Praise him with cymbals and sitars: Church leaders may not agree about multi-faith worship, but at St Margaret's it is packing the pews. Mark Handscomb joined them

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SUNDAY morning service at St Margaret's is not for the strait-laced. You are just as likely to hear about Allah and Krishna as you are about Jesus Christ. Hymns such as 'Onward Christian Soldiers' and 'Fight the Good Fight' have been banished as being insulting to other religions, and sitars and cymbals are as much a part of the service as the more traditional organ.

The multi-faith approach at this church in Whalley Range, a run-down Manchester suburb sandwiched between Moss Side and Salford, is the idea of the Rev Robert Boulter. Though he is now well-liked by his congregation, he has been described as 'heretical' by some of his Christian neighbours. They dislike his view that all religions are equally worthy of respect before God, whomever He or She may be, and accuse him of selling the Christian faith down the river.

The Church establishment also tends to frown on the multi-faith approach, though yesterday, when it discussed multi-faith worship at its meeting in York, the General Synod cautiously agreed that prayers to other gods could be said in churches.

Jesus may be 'the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me', according to St John, but for Mr Boulter, it is time for a re-evaluation of the Scriptures. 'People often ask me: 'Has Christianity got anything distinctive to offer?' I say: 'No, it hasn't',' he says. 'I see no difference between Jesus and Mohamed in terms of the message they bring us.'

Mr Boutler admits surprise at his congregation's reaction to his changes. Unexpectedly, perhaps, while several of the younger newcomers to the parish have stormed out, accusing him of attempting to turn the church into a mosque, the older parishioners love the variety of his inter-faith approach.

'It's like going down to the bingo,' says Helen Henry, 60, from Grenada in the West Indies. 'If you play bingo, you have to sit next to people from all sorts of different cultures, so why should anyone be afraid of being together in church?'

'He's cut out all the boring bits,' says Vera Llanwarne, who has lived in the parish since 1926. 'It did seem a bit strange at first, but I wouldn't like to go back to the way it was before.' However, she draws the line at substituting Mohamed for Jesus. 'That wouldn't seem right,' she says.

Nora Millar, in her late eighties, has always lived in Whalley Range. She has seen the neighbourhood decline from being a posh, leafy suburb before the war to a thriving red-light district. However, she has repeatedly turned down offers to live out her retirement in the more salubrious surroundings of Lytham St Anne's. 'When we had the orthodox, service you used to go through your prayer book, listen to the sermon, someone would say 'Good morning', and then you'd go home and forget all about it until next week,' she says.

'Now, instead of a sermon, we have more of a debate. Robert will say something and then ask the congregation what they think. He'll say: 'That's what I think,' and someone else will disagree. When you go home, you think about what was said all week,' she says.

'The fact that there are other nationalities present has pulled down barriers. People are more friendly than they were in the past. Half the people who live here are Pakistani or Indian,' Mrs Millar says. 'I have Christmas cards from them.'

A solitary bell called the faithful to prayer last Sunday. Music from the film The Mission welcomed the congregation inside while children played table football at the back of the church. The panpipes used on the soundtrack seemed appropriate in the light of Mr Boulter's mission to explain the virtues of Islam, Hinduism and Krishna Consciousness to his congregation.

Elegantly carved pews, which used to seat Manchester's mill-owning society, are now shared by Whalley Range's thriving immigrant community. The women who wore ballgowns to attend midnight mass at Christmas have long since departed. The special 6am service, intended for servants to receive Holy Communion before going to light the fires at the grand houses, was abandoned years ago.

Instead of mounting the pulpit to issue threats of hellfire and damnation, Mr Boulter walks up and down the aisle engaging members of the congregation in a discussion about Christopher Columbus.

The sermon is more like a university seminar. 'How are our values formed?' he asks. 'What do you think about that book about the Princess of Wales?' There is a murmur in the audience before someone says people should mind their own business.

This is one of the regular services where people from different faiths are invited out to the front of the church to speak about their beliefs. An elderly Sikh, with cataracts clouding both eyes, tells the audience why Sikhs wear turbans and beards. He explains in Punjabi that the long beard and turban are worn to preserve the image of God, but his words fall on deaf ears because few understand his language.

Later in the service, some of the elderly members of the congregation become alarmed when a Muslim leader raises his voice and starts waving his arms around to explain the importance of the Koran, but everyone smiles politely and has a cup of tea together at the end. As the Hare Krishna man explained: 'You just have to be mellow about these things and accept other people's differences.'

Mr Boulter's inter-faith services have yet to be held at other local religious centres, but he regularly dons a skull-cap, takes off his shoes and says his prayers alongside Muslims in the mosque. He occasionally pops down the road to the Hindu temple, formerly a United Reformed church, and can be seen at the Sikh gurdwara discussing theology with anyone who is prepared to listen.

Opening up St Margaret's has had benefits for other religious groups. A thanksgiving service was held in the church hall by the 200-strong Zoroastrian church, which worships the Persian prophet Zoroaster of the sixth century BC. They lit a small fire in the middle of the church hall. Because they have no church building of their own, it has been suggested that the Zoroastrians have their own permanent chapel in the church.

When Mr Boulter arrived five years ago, the congregation at St Margaret's was dwindling. A pounds 100,000 refurbishment, raised in part by asking every Anglican church in the UK to donate pounds 1, had just been finished. Rotting horsehair plaster had been knocked off the walls to expose pale brickwork, which is now illuminated with powerful lights. American churches also donated money to help with the restoration. But quite what the donors would think of the changes that have been made since is uncertain.

Mr Boulter says he is putting into practice lessons he learnt while travelling through the Arabian desert. After spending 10 years working on a deprived housing estate in Manchester, he left to work as a church minister in Oman. There, he found that the spiritual needs of the sizeable migrant communities were ignored by the Christian churches there because they were dismissed as non-Christian. Instead of staying in the capital as was customary, he spent the next four years thumbing lifts off lorry drivers and the army to reach isolated villages.

He would emerge out of a dust cloud in a remote village to sit and drink tea with the inhabitants, talking in broken Arabic and pidgin English. He would greet strangers in health centres and sit around campfires discussing politics and religion.

'I hope I left them with a sense of friendship and helped them to inquire behind the facade of established religion,' he says. 'People very often venerate sacred texts in a way that doesn't allow any questioning.'

Mr Boulter says the same problem exists in Britain. What worries him most is that his initiative will cease as soon as he leaves the parish. 'Christianity in Britain has anaesthetised the revolutionary aspects of what Jesus was saying,' he says. 'What does the Church do in a situation of conflict? It simply puts the lid back on it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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