St Peter’s Chaplaincy

Not the Church of the Holy Name

My intention last sunday was toattend the rather imposing Roman Catholic Church of The Holy Name next to Manchester Unversity. I had been in there before and had been a little scared of their statues and grandeur, but I wanted to see what a Catholic service is like. To be honest, I chickened out, and for a pretty irrational reason: I was worried that Catholics might judge me for wearing a non-traditional t-shirt rather than a hair shirt. 

But, this subconscious stereotyping of ‘the other’ was responsible for a pretty uplifting experience. I had been to St Peter’s Chaplaincy a number of times before, for interfaith events, meditation class, and once for a Taize chanting service. But I hadn’t really considered going to church there. I mean, I didn’t know there was a church there until John, my “safety-in-numbers” buddy who took me to !Audacious had recommended it to me.

St Peters is both an international and ecumenical church. Ecumenical means that its boundaries aren’t as strictly delineated as you might get at your local parish church. It’s a collaboration between the Anglican, the Methodist, and the United Reformed Churches. I view this kind of pluralism pretty positively, and not only because it stops People’s Front of Judea type shenanigans.

 Firstly, it shows that people attend the church not just as a way of marking out their identity, and that this kind of ecclesiastical tribalism doesn’t play much of a role in their religious life. Secondly, the congregation was extremely diverse. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a church where there were people from quite as many different nationalities. There were indians, chinese, africans, americans and europeans. But the style of worship they had worked amazingly at breaking down these boundaries.

There are three idiosyncracies in particular about the worship at St Peters that I think are worth noting. They have a way of “sharing the peace of Christ” that is quite unique from any I have experienced. This is a way of expressing brotherhood/solidarity with fellow Christians, but in today’s individualistic society it tends to be little more than an awkward handshake. At St Peters, literally everyone leaves their seats and goes around greeting everyone else warmly, often with hugs. It was quite touching really, because as a stranger to most of the people there I felt very welcome. The communion was another thing that was quite different. Rather than do it with everyone approaching an alter and kneeling as is traditional, it was done with everyone gathering in a large circle and the priest and some helpers going round sharing the bread and wine. This gave a nice feeling of egalitarianism and community: there wasn’t hierarchy between the priest and the lay believers, and everyone was facing each other while engaging in this ritual. It helped that they had real bread and wine as well! The third quirk to St Peter’s was possibly the most bizarre, but it really added to the international atmosphere of the Church. There was choir singing at the end of the service… but this choir was singing in Chinese! It sounded, to the mind of someone who has never heard Chinese hymns before, quite bizarre. Nevertheless, it was an eye-opening experience and it was enlightening to see an ecumenical church comprised of three different British churches eschewing Western liturgical dominance.

It helped that I already knew a few people there, from said interfaith & Taize events, but I felt welcome from the moment I stepped inside. I met a few more people than I usually would, with the added benefit of being able to promote this blog. I had some really pleasant conversation with intelligent, progressive Christians, and it is unfortunate that this is a bit of a rarity in my life, mostly being friends with non-believers. I spoke to two of the chaplains later, one of whom is a regular contributer to thought of the day, and told them about my little journalistic project. They were very supportive, and Terry gave me their guide to churches that they give out to new students. I hope to somehow assist their missions as university chaplains, as, to my knowledge, I am the only person offering intentionally subjective feedback on churches in Manchester.

To summarise, St Peter’s really knows how to do its job. Faced with the challenge of providing spiritually for a group of inter-denominational and international Christians, they have created their own liturgical ways of overcoming this apparent problem, and turning it to a strength. This, combined with an enthusiastic but educated nature gives them the Church Shopper seal of approval ™.

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Easter Special Part 2- Manchester Cathedral

I went to the Easter Sunday service at Manchester cathedral feeling pretty motivated. I had been meaning to visit it for a while, as some I’ve lived here for nearly 3 years and I still hadn’t seen the inside yet. It was another beautiful day, and Easter sunday is an extremely significant event, symbolizing the new creation of a new heaven and a new earth through the resurrection of Jesus. Rowan Williams writes about this at length in his book Tokens of Trust.

And how could you not trust a smile like that?

The late afternoon was filled with young couples enjoying sunshine outside the pub and groups of floppy-fringed teenagers rolling comedy sized cigarettes (green tobacco for extra chuckles.) In this casual atmosphere I walked into appears from the outside to be a somewhat imposing building, Manchester Cathedral.

