website design software
History

A History of the

Church of the Ascension
Hulme,

Manchester
1970 — 2006
By Robert Nicholls
Published by the Parochial Church Council
of the Church of the Ascension.

Please scroll down the page for the story of the Ascension

and its people.

 

 

Hulme’s Anglican Churches before the Ascension

 

The township of Hulme dates back many centuries, the name  deriving from the Danish word ‘holme’ meaning an island or high land surrounded by water, in Hulme’s case the rivers Irwell, Medlock and Cornbrook. The area was sparsely populated and at the time of its incorporation into Manchester in 1838 numbered less than 1000. The rapid growth of the city in the nineteenth century soon changed this position, with the population growing to over 60,000 by 1851 and to about 85,000 in 1871.
 

The first church to serve this area, strictly speaking just outside  Hulme but later to be incorporated for church purposes, was All Saints, Chorlton on Medlock, at the junction of Oxford Road and Stretford Road, built in 1820 at a cost of £16,000.
 

The first true ‘Hulme Church’ — a title that it retained throughout its existence — was St George’s on Chester Road. Built in 1828 by the Church Commissioners with ‘Waterloo’ money - some £20,000, it was and is the most elaborate of the old Hulme churches, being designed by Francis Goodwin, designer of the old Manchester Town Hall, the frontage to which can be seen in Heaton Park. Between 1843 and 1870, a further 9 churches were built, each involving subdivisions and reallocations of areas as new parishes were created out of old ones. The churches were:

    • Holy Trinity, Stretford Road 1843
    • St Mark, City Road, 1852
    • St Paul, Stretford Road 1855
    • St John the Baptist, Emden Street 1858
    • St Mary, Upper Moss Lane 1858
    • St Philip, Chester Street, 1861
    • St Michael, Lavender Street, 1864
    • St Stephen, City Road, 1868
    • St Gabriel, Erskine Street, 1869

 Of these, no fewer than five (St Mark, St Michael, St Philip, St Stephen & St Gabriel) were wholly or partly paid for by the Birley family. St Philips was always known as the ‘Birley Church’ or ‘The Rubber Workers Church’ due to its location close to the Birley owned factories on Cambridge Street (later occupied by Dunlop’s) and the fact that its first incumbent was Robert Birley.

St Mary’s has the tallest church spire in Manchester, and is the second most elaborate of the Hulme churches. It was designed by J.S Crowther, and paid for by the Egertons of Tatton Park.

The Church of England in the 19th. century endeavoured to provide accommodation for some 10% of each parish; in Hulme this was nearly achieved. Within a very densely populated area, this meant that churches were in close proximity to each other.
 

From a peak in the early 1870s, the next 90 years would see the population of Hulme decline. At first, this was due to natural population movement as people moved out to better housing in more distant suburbs using the developing public transport network. By 1910, numbers had declined by some 18,000, and some 30 years later, at the start of World War 2, the population had dropped to 46,000, just over half its 1870s total. Increasing concern for the poor condition of inner city housing, of which Hulme had more than its fair share, led to the first small scale slum clearances in the 1930s, with the process accelerating in the 1950s. By the 1960s, it was clear that the local authority would effectively make Hulme the largest clearance area in the country, with the entire street pattern being obliterated and very few existing buildings, including the churches, being allowed to remain.
 

The decline in population eventually resulted in Hulme becoming “over churched”. As early as 1938, proposals were being made to demolish All Saints. Although this idea was defeated, this church, along with St John’s, was destroyed in the Blitz of December 1940. Also damaged were Holy Trinity and St Marks. The first two churches were not repaired and were demolished in the late 1940s (although some services continued to be held in the nearby St Johns School up to about 1960). Both were ‘held in plurality’ by the rector of St Philips from 1950, with the parishes being formally amalgamated 10 years later along with Holy Trinity, which had closed in 1953 St Marks was demolished in 1948 and amalgamated with St Stephens in 1950. St Paul’s joined St Mary’s in 1955; the early 1960’s saw Hulme with 6 remaining Anglican churches.


