Here is a sample of a church review. This appeared in Anglican and Episcopal History in December 2003.
A model of "open evangelicalism": St. Mary, Islington, London, Easter Sunday 2003
Open evangelicalism stands in contrast to the conservative evangelicalism which takes an inerrantist view of Scripture, keeps itself pure from other Christian traditions, including the charismatic strain associated with the lay education program called "Alpha", opposes the ordination of women, and objects passionately to the demands of gay Anglicans. Conservatives accuse open evangelicals of a synthesizing theology, compromising morality, and lax spirituality, and see them on the verge of sheer liberalism. In 1993 a group of conservative English evangelicals organized a movement called "Reform", and produced a "Reform Covenant" which a number of individuals and parishes have joined.
In 2002 the selection of Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury turned the rift into a chasm; open evangelicals warmly welcomed the appointment, while conservatives savagely denounced it. Increasingly evangelicals feel tempted, or constrained, to locate themselves on one side of the divide or another. On their Internet sites, in their welcome literature, and in their job advertisements many evangelical parish churches are branding themselves open or conservative (but mostly open). Among evangelical theological schools, Trinity College, Bristol, and Ridley Hall, Cambridge, are open, while Oak Hill is conservative. All Church of England bishops who are identified as evangelical are open.
A visitor who would see the congregational face of open evangelicalism can do no better than to attend worship at St. Mary, Islington, which on its website (www.stmaryislington.org) identifies its position by using this term. Historically, the evangelical credentials of St. Mary are secure. A somewhat middle-brow parish history (Graham L. Claydon, An Every Day Story of Islington Folk: St. Mary's Church [n.d., after 1988]) verifies the pedigree. John and Charles Wesley both had strong connections with the church. The two Daniel Wilsons, father and son, both of them among the most prominent evangelicals of Victorian Anglicanism, were successive vicars for an impressively long period (1824-1886). In the twentieth century two future evangelical archbishops of Canterbury, Donald Coggan and George Carey, were curates here. A future archbishop of Sydney was vicar in the late 1940s, and described St. Mary's as something of a "cathedral of evangelicalism". Today, the present energetic and ambitious vicar has sought to renew and adapt the powerful evangelical organization known as the Islington Clerical Conference which Daniel Wilson first organized in 1827.
The parish of Islington is two miles north of St. Paul's Cathedral, and bears the postal code N.1. St. Mary's Church is situated on Upper Street, which is the high street of the area, near the Angel underground station. The parish gives its name to the entire borough of Islington, which, however, incorporates not only Islington proper but also perhaps a dozen other areas. Through the nineteenth century Islington gathered the reputation of a poor and seamy neighborhood, where many homes had outdoor WCs and no baths. In the years around World War II it began to attract more upscale, professional, and artistic residents, such as, for a while, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Benjamin Britten, and Peter Pears. Today it is a desirable inner-city area which the current English-language Michelin guidebook describes as "a curious mix of gentrification and dilapidation," where £1 million homes are not uncommon among the homeless. It is a center of fine dining, good shopping, and small theaters.
St. Mary's Church is a modern (1956) construction, since the previous (1754) building, except for the tower, was destroyed during the German Blitz. It was rebuilt to resemble the Georgian style of its predecessor. But it has much larger windows in order to brighten the interior: five neatly rectangular paned windows two stories tall, and a sixth somewhat shorter one, penetrate each of the north and south walls, in addition to windows in the narthex. The church faces east from the east side of Upper Street. The exterior is red brick. On the west end a covered porch stands three steps up from the street. On the front exterior at Easter 2003 hang two large framed posters: one, handsomely designed by an artist in the parish, advertises "Holy Week & Easter 13-20 April 2003" with the name of the church and an abstracted crucifix; the other promotes an upcoming Alpha course. Above the narthex stands the historic foursquare bell tower surmounted by a spire and weathervane (a low-church touch, perhaps). The hands of the clock point always to 12:00. At an estimate, the building is about 125 feet deep.
Around the building is the old churchyard, called "St. Mary's Church Garden". A sign suggests that it is now being tended by the borough of Islington, which, however, is doing a rather poor job of it; the lawn is patchy and the green shrubbery has been neglected. A sign announces a meeting for a day in January (now three months past) at which locals may make suggestions about how the park may be used, how standards may be raised, and how contractors may be encouraged to do the work they are paid to do. The total street frontage of the church with its garden is, again at an estimate, about 200 feet. An iron fence separates the garden from the street, except for entrances. A sign for the church is here, bearing the motto "connecting people with God," along with service times, telephone number and website, and the names of the clergy.
