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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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/