Building the new church.
 

The process of rebuilding Hulme went on throughout most of the 1 960’s. During this time, most of the population was re-housed in other parts of the city or overspill estates. Many looked forward to leaving the area and did not return. Some did move back to the new homes that were built, but overall the population was reduced. The network of living communities that made up the old Hulme was completely destroyed. The process of slum clearance caused disruption and distress to many; it was no coincidence that in the summer when demolition was at its height, there were far more funerals of elderly people than in other years.
 

The provision of new churches in redevelopment areas had been addressed when Bishop Greer called a clergy conference on the subject. The outcome was the establishment of structures and mechanisms to deal with the local authority over such matters.
In practical terms, however, matters in Hulme did not move very quickly. The local clergy of the time were concerned with how the whole process was affecting the remaining parishes.

In 1961/62, Gordon Dowden, rector of St Philips since 1958, met with Robert Warner, rector of St Stephens, to discuss the situation. Warner had been curate to Fred Hoyle, rector of St Martins in Wythenshawe (and later Archdeacon of Bolton), who had some experience of dealing with the local authority in redevelopment areas. Together, they sought Hoyle’s advice, which was to take the initiative at the grass roots or parish level. As the road layout of the proposed development neatly divided the area into three sectors, it made little sense to retain the existing parish boundaries. As population moved out, a single parish for the new Hulme seemed the most sensible solution, and this was effectively proposed to the Diocese by the two parishes, and subsequently accepted.

Shortly after, it became apparent that both St Michael’s and St Stephen’s would be acquired by the Corporation under the clearance proposals and the question of building a new church then arose. The cost of such a new building would be met by the local authority through compensation on an ‘equivalent reinstatement’ basis, which was applied to churches subject to compulsory acquisition. The new church would also serve in place of St Philips and St Gabriel’s, neither of which were being acquired, but both of which faced redundancy through depopulation of their respective parishes.

A ‘Development Group’ was formed in October 1965 with both diocesan and parish membership and chaired by the Bishop of Hulme. Its work involved looking at the designs of new churches in Europe. The Corporation offered a site in the new Hulme Neighbourhood Centre close to the library and shops after an alternative site on Jackson Crescent had been rejected. The Diocese was also requested, through its Pastoral Committee, to undertake the legal union of the respective parishes, as soon as was practicable.

In July 1966, the London based architects Maguire and Murray were appointed to design the new church. Gordon Dowden had seen their notable church design of St Paul’s, Bow Common, London. and thought that the two partners knew “what a church was for”. The firm had undertaken similar schemes at Perry Breeches and Crewe. By October, initial designs were being tabled, and the parishes were asked to consider whether they would want the congregation to be placed around a central altar. In mid-1967, thought also began to be given to the new church centre on Tarnbrook Close, on the eastern side of Princess Road, close to where the old St John’s, Emden Street, had been. Initially referred to as the ‘Medlock Church Centre’, but later called “The Arnott Centre”, this was not intended to be a ‘daughter church’, but a church presence in a remote part of the proposed new combined parish. It comprised a small hall and a bungalow to house married curates serving at the new church.

The parish of St Michael’s was incorporated into St Stephen’s in March 1967. St Stephen’s itself was then closed and joined St Philips in October. Efforts by the diocese to interest St George’s in joining the new parish failed for a variety of reasons, principally the desire of its congregation to remain independent. In due course, Gordon Dowden was made curate-in-charge of St Gabriel’s. Work on the main church building could not start until the site had been cleared by the Corporation, finally starting in November 1968, the contractors being the long established Manchester firm of G & W Smith Ltd Earlier that year, consideration began to be given to the dedication of the new church — it could not officially be consecrated until the site had been bought by the Corporation and ownership transferred to the diocese (which finally happened in the mid-1990s). An initial list of 6 names was chosen.

