Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A Pilgrim People.

There is a sense of being squeezed in when the Holy Souls Chapel is used for Mass. The pews do not belong there and the church would become less usable if they stayed there permanently, the door to the left of the altar being both the door to the chapel but also the door to the community room. There is a sense of occasion using it, as usually it is only used as the door into the church on Saint Hilda's day, when the community room becomes the vestry for the visiting clergy and we congregate in there before Mass. Walking from the sacristy, past the toilets, down the back passage, through the community room and behind the back of the organ to the door, ringing the little hanging bell and walking into a full, unexpected chapel has a certain joy to it, a small sense of pilgrimage and a slight feeling of displacement. I wonder if purgatory may have a similar feeling? To see the Lamb of God but in a way in which we are unfamiliar, to see the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle, from a side, but to be unable to get there, but to know that when this sudden change is over, all shall be as it has been and always will be. A pilgrimage to the familiar, in an unfamiliar way. Rather like going to Walsingham and finding the shrine and grounds demolished and the Holy House displaced to wherever Richeldis first saw it. Would it not be terrible and joyful in equal measure to have to search unaided for the image of our Queen, knowing it to be there and in the right place, but not to know when we will get there?

Manchester Town Hall is a very grand building. You are left in no doubt, as you stand in Albert Square or Saint Peter's Square at the other side, that here were eminent Victorians. Nothing wrong in that, I am always glad when people from every age try their best and build for the good of the place they are in. We look back and can see many problems, of course, compare the buildings of Manchester centre to the buildings of Ancoats, a short walk North and there you have an essay in class distinction and urban poverty. Now, of course, Manchester has become the second city in England and the mills are all apartments and the slums are period homes, heated, insulated and inflated. Likewise, the stolid Victorian buildings are as likely to house GAP as a Barrister's Chambers and the Athaenaeum Club is now an art gallery. Chinatown has been displaced and suddenly finds that the land they have settled on is worth a lot of money, rather too much to support a collection of, on the whole, unremarkable restaurants and exotic supermarkets.

This staircase in the Town Hall leads up to the Mayor's Parlour, the grand hall with it's gallery and organ and fine committee rooms with commanding windows looking over Albert Square. In the weekends they are used for wedding receptions, civil partnerships, Bar (and Bat) Mitzvahs, launch parties, family get togethers, whatever you wish, you pay your money and get on with it. I will be enjoying a reception there next week, listening to speeches and drinking a glass or two of wine as people have in this room for a hundred years. We are unused to change, as human beings, much of what we do from day to day is what has been done for millenia, just the cosmetics have changed, medical and scientific advances move at a slower or faster speed, but we have the same needs and wants. We erect these buildings to house people we vote for, or not, as the case may be, and we hope that they will be as wise and fair as they claim.

Men and women have ascended these stairs for generations to take their oath of allegiance and to begin the business of governing Manchester. From time to time sections of them are taken to Manchester Cathedral for a service, notably the 'red' Mass each year when, memorably a few years ago, I was treated to the wonderful sight of the judges , barristers and solicitors of Manchester parading in all their pomp to be given a stern telling off by the then-Dean for not putting the law of God first. I pray for the new President of the United States, that he may be guided by God. Shouting against him, or for him, now, is pointless. He has been elected and must be commended to almighty God. I pray that he will end the ungodly death penalty, that he will walk in paths of peace and hear the gentle word of God at all times. I hope those who feel displaced by his victory may look for God in what they have been given, even those few in Washington DC who voted for McCain, who must feel very much in the minority. I am non-partisan in this through ignorance, as much as anything else.

Not far from the Town Hall, in fact ten minutes walk away if, like me, you both know where you are going and walk briskly, you will be able to find the Al Faizal cafe, one of the curry cafes in the old garment district, built to cater to the Muslim workers many years ago. You can enjoy a tasty lunch for a few pounds and sit in a busy place, listening to the banter between customers and staff. It is no place for the faint hearted or the insular, tables are shared, compliments and insults are traded and woe betide you if you expect to have your food brought to you!

It felt odd, then, out of time, to be coming here in the afternoon, after the lunch rush (you finished yet? Sod off then, make room) when it is quiet before the early evening when the place is swamped with people getting a cheap dinner after work before home or the pub. Like the protagonist in Ulysees walking up the steps of the Martello tower to find himself in Tesco's, things were not as I had expected. Maybe it was just the effects of the horrible cold I am enduring, but it seemed silent and still.

Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up: It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof: an image was before mine eyes, there was silence, and I heard a voice, saying, Shall mortal man be more just than God? Shall a man be more pure than his maker? Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly: How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth. They are destroyed from morning to evening: they perish for ever without any regarding it. Doth not their excellency which is in them go away? They die, even without wisdom. (Job, Chapter 4).

Not quite fear, then, as I left the cafe and walked down Withy Grove. I have put a picture above of the right hand side of that street, showing the last part of old Manchester left in the city centre. To the left is the side of the new Arndale Centre, behind the Withy Grove stores is the Printworks, a place of chain restaurants and cinemas. The old Swan with Two Necks pub (or the Swan with no customers as it came to be known) has gone and apartments have been built there. Everything moves on, we are born and we die. I spent much of yesterday standing by open graves watching the bodies being lowered in and then visiting those who will be in need of such a service soon as well as one who will be laid to rest next week, of your charity, pray for the soul of Gordon Dowden, Priest.

Is our foundation dust and are we more than our maker? We are a displaced people, called out of darkness into light and the responsibilities of that light. Today, there is a chance of a new start for each of us as there is for America as well. For all the reservations I have about the new President (I have reservations about everything, don't mind me), I will be praying that God, who is more that all of us, will make His voice heard in the corridors of the White House as he has on the steps of the Town Hall of Manchester and as He is heard, if you listen carefully, in the Al Faizal. We work with what we have got, to the same end and the same goal. What has been done is done and we pray that God may be with us all, now and for ever.