 

 When inside I was immediately greeted by a smell so strong and pungent I thought it was the work of said floppy-fringed teenagers, but it turns out that they do actually use incense in Church services. Incense: not just for hippies. The light was shining throught he beautiful stained glass window and adding a majestic air to my tardy joining of the service. Even though the Cathedral isn’t that big, relatively, they cordoned off only a small part of it with extremely intricate gothic architecture near the choir.

The service was quite interesting, if surprisingly down-to-earth for a church that uses incense. The dean told of his recent excursion to Costa Coffee, which has the slogan “every cup is made with love” and tries to present the aesthetic of being a small family run chain while actually being a multinati0nal corporation. I did not see the Easter relevance, until the dean started explaining his problems with the phrase “every cup is made with love.” It diminishes what love is, making it merely “every cup is not intended to poison the customer,” a far cry from “made with love.” God loves each creature, and made them because of this, even giving himself in order to demonstrate the power of his love more fully on Good Friday. These criticisms of  consumerist shallowness were dramatically ironic, considering my church experience directly afterwards, but more on that later. The congregation was facing the dean from the sides, like some dreadful pincer attack, and I think this is one of the things that added to the confusion of the service. I was not sure when to sit, stand or sing, and I am sure I was not the only one. Usually a cursory “please sit” is in order but even this pleasantry was abandoned. The general lack of instructions made it even more glaring when one was given, and it was probably the most complicated one possible in that setting. We were to follow the choir, while singing, holding hymn books and orderly leaving our isles for a promenade around the cathedral ending with sung worship in the garden. I wondered whether we were going to play Simon Says next. It turns out that the garden was not outside and consisted of a cool fake palm try and a papier mache cave. I am ashamed of how long it took me to realize what this symbolized, but in my defense I was mostly focussing on the surreality of a palm tree next to a statue of a saint in an Anglican cathedral.

After the service I bumped into the former Manchester international students chaplain, and he invited me along to another church afterwards, one I had heard of but been apprehensive to go to, but John assured me that we had safety in numbers. That is what took me to the most interesting, if only from a journalistic/anthropological point of view, church of my Easter weekend, and it certainly lives up to its name: Audacious!

Church Shopper

Easter Special pt1 Platt Holy Trinity

The title I’ve chosen for this post is a bit boring, but you should know that I resisted the temptation to call this post the “Ecclesiastical Easter Eggstravaganza”. While I’m fairly sure that would have come across as ironic, given the amount of awful puns I’ve heard to do with Easter I wouldn’t blame you for thinking you were reading The Sun. [edit: I realize this post is now a week late and the Easter festivities have passed, but I have now submitted my final 12000 word dissertation. 750 words were footnotes.]

Easter weekend has been a busy one for me. Not only did I go to church 3 times, but I also got a lot of work done on my dissertation, and went to the cinema with my family.  3 times in 2 days is a whole lotta church, but that is the burden the blogger has to bear. I was actually only intending to go twice, but nefarious circumstances prevailed and took me to what has to be the WORST CHURCH EVER (and thats a pretty bold claim.) More on that later.

Like the passion narrative, I’m gonna do this chronologically.

Easter Friday at Platt Holy Trinity:

I’ve been simultaneously meaning-to-go and trying-to-avoid Platt church for quite a while. It has a reputation for attracting a certain puritanical type of Christian. Thats not a bad thing, I just don’t consider myself to be that type. A friend of mine who is an excellent scholar used to go there, and after attending bible studies for a while, was asked to lead one as her academic knowledge could have something to offer the group. She went for a meeting with the head pastor, so they could check she was “on-message”. They said that she couldn’t lead the group, not because she was a heretic, or a fundamentalist liberal, but because she had a non-Christian boyfriend.  She stopped going shortly after.

My experience at Platt was a bit less personal, and a bit more positive. I arrived there on friday afternoon, walking through Platt Fields park, which was ridiculously beautiful. I went inside and took a seat at the back. Its a beautiful church, much nicer than any of the evangelical churches i’ve been to in the past. To be honest, I think Platt can actually be summed up by the word “nice”. Everyone was very smiley, the hymns were uplifting, the sermon was inoffensive. All of this would be an advert for the place if it weren’t for the fact that we were celebrating the torture, torment, and murder of the cruxified son of God! Everything just had a sheen over it, I swear I saw people’s teeth glinting in the sunlight like in a commercial for toothpaste. While in Christianity the crucifixion of Jesus is a positive thing, there was just something a little bit superficial about the whole experience for me. Faith isn’t about some kind of false sense of security that makes everything in the world “tickety-boo”, it means engaging with the problems of the world with your own set of guidelines. While joy should be central to worship, no one is in a positive emotional state all the time, and happines should not be seen as the only emotion that you are allowed to express.