On Ascension Day 1969, members of the remaining churches met at the site of the new church, and processed to the newly opened St Philip’s primary school, to celebrate the Eucharist and discuss the dedication. Three names were debated ‘The Ascension’ (representing the new period in church life starting on Ascension Day) , ‘All Saints’ (commemorating the area’s past churches) and ‘The Church of the Resurrection’ (symbolic of the rebuilding of Hulme), the decision reaching this order of preference. St Gabriel’s’ suggested that the ‘Ascension’ be adopted. This was later confirmed by a joint PCC meeting of both churches on 29 June, the decision being subsequently agreed by the Bishop of Manchester.

In October 1969, it was reported that the work was ‘well behind schedule’, and that the architects had written to the builders to tell them to ‘get on with it’. Work also finally started on the Arnott Centre. Ironically, this was finished first, in April 1970. The initial February completion date for the main building came and went. Both St Gabriel’s’ and St Philips continued to operate, although the main service at the former was discontinued after 22 February 1970. In the meantime, plans went ahead for the Dedication Eucharist to be held on Ascension Day, May 7th. that year. The builders finally vacated the church itself at 5.30 pm on Ascension Day. The Rt. Rev Kenneth Ramsey, Bishop of Hulme presided and preached at the service. The new building, capable of seating around 400, was full, but it was not finished. Work on the parish office, hall and rectory would take another 5 months to complete. The hall was furnished with moneys provided by the former St Stephens congregation, and dedicated by the Bishop of Manchester on 13 February 1971. In December 1970, the church was finally completed when a 2 manual Walker pipe organ, in neo Baroque tonal style, was provided at a cost of nearly £6000.

 

Gordon Dowden 1970-78.

 

The new church was intended to be a ‘major church building’, catering as it did officially for 2 former churches, and 4 in practice. The church is in fact part of a complex consisting of church, parish office, sacristy, hall and rectory. A large open gallery in the church linked with another gallery above the hall. Beneath the former was a chapel, later to become a Lady Chapel. A small flat was provided and was used to house single curates and others at various times on the staff.

The church itself is designed with a central altar of concrete with a polished Welsh slate top. and is the only fixed object rising from the tiled floor, apart from the font, which catches the eye on entering the church. These two fixed objects bring together the two Gospel sacraments of Baptism, the beginning of Christian life, and the Eucharist. its continuation. All the benches for worshippers, together with the clergy seating, are moveable. The floor is completely flat. apart from the shallow sanctuary step, so that the congregation can all feel fully involved in the act of worship.

It was soon apparent that the church was too large for normal worship — initial communicants at the main Sunday services averaged 50 to 70 in the first few weeks. Until the early months of 1971, a team from St Philips continued bellringing each Sunday morning from the old church tower before sprinting up the road to the new church to attend the main service. For some years, there had been hopes of retaining the tower with a small chapel at its base to serve the nearby industrial area. Use of the tower ceased when the costs of retention and insurance had to be faced.

The building itself later suffered vandalism and arson and was finally demolished in 1974. Life in the new united parish (until 1973 still officially called St Philips) started on a very optimistic note. Sunday services comprised a said Communion in the chapel at 8am and a Parish Communion at 10am, with Evensong and said Communion at 6.30pm. Weekday services took place every day. Although efforts to create a church choir did not succeed to any degree, both Church Lads and Church Girls Brigades flourished, as did a Mothers Union. a youth group, a Sunday School and a play group run by the Save the Children Fund’. Other local groups, including tenants associations. also made use of the hall. House meetings were arranged. and visits made to the area’s 3 old people’s homes (Briarfields, Oaklands, and Claremont).

A Sunday School was also held at the Arnott Centre at one time it had both infants and junior sections. Close relations were maintained with St Philips School, the church school, and with the areas other schools and churches, although a joint committee with St George’s, formed after the failure to amalgamate St George’s into the new parish, did not continue after 1972. From that year, an ecumenical carol party was held at the Ascension, which continues to this day.