Directly to the north of the garden is the vicarage. A flower stall is open for business where the vicarage garage used to be. Also here is the "Neighbourhood Centre" administered by the church. A sign with a Church of England logo names the youth worker, and a pamphlet available inside lists fourteen groups and programs at the Centre, with meeting times and telephone numbers.
The visitor this Easter morning arrives for the service too early to receive an organized welcome, but he finds a variety of parish literature readily available at the entrance, including a pamphlet with the order of Holy Communion, a service leaflet for the day with readings, eleven notices, and numerous prayer requests, the March edition of the parish magazine INspire, and the annual report. Entering the church proper from the narthex, the visitor finds a spacious, neatly maintained Georgian room with light painted walls, a brown tiled floor, a maroon ceiling, and pillars on pedestals supporting the roof. His attention is drawn to a simple wide Lord's Table covered with fair linen at the east end, railed. In the east wall is fixed a large mural, a cross at its center and, from top to bottom down the cross, four pairs of paintings depicting Christ in his various settings and ministries: a strangely baroque intrusion. At each side of the wall a glass panel offers an engraved scripture verse. A pulpit on the north, a lectern on the south, and a paschal candle complete the principal furniture of the chancel. In front of the chancel are two prayer desks, a font, a sculpture, and a podium. In the nave, a central aisle separates fifteen rows of uncomfortable wooden pews on each side, and rows of chairs without kneelers have been set up in the north and south aisles. Bibles in the New Revised Standard Version and copies of Complete Mission Praise are available in the pews and chairs. A piano is at the front of the north aisle. A book stall is towards the rear of the south aisle.
As the service begins, about 200 worshipers are in the congregation, thirty or forty of them African or West Indian. The age distribution appears to be representative of the larger population except that there are relatively few in the 30-45 age range. Clothing is casual but neat. Most of the adult black women wear head coverings.
At 11:00 the visitor notices that three clergy and a lay reader have appeared at the front from somewhere. The male vicar and the two female clergy associates, one of them a deacon, are dressed in cassock-alb and white stole; the lay reader is wearing cassock and surplice. Without anything so conspicuous as a procession to open the service, it falls to the deacon to attract the attention of the congregation and begin the service. "Good morning," she says, and after a pause, "I'll wait for everyone to be seated." She has a Canadian accent, which a member of the congregation will later describe to a Canadian visitor as rather grating. Gradually the talk settles, and the deacon continues. She announces that while this is Easter, it is also a Mission Turning Point, which a visitor gathers is related to a three-month sermon series on mission in the New Testament. She says that the church has a special way of greeting on Easter: she will say, "Christ is risen," and the congregation will reply, "He is risen indeed; alleluia." The assembly takes a stab at this exchange, but the deacon says with youthful evangelical humor that the result has not been very good, and another effort must be made. On the second attempt the deacon reads her own line incorrectly; but the third attempt, being both accurate and loud, is declared to be wonderful. The congregation sings three versus of "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" to piano accompaniment.
The congregation is invited either to kneel or to sit for the general confession. The comfortable words from the Prayer Book (in modern English) form the invitation, and the text of the confession is according to the prayers of penitence, first alternative, in Order One of Common Worship (2000). The vicar says the absolution and makes the sign of the cross. The Gloria is omitted. The collect of the day is read. There is no Old Testament lesson, psalm, or epistle. The congregation stands for the Gospel, John 20:1-18, which is read by a laywoman.
The Gospel is interpreted by a liturgical dancer who is described in the parish newsletter as "a free-lance choreographer and singer-songwriter." She does not attend this church but has danced here before. She is a lithe young lady in a lavender blouse and navy trousers. A piano accompaniment features grand chords but no memorable melody. Through running steps, turns, swoons, and other movements, she gives expression to Mary's succession of emotions as she comes to recognize the Lord at the empty tomb. When she is not standing tall, however, she is not visible to all the congregation. The dance is six minutes long, and at the end the dancer runs out of the room calling with joy and energy, "I have seen the Lord!" The congregation applauds. Art has served Gospel, and the dancer is good. But in the Gospel story Jesus appears, whereas in the dance he has been hidden. The story has been interpreted, in the style of liberal evangelicalism, as a narrative about the feelings of the believer, not as a credible evidence for the truth of the Resurrection.