The service was supposedly a “meditation on the cross”. As someone who has done a bit of meditation here and there, there was none at Platt, but the service was focussed around the cross in that there was one at the front of the church. There was a reading of Matthew’s passion narrative, which tells the story of the death of Jesus, and a few hymns played on piano. Matthew’s passion narrative features the famous arahmaic saying of Jesus ” Eloi Eloi Lama Sabacthani”, or “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?” One of the most challenging passages of the bible, and the system of a down song, but I’m not sure I feel Platt did it justice. They mentioned the suffering of Jesus, but I couldn’t help but feel a little passion wouldn’t have been misplaced. The hymns were better than I expected too, although I suffered from an instinctive cringe when the girl in front of me put her hands in the air during the crescendo of one of them. I don’t know why, but I’m happy to raise my hands in the air at a concert, but in church it just seems a little wierd to me. Maybe its the style of worship I’m accustomed to, or maybe its the repressed Englishman trying to get break his way out.

Platt is somewhere you should go if you want to be happy. It is very “middle England” and there is nothing wrong with that. If you like your Jesus with a side of acoustic guitar and dock-shoes, then I would recommend Platt. The congretation is friendly, there was a lot of reading of the bible and they put Jesus into easily understood terms. I feel I may go back to Platt on another sunny morning when I need cheering up. It does, however, have a little-too-perfect sheen that any recovering cynic will find a little distasteful.

Church Shopper

St Chad’s, Fallowfield

While I was browsing the Church of England website in my quest for a church, it gave me the (perhaps unsurprising) advice to visit my local parish church, as well as a link for finding it: http://www.achurchnearyou.com/

So I decided to visit St Chad’s Ladybarn, a building I have walked past many times on the way to the shops. I knew nothing about it, except that they once hosted a concert by the Greater Manchester Police Male Voice Choir.  So at 10 o’clock Sunday morning I entered this big red-brick Victorian church.

I think I must have brought the average age down significantly! Most people looked about 50+ with the possible exception of the reader. The majority of the congregation were women too, so I can now see why people stereotype the church of England as being full of old ladies! (although I probably wouldn’t use that term myself).

The worship was quite traditional, described to me later as ‘liberal catholic’, which I think means they like taking Communion but don’t like the Pope. There were a lot of read/response  type of liturgies, which allows people to worship by reaction in my opinion.  If you are used to hearing a phrase and then responding to it the same way every weekend, then it doesn’t really make you think about the things you are saying. For example, at school we had to say grace before and after every  meal, three times a day. I was at my school for 7 years, which, assuming I was at school half of the year, means I would have said this particular grace at least 3832 times, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it was!

That aside, the hymns were some of the best I’ve ever heard, and there was a lady in the choir who voice that was both beautiful and booming. One in particular, called “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” stuck in my head. The lyrics go:

1. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.

2. There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

3. There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.

4. There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.

5. For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

6. There is plentiful redemption
In the blood that has been shed;
There is joy for all the members
In the sorrows of the Head.

While the language is quite antiquated, the sentiment blew me away. Too many churches are  exclusive about who they think will get be saved, many think only Christians, some only protestants, a few only evangelicals, but here we were gathered in worship singing that “the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind”.  I wonder if Emo Phillips, the wierd and wonderful 70s comedian, would have written his “heretic” joke, voted the best religion joke of all time, if he had heard it.

I was moved enough by the singing that I decided to take part in the Eucharist. Normally I would just stand around looking awkward while everyone lined up to ritualistically consume flesh (I’m vegetarian), but I figured that since it supposedly transforms into meat without any animal suffering I could suspend my principles just this once. The priest spent what seemed like an age blessing the Eucharist, before people started queuing up. While I felt the symbolic importance of the act, and it was certainly moving, I was quite surprised and disappointed by how un-bread-like the bread was. Somehow “eat this dull tasting wafer in remembrance of me” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

When I got a bit confused about how to follow the sermon (there were at least 4 different books/sheets to read from) the man standing behind me gave a bit of friendly advice. The friendliness of the congregation was really remarkable. I came along on my own, the Church Shopper’s burden, but left having had at least 5 different people introduce themselves to me, even though I’m sure I stuck out like a sore thumb, as I am niether old nor a lady. I even bumped into one of my lecturers. He is quite a wacky character and it was nice having a cup of tea with him after the service and hearing him describe parish life. As an example of his eccentricity, I asked him if he had ever considered ordination, and he said “Yes, but I have a feeling I might enjoy it too much”. I said “particularly representing Christ at the Eucharist?” and he laughed so hard that he coughed a little bit, and replied “that sounds like something I should get printed on a t-shirt, ‘I am theomorphic!'”. (Ed. Theomorphic means in the form of God. Catholics believe that when consecrating the Eucharist the priest represents Christ. This is a common argument against having women priests, even used by Ann Widdecombe, as they apparently cannot fully represent Christ, because Jesus was a man. This of course begs the question of why priests don’t have to be Jewish, Galilean, or 30.)