The parish magazine of the time was called ‘Parish News’. It had a circulation of 500 to 600, cost 3d, and was partly paid for by advertising. For some years during this time, contact was maintained with a church in the township of Mohales Hoek in Swaziland, where a former curate of St Phillip’s was ministering.

The Arnott Centre was well used at first. Occasionally used for services, some held in the curate’s bungalow, it was, however, remote from the main building and required a long term priest to develop properly, and after a time its use became more spasmodic.
Outside the church building, things were not going well in the new Hulme. Serious faults had started to appear in the adjoining deck access flats (‘the Crescents’) as early as 1970, only a year after completion.

 As well as inappropriate design, the blocks had been built at speed with resulting poor quality workmanship, making living conditions intolerable. In 1977 it was reported that over 60% of the population wanted to leave, and tenant ‘turnover’ was high. Hulme was not the first choice for many who were obliged to live there. This included the area’s increasing Afro Caribbean community, displaced by slum clearances in the adjacent Moss Side in the 1970’s.

Matters came to a head when a child fell from one of the verandas in Charles Barry Crescent. The local MP, Frank Hatton, enlisted a small group, including Gordon Dowden, to make the city council aware of the situation.

Whilst acknowledging the problems, the initial reaction of the local authority was to try to avoid demolition. The flats themselves and the surrounding green spaces were ‘tidied up’ cosmetically, and families moved out, eventually to be replaced by students, some 7000 in all.

All this had an effect on the new church, with the mid 1970s seeing a drop in attendances. Both the Church Lads and Church Girls Brigades and the Youth Group ended in 1976, as did the Sunday School, although a Friday Club for children did start, as well as a Tuesday playgroup in the church hall. Brownie and Guide groups existed for a short time in the Arnott Centre in 1977-78. A Youth Group there also enjoyed a similar short term existence.
In early 1978, Gordon Dowden asked the Bishop of Manchester to accept his resignation from the end of July. He had served both St Phillips and the Ascension since 1958. He left to become priest-in-charge of a village parish in the Winchester Diocese.

 

Peter Dunk 1978-83

 

Peter Dunk’s induction ceremony took place on 11th. October 1978. If the Ascension required a ‘breath of fresh air’, he provided it. A keen golfer and amateur motor mechanic with racing cars, Peter came with his wife Margaret (who acted as church secretary) and two young children. In terms of churchmanship, he took the Ascension, typically ‘middle of the road’ under Gordon Dowden, towards Anglo Catholicism, and was known as ‘Father Peter’.

Peter’s arrival coincided with the closure of St Mary’s. Originally some had thought that St Mary’s should be the single church for Hulme. but it was not located in the Neighbourhood Centre. Serving south Hulme, it did not feature in the original plan for a united parish The Ascension now had 10 ‘legacy parishes’, although few of the former St Mary’s congregation joined the new church. In an endeavour to cement the amalgamation, it was arranged for the altar reredos of St Mary’s to be transferred to the Ascension. After a thorough cleaning (with washing up liquid) by students from the School of Art, it was erected behind the Ascension altar at a cost of £950. St Mary’s was not demolished however, and part of it was let to the African Methodist Episcopalian Church until the early 1990s.

The pattern of services and attendances at the Ascension remained much the same throughout its first decade, although Sunday evensong for periods was not held. A mixed voice choir was successfully formed, and a series of flower festivals held, one of which was called ‘The Saints of Hulme’. During these, vestments and communion plate inherited from the old churches would be displayed. The Parish Magazine became free of charge and was enlarged in size. Home visits to the sick took a higher profile. The church began to be opened to the public on weekdays. Peter took an interest in what was happening in the surrounding area. whose deterioration began to gather pace during his era, and took the BBC to task over what he thought was an inappropriate portrayal of the area in a television programme. Described as a man of character, down to earth and understanding, it was with some sadness that his ministry at the Ascension came to a fairly quick end in early 1983. after he had experienced unfortunate personal problems.

