Faith and the Magic Bus: Religion on Oxford Road

It was raining again. But Tom knew that before he opened the curtains. It was always raining in Manchester. It was rumoured that there had once been sunshine here. One scholar had even gone so far as to claim that the city had once been warm enough for locals to begin sunbathing in parks. His findings, however, were generally laughed off by his colleagues who pointed to the continuing drizzle and occasional flashes of angry lightening that punctuated the gloom of the place.

Dragging himself out of bed, the kebab and beer fighting inside of him, Tom wondered why anybody would schedule lectures on a Tuesday. This, surely, was not on. He shook his head in disgust, splashed some water onto his face and dashed out into the autumn rain. He’d counted on walking in, but the sleepiness and weather were conspiring against him. Yawning, he stumbled across the road towards the massed ranks of students piling onto the nearest Magic Bus. Nothing about it struck him as magical. There was a damp floor, standing room only and a vaguely concerning odour that he couldn’t quite place. Still – it was dry and fast and anything was better than the rain. The driver was (for once) in a good mood. Tom noticed a strange emblem hanging from the driver’s mirror – some kind of many armed god.  He pushed himself through the melee of people and thought no more of it.

Tom’s mind drifted back to the previous day’s lecture. According to the lecturer, Manchester was a “unique and religiously diverse city”. Tom wasn’t sure of that. There didn’t appear to be anything religious in Fallowfield at all. Besides, the lecturer had a worryingly designed beard. His Dad had always told him not to trust men with beards, although Tom realised that this might need to change now that he was a student, as facial hair was a worrying trend amongst male staff members. Besides, he thought, Santa had a beard and he’d always struck Tom as particularly trustworthy.

Nonetheless, Fallowfield seemed a particularly unpromising place for religion. He glanced out of the left hand side of the bus and caught sight of a small chapel. For a second Tom wondered what it was. Had he been walking, he might have realised something of its history. Built in 1662, the small Unitarian chapel was associated with the estate that once encompassed what is now Platt Fields park. It was not always Unitarian. The very fact that it became such began to cause some controversy – for Unitarians did not accept many standard Christian doctrines such as the Trinity. The change in beliefs upset Thomas Carrill Worsley of Platt Hall so much that he determined to build a new Anglican church to rival the chapel. The new church sat just to Tom’s left hand side as his bus stopped at the junction of Platt Lane. Holy Trinity Platt, built in the mid-nineteenth century, was named after the Trinity to deliberately attack the Unitarians who remained in the chapel. Tom caught a glance of the church’s rare terracotta topped spire as the bus sped into curry mile. The different places of worship had different fates over the past fifty years:  the Unitarian chapel was closed in 1973, while Holy Trinity remains one of the largest evangelical Church of England churches in Manchester. Worsley would probably have been pleased – although he wouldn’t have liked the large and influential Unitarian chapel in Cross Street in the city centre, or the fact that his house was now a costume museum! If Tom had been able to see just opposite the church he would also have spotted the shining new Shah Jalal Mosque and Islamic Centre. Built from an abandoned early twentieth century building, the new construction stood proudly on the street with a green dome resplendent on top. Tom however missed the suggestion of a crescent peaking over the rooftops as the bus attempted to change lanes.

The bus was crawling now. Stuck in traffic and inching towards the neon wonderland that made up the curry mile. This was much like Las Vegas, thought Tom, albeit without gambling and with reasonably priced curry. In fact, he realised, this meant that it wasn’t like Las Vegas at all. The colourful restaurants seemed far removed from the world of religion, but had Tom been on the same street just a few weeks earlier, he would have seen Rusholme transformed as Eid was celebrated. Families dressed in celebratory clothes, restaurants full of people enjoying the atmosphere, young men hooting their horns as they drove through the suburb – Rusholme was always buzzing at Eid. It became the centre of Muslim celebrations and was renowned around the UK as the place to be, particularly for young Muslims. Other locals preferred to avoid the curry mile, meeting up with families for a homemade feast.  Tom didn’t realise any of this. He was too busy worrying about getting to the lecture on time.

The bus finally made it into the University. Stepping off opposite the imposing and (although he was unaware of it) beautifully decorated Church of the Holy Name, Tom almost ran into a table as he legged it towards the lecture theatre. A smiling bearded man viewed him with a half amused, half confused expression. “Any questions?” asked the amused Rabbi. For a moment Tom was tempted to ask him something about religion in Manchester, but dumbly shook his head and resumed his sprint. He quickly thought through the excuses he could give to his lecturer. At the last moment a plan came to mind – perhaps he could convince him that his delay was down to his academic nature. Maybe, just maybe, if he convinced the lecturer that hed been travelling to University thinking of just how diverse Manchester was religiously he could get off without a reprimand. He still couldn’t think of anything though. Was there really such diversity here? Was religion really all around? No, he finally decided, better to take his punishment. If religion was all around him, he certainly saw no evidence of it.

Embarrassed, Tom fell into the lecture theatre and sheepishly took his seat. He tolerated the man’s glare and tried to listen. “If only we kept our eyes open,” the lecturer was saying, “we would see the range of religious beliefs that surround and influence our lives in this city”. “Yeah , right” though Tom sarcastically. All this was too much. Sinking lower in his seat, his eyes gently shut and he allowed sleep to embrace him.

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About andrewcrome

Lecturer in religions and theology at the University of Manchester.
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