Here's a write-up of a day I spent at Oldham Unitarian Chapel late July - not the usual Sunday morning, but a Monday, where the place takes on a very different guise. Yet all in keeping with the broader Christian vision.
At a time when the contribution of the Muslim faith to British society has been questioned, this offers a different perspective to the likes of the Daily Mail.
'Oldham Unitarian Chapel - A Church Less Ordinary'
Say the word ‘chapel’ to yourself – what images spring to mind? I guess many of us would find our mind’s eye wandering to a countryside scene with a quaint little church sat amongst rolling fields…
Yet as you walk across the car park and into Oldham Unitarian Chapel, the scene couldn't be more different. One of the many former engine rooms of the British Empire, Oldham is a classically northern English town - a moderately hilly terrain covered in swathes of Victorian red-brick with a smattering of mainly seventies concrete. Oldham Unitarian Chapel, in its 202nd year of existence, fits into the latter category. A flat-roofed, box shaped building, Oldham Unitarian Chapel is a much humbler affair than its previous incarnation, sitting on the edge of a town centre which still finds itself bogged down in recession.
On a Sunday, the congregation usually numbers between 10 to 20 with the Reverend Bob Pounder serving as minister. A few travel in from outside of Oldham – they’ve found something special, the extra travel is worth it. The services are traditionally structured but make good use of a large video screen, interspersing prayers, hymns and readings with clips from a wide variety of sources. The message is rooted in a freer yet nonetheless challenging Christianity. There is reference to the wider world of faith and discovery, yes, but in support rather than expense of Christ. The services are understatedly radical, both in content and style – Christianity is on offer here, but not as most people think they know it.
In the week the chapel takes on life as a café, a venue for counselling and other community services and more recently – in partnership with the Islamic charity UKEFF – as a food bank.
Now say the word ‘food bank’ to yourself – what images spring to mind? Maybe a sombre queue of hungry ‘dropouts’, maybe silent tables stacked with food? Arrive on a ‘food bank day’ at Oldham Unitarian Chapel and what you find is, again, something very different. The place is filled with faces – African faces, Asian faces, Arab faces. There are white British faces too but they make up the minority, a few are in need like their refugee neighbours but most are there to serve. There is also a warm, tantalising smell in the air of freshly cooked curry - simmering in large pans, given tender loving care by the congregation’s Muslim friends. Andy, one of the chapel stalwarts, does the rounds - cheerfully welcoming and clearing up, as if on a loop. This is not just a food bank; this is the One World Café.
In the main room there are neatly organised tables of food lined up to one side, with volunteers manning tables at the other side to provide advice to those in need.
Bob – out of his Sunday dog-collar, sleeves rolled up - hurries between all of this, meeting and greeting newcomers, catching up with those who have now become old friends, policing an over-exuberant visitor in a Manchester United shirt (who has just launched into a rendition of ‘Tomorrow’ from the musical Annie). Bob gives a quick, satisfied nod to his brother-in-arms Nasrim Ashraf, chair of UKEFF, as he busily guides even more people through the doors.
In the Bible we read about the early church in Acts, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” The early church clearly did not begin and end with structured services at the temple on a Saturday or Sunday, the church continued throughout the week as ‘oikos’ - the ancient Greek word for ‘home’, ‘household’ and ‘family’.
At Oldham Unitarian Chapel, ‘temple-oikos-temple-oikos’ is the rhythm of Reverend Bob Pounder’s ministry. Having just spoken to a couple with four hungry boys (Christian asylum seekers from Pakistan, having fled religious persecution) who were inquiring about coming to worship on a Sunday, Bob comments that worship is what all of ‘this’, his hand sweeping across the busy room, depends upon - “None of this would happen without the impetus that worship gives us.”
He goes further to remark, “I can’t believe God has given all of this - what have I done to deserve all of this?” He means it in a positive way, although he could be forgiven if now and then it took on a different tone, given the commitment this never-ending project surely must require.
We are often told the church is declining but maybe, amongst the very real and present decline, God is still speaking? Maybe God is still nudging - and at times shoving - his people in the direction of the Kingdom? Certainly at Oldham, there is clearly a compelling, charismatic spirituality at work. It is a mega-church but not in the usual terms - not in terms of bums on seats, not in terms of a bunch of people energetically waving their hands in the air - but in terms of practical, dogged witness.
The word ‘chapel’ is said to originate in the legend of Saint Martin of Tours who gave his cloak to a beggar and, in turn, had a vision of Christ wearing the other half – chapel is said to originally mean ‘little cape’ and, from there, ‘little sanctuary’. What a fitting and beautiful title for this unassuming dot amongst the Oldham landscape.