 

John Methuen 1983-95

 

In October 1983, John Methuen, vicar (since 1977) of St Mark’s in Reading, arrived with his wife, Bridget and two daughters. Former Eton chorister and Oxford educated Methuen, soon to be known as ‘Father John’ or simply ‘FJ’, was to be no ‘breath of fresh air’; he was a veritable ‘whirlwind’. FJ saw it as his remit to exercise what he describes as a ‘local
ministry’ to all the people of his parish, including those who did not come to church — ‘to all those in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness or any other adversity’ (Book of Common Prayer). His ministry would be ‘about where you live and what you do’. A further development
in churchmanship took the Ascension into the world of incense.

FJ was high profile, led ‘from the front’, and was determined to ensure that his ministry did all that was humanly possible for the parishioners of Hulme. At the same time, he was approachable, adopted an ‘open door’ policy, and was quick to put people at their
ease, by taking them out to the pub, ‘making a fuss of them’ or inviting them round for supper (although it is fondly remembered today that Methuen - very late - mealtimes existed in a rather different time zone to everyone else’s !).

FJ was also the first true ‘Rector of Hulme’ following the final closure of St George's in April 1983; the 11 previous parish ‘legacy’ of the Ascension was now complete. The next 13 years would see the Ascension involved in all aspects of life in Hulme, with FJ operating very much at a (small ‘p’) political level, with a determination to tackle the intense social deprivation of the area by effecting change and by giving people a voice that was on ‘their side’. An early change within the church involved the enclosure in 1984-5 of the church gallery to form a meeting space, new sacristy and choir & server robing area. The new sacristy would soon achieve national recognition.

A parish administrator was appointed, paid for either out of legacies received or generous donations received from links
established with wealthier parishes in lpswich, Cambridge, Saddleworth and Calstock in Cornwall (where children from the parish would be given a holiday). Other links were maintained with Ballymun (Northern Ireland), Karl Marx Stadt, later Chemnitz (East Germany) and Kuils River (South Africa).

At an early date, the haphazard use of the Arnott Centre was ended and the hall used by the Churches Work Scheme, later to establish its own offshoot ‘Firmstart’ in the area. A number of other tenants and job creation projects later rented the hall, but the Ascension found rent recovery problematical. An organisation called Hulme Community Computing’ began to use the hall gallery in the Ascension in 1985. The church’s opening hours were substantially extended. For a number of years, a community worker was employed and paid for by the Churches Urban Fund. Theological college training placements from Northern College, Martin Luther King House, Mirfield, Cuddesdon and Westcott House (Cambridge) came either for a year or a summer at the Ascension and helped in a number of ways, along with other young people on the Bishop of Lewes’s scheme ‘Give a Year to God’. Curates were often on the staff, supplemented at times by unpaid assistant priests. At one time, the church had some 11 members of staff of varying descriptions.

Throughout the Methuen years’, the church was the centre of Hulme. At Christmas, the church’s crib, previously in the worship space. was placed in the hall windows facing outwards so it could be seen by passers-by. The same was done with the Sepulchre at Easter. A Folk Mass ran for a number of years on a weekday evening. Sunday morning services were livened up with at least one hymn accompanied by clapping. Evensong was restored at an early date, and 3 services, including the ‘usual offices’ were said each weekday. Special event services became more commonplace. with huge attendances when the local Trinity High School and local church and county primary schools were involved one notable service celebrated the release of Terry Waite, who had opened Trinity in the 1980s. At certain times of the week, local Pentecostalist churches were encouraged to worship in the church.

Despite all this, however, attendances show a very mixed picture with occasional attendances on an individual basis becoming more prevalent. From 1984 onwards, the Ascension’s own patronal festival, celebrated on Ascension Day itself, was switched to Ascension Eve to allow visitors from neighbouring churches to attend, which they did.  A series of high profile preachers, such as Bruce Kent, Trevor Huddleston, John Habgood and Rowan Williams, attracted by the Methuen ethos, gave the sermons at these events in the early 1990s, when the church was often full. At Christmas 1991, the church hall was used for 2 months as a night shelter for the homeless. The same year saw the first of a
number of videos produced for sale on a number of subjects. The Parent & Toddler Group continued to use the hall, as did the Friday Club. Both a Credit Union and a thrift shop were run.

