
Sunday, 22 December 2013, 11.00am.
We have received a comment on this report.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
About 45 people, so the small chapel was comfortably populated.
It would be difficult to characterise the assembled worshippers,
as casual dress was very much the rule, as was informality.
But there were not many ethnic minority members, which in Hackney
is perhaps noteworthy, and I would guess the average age was
30-45 that is to say, notably younger than most churches
where I attend services.
Did anyone welcome you
Yes. A woman with a friendly smile handed me the service sheet,
which contained everything I needed.
Was your pew comfortable?
The box pews were too narrow and too upright for modern tastes, as box pews usually are. But a long cushion meant it was not too bad for a service of this length.
How would you describe the pre-service
Lively conversations were going on. The woman next to me was
chatting on her phone about a trip to IKEA the next day. Two
people smiled and nodded a greeting as I opened the door to
my pew. Children were playing contentedly but quite noisily,
which made me assume at first it was a "messy church"
service. Everyone was called to order wordlessly by the minister
striking a bell. As its very long resonance slowly died away,
the first words were said.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Words from Barbara Kingsolver" [the American novelist,
essayist and poet noted for her works on social justice]. There
followed a substantial quotation.
What books did the congregation use during the
We used the service sheets and two books: Singing The Journey
and Sing Your Faith.
What musical instruments were played?
A grand piano, the small chapel organ, and the minister's iPod
(connected to a reasonable sound system). The billed pianist
and soloist were indisposed, so a pianist called Ezra had stepped
in and gave, among several musical contributions, a spirited
rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone".
Did anything distract you?
The minister fiddled with his iPod several times in order to
play and again to stop the music, which was presumably in his
iTunes library. He could have done with assistance here, so
that his attention and focus could remain with the congregation.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
It was quite varied and free-wheeling. It began with the minister
telling the children about the meaning of Christmas trees. After
they filed out to attend their own program, the atmosphere became
decidedly more adult. Near the beginning of the service was
the lighting of the flaming chalice (a large candle), the symbol
of the Unitarian faith. Prayers later on were accompanied by
more candle lighting, with those who wished to do so coming
forward to light a candle of joy or of sorrow and to say briefly
who or what the joy or sorrow was. At the end of the service
was yet more candle lighting, without spoken dedications, during
the closing music. An unusual aspect was that we were all invited
to write joyful messages on luggage tags, which were then used
to dress the Christmas tree.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Two of the messages were five and six minutes, respectively,
but there were other shorter addresses at other points.
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
7 The Revd Andrew Pakula presented like a liberal US
campus rabbi. Afterwards, I discovered on the chapel website
that he is indeed of Jewish heritage and from New York. I am
used to less tentative leadership of services by clergy of various
denominations, but perhaps the modern-day dissenters of Newington
Green prefer his studied informality and inter-active style.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
There was no sermon in the sense of an explication of biblical
text and indeed no biblical reading from either Old or
New Testament among the several texts used. However, the first
message was about Christmas as the birth of Christ, whom I think
Unitarians regard as wholly human.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The dedications of candles of joy and sorrow were the mix of
expected and unexpected. A young man with a striking Mohican
haircut lit a candle, saying that his thoughts were with the
armed forces in un-named foreign countries "who have to
face so much." He was almost lost for words. It was a moving
and arresting moment that made it clear that gestures can sometimes
be more eloquent than words.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
I was, however, beginning to tire of the candle lighting, sincere
though the dedications were.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
The minister invited us to the rooms behind the chapel for tea
and coffee. But once there, it became clear that the rota had
broken down and no tea or coffee was prepared or even set up.
Some of the regulars started to hunt for cups, jugs, etc., so
I waited in anticipation, though nobody spotted me as a newcomer
in need of a welcome. Eventually I headed for my lunch, sadly
without a welcome from the congregation or even a friendly farewell
from those on the door as I left.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
There was none while I was there see above.
How would you feel about
making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 On the one hand, the liberal politics and attitudes
and lack of dogma is appealing. On the other hand, I would miss
liturgy and congregational tradition. I want to have a foot
in both camps: tradition and modernity.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
I am not sure that it did, except in the sense that it felt
good to be with people of good intent.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The candle for the soldiers.
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