This is an "all-age communion Sunday," and there will not be the usual full expository sermon. Instead, tThe vicar invites the children to the front. About fifteen come, along with a couple of parents, but several others remain in the pews, hoping not to be noticed. He briefly re-tells the story of Mary at the tomb, as the children begin to grow restless. He then invites the children to enact the story dramatically. He gives them their lines, and members of the congregation have their line, too: "Why are you weeping? Mary!" To a visitor the theatrical effort seems worthy but a little strained, but regular worshipers familiar with the community may well be more comfortable with it. Like Mary, the vicar concludes, many of us are preoccupied with expectations and understandings formed in our past, but Jesus wants to meet us, and knows our name. The vicar asks the congregation to linger, listen, and pass the message on, in Upper Street and beyond; let this be a Mission Turning Point. The story, drama, and exhortation together take only six minutes.
An actor dressed in a white robe comes out, smiles at the congregation, and asks, "What are you looking for? Why are you weeping? Mary!" and departs.
The second hymn is "Let everything that has breath" (Matt Redman, 1997). A laywoman leads brief intercessions, especially for the sick and dying. There follow four or five minutes of announcements: the notices include a new baby, an Alpha course, an Easter egg hunt after the service, and a Christian theater production.
The passing of the peace is an enthusiastic and prolonged event. After several minutes, it again becomes the deacon's thankless task to try to bring order. She makes several ineffective attempts at a microphone and seems to be growing frustrated before the congregation settles. "Thine be the glory" is sung as the hymn during the preparation of the table and the collection. The vicar announces that everyone is welcome at the eucharist, and that there will be an opportunity for personal prayers during the communion. The eucharistic prayer is Prayer A from Common Worship, without the optional acclamations; the vicar includes what appears to be an extemporary proper preface focusing on the surprise of the resurrection. The Lord's Prayer and fraction follow. During communion the piano plays clear, quiet, classical music.
The closing hymn is "We want to see Jesus" (Doug Harley, 1993), which is followed by applause. After a blessing, with the sign of the cross, the deacon dismisses the congregation at about 12:05. It is a credit to the organizers that in the space of little more than an hour the Gospel can be so diversely read, taught, danced, dramatized, and sung, and communion given to two hundred people.
Coffee is not only available but conveniently located in an area free of pews in the back of the same room. A large number stays.
This lively, upbeat, creative service has been a model of open evangelical Anglican worship. The evangelical side has been clear in the focus on the Scriptural text, the emphasis on mission and evangelism, the uncomplicated teaching aimed at the individual believer's sense of connection with Christ, and the pronounced though not untoward liturgical informality. The Anglican side has been honored, too: the liturgical text, the clerical dress, the parish literature, the open invitation to the Lord's Table, the style of presidency, and the general sense of church order have been well within the realm of what an Anglican visitor would expect. Exception would only have to be made for the omission of Old Testament, psalm, and epistle, and the opening remarks which appeared to subordinate the highest feast of the Christian year to the parish sermon series.
But these things would not strike a reviewer as particularly notable. The matter of greatest interest has been the evident intention to design the service in the spirit of an open evangelicalism. The liturgy has been a recently published one. The music has been contemporary as well as classical. Dance and drama have made unusually conspicuous and effective appearances in the service, and a modern sculpture stands by the font. The teaching has in form borne no resemblance to anything like a traditional sermon. From all appearances the liturgical ministry of women, lay and ordained, has been unhesitatingly accepted. Elements from beyond the evangelical tradition, such as the sign of the cross and the Alpha course, are welcome. The church recognizes and ministers to the needs of the surrounding community in a number of ways, most prominently the Neighbourhood Centre. "Open" is an apt word for all of this. If there has been the occasional oversight or clumsiness in the service, it is the acceptable price of moving beyond the received and familiar into fresh perspectives and contemporary forms.
Is a faithful and venturesome open evangelicalism a significant dimension of Anglicanism in this day? This congregation gives evidence in favor. Those who have come today have sung heartily, participated actively, sometimes applauded spontaneously, received communion faithfully, and lingered in large numbers at the coffee hour; and the congregation has been more numerous, more intergenerational, and more racially inclusive than one who visits many Anglican churches has come to expect. Whether open evangelicalism is a revival of liberal evangelicalism or something new is hard to assess, but, given its energy, apparent appeal, and momentum, it is by no means a spent force.
Alan L. Hayes