FJ was also naturally involved in local housing and regeneration initiatives, which began to gather pace in the early 1990s. He became a director of Firmstart, and from 1992 was a director of Hulme Regeneration Ltd, the joint public private partnership set up the
achieve the rebuilding of Hulme. FJ worked hard with a punishing schedule, often arriving late for meetings through double bookings etc. However, he spent three short periods away from the parish for a liver transplant, cancer treatment and a sabbatical in Egypt.

In 1994, a new statue of the Madonna and Child was placed in the F Lady Chapel to replace a Victorian statue that had been stolen. The new statue was by local sculptor, Wendy Talbot, who won a design competition, partly sponsored by Hulme Regeneration. It
was provided as a memorial to Hilda Tobin, a hard working Ascension supporter since its foundation, one time Churchwarden, church cleaner, Methuen housekeeper etc., who had died the previous year.

 

During this period, the local authority had decided at last that clearance of large parts of Hulme, particularly Hulme 3 (the infamous ‘Crescents’) and Hulme 5 was necessary, to be replaced by a mixture of private and housing association housing, together
with a new commercial centre. Demolition of the Crescents took place in 1993-4. Further depopulation took place, and in the short term problems due to crime and drug dealing intensified, making the immediate vicinity of the Ascension a very unpleasant place.

FJ attracted a great loyalty among parishioners during his time at the Ascension. There was respect for the position he took on many things in representing the views of those who lived in what was acknowledged to be the most deprived area of Manchester. One parishioner said at the time (FJ was)... “a man who worked very hard indeed, sometimes rather too much, but who was never, ever boring”. Although a few disagreed with him at times and did not always like his style, there was genuine regret when early in 1995, he announced that he was leaving to become Dean of Ripon Cathedral.

He felt that he had given his all to Hulme and could do no more other than “more of the same”. His final service on 29th. September was a tearful occasion.

Just before this, a large mural, by Alison Patterson and Leandra Ryan, was unveiled on one of the Ascension’s exterior walls. With hands reaching upwards, symbolising both the Ascension of Christ and the rebirth of Hulme, was partly paid for using a grant received from Hulme Regeneration Ltd.

 

The Viraj Mendis “Sanctuary”

 

Viraj Mendis. a Sinhalese Sri Lankan, had first arrived in the UK in October 1973 to study catering at UMIST. After failing examinations 2 years later he stayed on in the UK, contrary to the terms of his student visa. The immigration authorities finally caught up with him in 1984 and began proceedings to have him deported. In July 1986, the 32 year old Mendis was informed by the Home Office that his final appeal against deportation had been rejected. In a community like Hulme, with a large ethnic minority presence, cases of threatened deportation had arisen before, and had attracted the attention of FJ. The case of Mendis, who supported Tamil self-government in Sri Lanka, was no exception to this. Additionally, because of his views, it was felt that his life would be in danger if he were forcibly repatriated.

Discussions about whether anything could be done to help him began among local community leaders. During one of these discussions. involving FJ, Father Phil Sumner of St Wilfrid’s RC Church and the Firmstart management, the suggestion emerged of protecting Mendis against arrest by affording him the ancient right of Sanctuary in church. notwithstanding that this had been abolished in 1623. It was agreed that the Ascension was the best place for this.

The Sanctuary was put into place quickly. Viraj was introduced to the Ascension PCC when it met on 20 December, and his stay in the new sacristy started that night. The Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign an outside group of supporters, took responsibility for him whilst in church. and provided a round the clock guard on the building, supplying him with all the necessities for living, including books, food, a television and a microwave.

