Islington Disturbed

I had an evening stroll to Islington last night. This is the kind of place that I imagine when I think of 'metropolitian liberals'- urban, educated and left-leaning younger people. The streets were busy: cyclists accrued at red lights by the dozen; people of all races, genders and orientations talked into their phones and to each other after a day’s work. The daily toil complete, these people were not returning to their new-builds on the quiet cul-de-sac to which folk up north might aspire, but to the trendy bars and bistros lining every pavement. Various couples, gay and straight, held hands; men in strange outfits and women wearing vintage frocks made from printed fabrics walked at leisurely paces sipping lattes or listening to their favourite sounds from Bluetooth earphones. Everyone seemed so happy and contented. If I had to live in a city, this is where I would like to be. I dare say large pockets of poverty exist, but the people seemed young, affluent and healthy. Everyone was so wonderfully tolerant of each other, unperturbed by life's troubles. Some of these Londoners broke with tradition and even acknowledged me when I gave way to them on the busiest sections of pavement.

The local parish church- St Mary’s- is one of the handsomest I have ever seen, and received entries in my various books of the best churches in London. Next in civic grandeur was the borough’s town hall, in which the local Member of Parliament, the Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn, presumably has his re-elections announced after each poll. The voters here have a sensitive conscience, voting for candidates who share their social concerns. Only a single Conservative gets elected, along with a Green and an Independent, while Labour wins a whopping 45 councillors.

I saw a sign for another place of worship- claiming to be ‘a non-religious church’. #BelieveInGood, its sign urged. This was the Unity Unitarian Church, a fellowship wrought in the hot fires of the 1660s, but is now well in keeping with the liberal, friendly and tolerant atmosphere of twenty-first century Islington.

At the opposite end of town I found the local Congregational Church- Union Chapel. But my! It is huge, a cathedral of nonconformity, straddling the main road in all its Victorian grandeur. Its website declares:

We are an alternative Christian space for reflection, community building, public theology, creative worship, reconciliation and changemaking.  Our programme promotes racial, social, economic, climate and LGBTQ+ justice from the perspective of our radical Christian faith.

This, too, seems so perfectly suited to liberal-minded Islington. The whole place struck me as happy and harmonious, with its various religious establishments reflecting this civic spirit. Words like acceptance, harmony, cohesion, respect and tolerance were not just repeated and rehearsed like they are by northern councillors, but they seemed genuine. Yet I heard a more familiar word blaring out of a speaker at the top end of town- "Repent!". A black street preacher was warning passers-by about our need to love each other, but also that God will send all to the Lake of Fire if we refuse to repent. He loves us, he said, but we must believe in Him if we are to escape the wrath to come. This seemed to shatter the sense of tranquillity. One man, also listening, gave me a conspiratorial look and began to mock- until I told him I believed the preacher, at which point he turned away, disappointed. When I asked the preacher if I could take his picture, he just said “Hallelujah”, which I took as the affirmative. Comfortable, liberal and metropolitan Islingtonians looked bemused or ruffled by his words. The old gospel, you see, is not especially tolerant. Although it calls us all to love each other unconditionally, it divides the world in two- believers and unbelievers. It says there is a heaven for some and a hell for others. It says our eco-friendly vegan lifestyles with our reusable coffee cups, are not enough to make us righteous. It declares there is a God, and that we are responsible to Him. Yes, that’s right, He is a ‘he’. All rather awkward, all rather uncomfortable.  

I like Islington, I really do. It is a pleasant and desirable place to be, yet it is no more attractive to God than the conservative heartlands in the shires and villages of England with their more traditional values and patriotic assumptions, for

Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repentActs 17:30