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Monday, March 21, 2011

The Little Chapel That Cried

"I wonder who will be the last, the very last, to seek this place for what it was."
--Phillip Larkin, 'Church Going'

Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Platt Fields Unitarian Chapel.

I call it "The Little Chapel That Cried".

Derelict, it stands across Wilmslow Road from the college where I am doing my ministerial training. It was built in 1702, and held Unitarian services until 1972. After that, until as recently as three years ago, it was home to the Manchester Amateur Photographic Society.

Now it's for sale, a snip at a mere 350,000 quid. "That's for nothing," says Eddie, the current owner. I met him last time I wandered by. He tried to sell it to me, complete with the attendant graveyard, holding all that was mortal of several Lord Mayors of Manchester as part of the bargain.

Every time I have to do my shopping at the local Sainsbury's for the past six months, I've walked past this gently crumbling reminder of the arc of history I find myself in. I've been reading the book The Death of Christian Britain by the social historian Callum Brown. The statistics he marshalls cover about the same time frame through which this little chapel has travelled, and the numbers point to the same inescapable conclusions the chapel bodies so palpably: mutability, decline, and transformation.

I have been away from the UK twelve years. This doesn't quite make me Rip McWinkle, but at today's accelerated rate, it's been long enough to see things are heading south here. It's not just the economy, the "Broken Britain" malaise...it seems generally accepted that its best days are behind it, if for no other reason than the PM ("CallMeDave" Cameron) insists the opposite is true. (A thing is true when a coalition government vigorously denies it, is my motto...).

You already sort of know the story: post-world-war disillusionment, the rise of consumerism, the advance of scientific knowledge producing an increased sense of human sufficiency, greater social mobility and freedom. The pros and cons of all these are debatable of course, but together, their inertia has created a sense of inexorable undertow, like the pull of the sea.

An indication of this is that vast majority of the cultural industries here are turning out antiquarian and history-based material--game shows, tv drama, films, reality programming, documentaries--our own little Hellenistic period. Feeling there is no future, we lose ourselves in dreams of the past, which are always rosier dreamt of than actually lived through. Don't get me wrong, I like nothing better than costume drama, but I thank my lucky stars I live in a world of anti-biotics and anaesthetics, and that my daughters aren't condemned to servility in marriage or developing rickets from 12-hour-day factory shifts.

Our denomination, for all its uniqueness and progressive foresight, has not been immune to this tidal pull, its glory days having reached their height just before WW1, a mere century ago. Once, the Unitarians boasted a social impact massively disproportionate to its numbers, counting as it did some of the empire's best and brightest amongst its adherents. But today, the heritage-listed buildings we joyously threw up in our heyday are like financial millstones, as the damp sets in, gravity and erosion work their patient transfiguration, the famished packs of vandals steal the copper-piping and the lead from the roofs, anything, in fact, from which the most meager profit can be wrung--even if only as firewood for a cold night. With declining numbers (our statistical truth), there is less and less we can do about this. It's a jungle out there, and the chapel has been gnawed at by scavengers over the past 30 years.

But Eddie, my Virgil in this dark netherworld, tells me there's hope, of a kind.

He's pleasant enough, bluff, chatty, and sharp, and wants me to know (having discerned my accent) that he loves the states and has been to Graceland several times. And like a true Elvis man, there is no irony when he tells me he looks at The Little Chapel That Cried and sees not decline, but opportunity.

The chapel sits next to a large public park, and he takes me out the back and, with his arms waving, sketches in the air his vision of the restaurant the place could become, with an imaginary back deck area, sweeping across and above the gravestones, to take in the full view of the green fields beyond the hedge-rows. "The sun sets right behind those trees,' he swoons. "Glass of wine. Lovely."

And just like the vandals, Eddie looks at this place where centuries of Mancunians were hatched, matched, and dispatched, where generations of free-thinkers revelled in the worship of mighty forces, where thousands of human souls' depths were plumbed--and sees not history, but money. The principle is the same whether you're a junkie looking for a pew to chop up for warmth or a property developer trying to ramp your margins: acquire, asset-strip, profit, move on.

He senses I may not be interested in buying a picked-over antiquarian shell, so tempts me further. He tells me that the Manchester Police department have set aside a 100,000 pound grant for anyone who buys this site with an eye to developing it. This makes sense, I concede to him. A derelict building, even on a main road, is an invitation to criminality.

"Oh, it's not just to save the building. The 100 thousand quid is for anyone wanting to turn this into a licensed rave venue. Keeps the kids where you can keep an eye on them. Police reckon it's money well-spent."

And so from one kind of (ahem) ecstasy to another, this little chapel will transform. Religion to rave. From the ringing of the bell that called the faithful to new music ringing out. Plus ca change?

If I were a better writer, I would compose a dapper little elegy on the ironies of fate, like the Hellenistic poets, who also sensed their ancient gods being co-opted by the uber-slick Romans, and transmogrified into a strange new service.

Maybe later. Right now I want to run...

So I take my leave of Eddie, who presses a business card into my hand. On the back of it, scrawled in ball-point, it reads: "Swinton Police Station", the name of a P.C. and gives a phone number. He claps me on the back and starts to croon in Elvis baritone "Glory, glory hallelujah..."

What is going on here? Police approved raves, white-van-driving property developers, vandalised chapels, gravestones...

As I look back at the chapel shrinking into distance, the lines from the Larkin poem, cited above, rang in my ears:

For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

For some reason, all our compulsions have met in this little spot, then as now. The chapel is a screen upon which we continue to project whatever it is our compulsions are, and thus says more about us than about it.

And I note that, as I move far enough away to cover the chapel with my hand, there's one thing no one's managed to strip and sell. Look in the belfry in the photo above, and you can just about see it.

Yes: it's the 17th century bronze bell, silent now and for a long time. Too hard for easy pickings.

Suddenly, I want to pick up a rock and ring it, hard and loud and unendingly.

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