The Sanctuary lasted 760 days. Most of the congregation  supported the action taken. It placed the Ascension well and truly in the spotlight. Marches of support were held, along with mass meetings. Between 30 and 40 thousand came to visit the church during this time. Not all were in favour and some damage was done to the church at times by racists. FJ received hate mail and found it necessary to take security advice. A man attending a meeting in church was stabbed and a woman later had a swastika cut into her hand.

On an official level, Stanley Booth Clibborn, Bishop of Manchester, lent his support but was careful to distance himself slightly from it — ‘I have always regarded this as a matter for the rector and the Church Council and I have defended their right to do this in conscience’. He also disagreed with the views of the Defence Campaign, which called for an end to all immigration controls.

In the Press, doubts were cast on Mendis’s position and claims and counterclaims were made. The Times opined on 2nd. August 1988 — “What further harm might be inflicted on those, already besieged by every disadvantage, on whose charity and neighbourly values he has sponged. Viraj Mendis is not being used, rather he, as a dedicated communist is a user. This is a journeyman, made paranoid by political beliefs”.

The Sanctuary was finally brought to an end in the early hours of 18th. January 1989 when a large number of police entered the building. First entering the rectory, they were led by FJ to the sacristy where they broke down the door forcibly to find Viraj, wearing pyjamas, handcuffed to a radiator. A separate group of police for a time prevented the Methuen’s teenage daughter from leaving the shower and returning to her bedroom. Although a large
crowd of people had gathered outside, Viraj was whisked away and was soon within Pentonville Prison. Within 52 hours he was on a plane back to Sri Lanka, accompanied by a large number of Press, and the Ascension’s assistant priest, Henry West, to ensure g his safety. The publicity that his case had aroused ensured that he remained safe whilst in Sri Lanka. Within 6 months he had been granted a visa to live in Germany, where he now lives with his British born wife. A tall, quietly spoken and articulate man, he revisited the Ascension in 2004, having gained a visa ‘surprisingly easily’. He was accompanied by John Methuen.

Within the Ascension, a holy water stoup and memorial to the Sanctuary were quickly erected. After the diocese refused to grant a faculty for the memorial inside the worship space, this was finally paced within the church foyer, where it remains to this day. The damage to the sacristy door is also still evident. The police authority refused to pay for the damage done in the raid but the Home Office later made an ex gratia payment, after Home Secretary Douglas Hurd had made a promise in Parliament.

A few days after the raid, Bridget Methuen received an elaborate bouquet of flowers from some un-named police in London apologising for the action of their colleagues – “some of us are Christian” read part of the message.

Speaking in March 1988 and summarising very well the feelings of the time, Henry West said that church members ‘should recognise that the large numbers of visitors who came to the Ascension had been touched by what we stand for here’.

 

Margaret Jackson 1996-99

 

Finding someone to fill the gap left by John Methuen’s departure was always going to be a problem for the Diocese of Manchester. Anyone stepping into the role would either expect to continue his way of working or be seen as deliberately changing things. A lengthy interregnum followed, leaving curate Matt Thompson at the helm. To a degree he continued the Methuen way of doing things, making a valuable contribution towards the successful outcome to the threatened deportation of the Okolo family, where the less confrontational tactics used to argue the case differed markedly from those used with Viraj Mendis.

In early 1996, there was sadness when the Ascension’s long standing organist, Pauline Hoffman died. She had suffered severe disability in her later years which at one point required her to be carried up the gallery stairs to reach the organ. A home communion set was later bought in her memory. Interviews for a new rector were held in January 1996, but neither candidate was chosen.

No further applicants came forward for a time, but in July the post was offered to Margaret Jackson, a curate from Leamington Priors near Kenilworth. She arrived with her husband, Roy, and was inducted on 28th. October. The Ascension became only the second parish in the diocese to have a woman rector. Margaret’s style was to be completely different. She had been reassured by the Bishop of Hulme that it was in order for the
Ascension to become a “normal” Church of England parish again. Liturgically, this meant little change in churchmanship, but the Ascension’s role in the social and political development of Hulme would not be the same as under John Methuen.

