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 ™.