I had a really great time at St Chad’s. The music was great, the congregation was friendly, even if the liturgy was a bit too ritualistic for me. I will definately remember it as the place I had my first communion, and may pop back if I’m ever in a rush to go to church, as it is literally 5 minutes walk from my house. They don’t really have much in the way of engagement with students, as their midweek services tend to consist of morning prayers and eucharists, although one man mentioned a study group to me, but this isn’t listed on their website. Check it out if you live in Fallowfield and want to see your local C of E church and want what I would call your typical parish worship experience.

The Church Shopper

http://www.stchadladybarn.org.uk/

St Ann’s, Manchester

St Ann’s Church is a very traditional looking church building, right in the centre of town, off Deansgate. It is near the Town Hall, and near the eponymous St Ann’s square. St Ann’s is a member of the Church of England. http://stannsmanchester.com/

I have been to St Ann’s two times and both times I had very different experiences.

The first time, I arrived late for the evensong service, wearing my biker jacket. I asked the man standing outside the door if this was St Ann’s and he replied “yes, but there is a service on now”, implying that he thought I had come to look around rather than to worship. This might have been because I was late, because I hadn’t been there before, or because he didn’t think I looked like the church-going type.

Once inside however, I was taken aback by how magnificent the building was. It was absolutely beautiful, as the picture below will hopefully show. The stained glass was very artistic, including one image of Solomon replete with Masonic iconography, and all of this created a very strong, reverential atmosphere.

While I did not have an opportunity to meet any of the congregation, my impression was that they were around aged around 30-60, mostly wearing suits, looking quite business like. Against the imposing majesty of this large church the worshippers looked a little dwarfed. Of course this only reflects those who were at the Evensong, the morning services could be quite different. The music was absolutely fantastic, with a very talented choir and a booming organ. This brought some serious nostalgia to me, reminding me of evensong services at my school chapel. I find when listening to choral music an excellent time for self-reflection.

The sermon was by an ex university chaplain, who was (relevantly!) discussing different types of church and theology. She began by a discussion of Simon Magus, the magician mentioned in Acts 8 who tries to buy the power of the apostles from Peter. Simon has got a lot of bad press since then, having a sin named after him (simony) and being called the “father of all heresies” by the Church Fathers. She shared that when she was a chaplain, she sometimes had students who came up to her asking for advice about which church to go to. When she asked their preferences, they would say “I don’t mind, as long as there is lively worship.” As someone who is critical of the emotionalism of “lively worship” and who, quite frankly, finds it embarrassing to lift my hands in the air or have ecstatic experiences on demand, this struck a chord with me. She discussed the importance of theology within churches, something that many student Christians, in my experience, aren’t too bothered about. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time that sunday, despite the rocky start.

The second time I went to church at St Ann’s, I thought it would be a similar Evensong service and I was looking forward to the powerful music. When I arrived, however, I found out that it was a special “Taize” worship service.

http://www.stannsmanchester.com/content/view/36/52/

To put it briefly, Taize is an ecumenical (multi-denominational) community in the south of France. It consists largely of monks, although many lay people make pilgrimages there. One 20-year-old I have met has been there six times!  Churches across the world have sought to emulate the Taize style and sometimes hold Taize services. The Taize worship style is marked by its simplicity and repetition. There is no sermon, and no traditional hymns. The service consisted of  repetition of 2-line chants, sometimes in English, sometimes Latin, sometimes German, to reflect the international orientation of the community. The bible reading is similarly repeated multiple times. While I enjoyed the Taize services, I think the congregation were more comfortable with traditional choral services, as at times the chanting, accompanied only by a piano, was rather quiet. Also Taize services do not end in the same way as normal services, but instead people keep chanting for as long as they want. This led to a little confusion, with some people not knowing when to stop, but looking like they wanted to go!

I enjoyed my time at St Ann’s, and will probably go back for a morning service some time. I would recommend it for anyone who likes traditional choral hymns in a traditional setting. I must also say that the sermon was fantastic and quite intellectually engaging.

Here is a link to their “What’s on this week” page: http://www.stannsmanchester.com/images/stories/whatson/whatson.pdf

Their midweek activities seem to consist of a lot of Holy Communions, so there aren’t many ways of interacting with the church other than attending on sunday.

The Church Shopper