Relics from Viraj’s stay along with many old records were disposed of. The Methuen videos, now partly out of date since the conversion of ASB to Common Worship, began to be sold off at reduced prices. The Ascension Eve celebration reverted back to Ascension Day, with a loss of attendance, although some were relieved at no longer having to cater for so many guests. The CASTIS organisation, another Viraj era legacy, gave up the
accommodation they used in the church, and the regular use by the Pentecostalists ended in early 1999. Weekday services were now held on only 3 days of the week and saints days.

Not all liked these changes, and some left the church in this period. After it became impossible to find organisers to replace those who had left, the long established Friday Club ended. A similar lack of volunteers also led to the ending of the thrift shop and the credit union facility. Together with the continuing depopulation, annual communicant numbers dropped from 5503 in 1995 to 2691 in 1997. In mid-1997, after Matt Thompson’s departure, the Arnott Centre was finally surrendered back to the Diocese, freeing the Ascension of responsibility for it. It was subsequently let to a Pentecostalist church.

In common with previous incumbents, Margaret was appointed Chair of Governors at St Philip’s School, the voluntary-aided church school that is closely associated with the Ascension. Her ministry at the Ascension was appreciated particularly with this link. She also gave valuable support to the Mothers Union branch. In 1998, Hulme Walk, the pedestrian way that had fronted the site since the late 1960s was converted back into a road, and given its old name, Stretford Road. After a theft, the opening hours of the church were cut back with it being closed after evening prayers.

About this time, the Lady Chapel was remodelled, and a donation received to install a new organ stop from the old St Mary’s organ. In 1999, the future of the former St Mary’s building was debated at Diocesan level. Someone made the suggestion that St Mary’s be reopened and become the church for Hulme, implying that there were problems with the Ascension building, which would then be closed, This idea was quickly disposed of. New hymnbooks were bought after a generous gift from Barbara Birley, the last member of the family to continue the connection with the churches of Hulme.

In Spring 1999, Margaret announced that she had been offered an appointment at Alstonfield in the Peak District. She took up her new duties there in September. At the same time, the last Parish Administrator resigned. From now on, there would be no full time presence in the building, and for the first time since the late 1970s, it would no longer be open on weekdays, except at service times.

 

Alma Servant 2000-present (written 2006)

 

As soon as the process began for filling the vacancy, the Diocesan Pastoral Committee asked the parish to consider ‘suspending the benefice’. This meant that the new priest would not be a rector, but a ‘priest in charge’. The change gave the diocese greater freedom with the disposition of clergy around the diocese, allowing formation of team ministries etc. It also allowed appointments to be made without the complication of ‘freehold tenure’ which rectors enjoy The parish agreed with this. Interviews for the new priest were held on 21 September 1999. Shortly after it was announced that the post had been offered to and accepted by the Rev Alma Servant, priest in charge of St Thomas’s Church. Heaton Chapel in Stockport.

Alma’s licencing as priest in charge took place on Thursday 10 February 2000. At an early date. Alma made it clear that she wanted to restore some of the ‘fun events of the Methuen years. The celebration of church festivals was extended and both the ecumenical carol party and Ascension Eve were restored. Both are well attended. Although the latter does not see the numbers of the early 1990s, it is a good event where the Ascension’s hospitality is well in evidence.

Notable preachers invited have included Bishop Christopher of Manchester, the Dean of Liverpool, the Archdeacon of Durham, Father Phil Sumner, and (in 2002) John Methuen, Dean of Ripon. In late 2000, the Ascension once again gained a curate, Ken Flood, who was to remain until mid-2005. One of the many things he did was the setting up of an Ascension website in 2002. In 2003, Alma served as Diocesan Director of Ordinands and Chaplain to the High Sheriff of Greater Manchester. She spent 3 months on sabbatical in 2004.

 

Two changes to parish boundaries have occurred in recent years. Firstly, a small part of the parish outside the Manchester boundary was incorporated into the adjoining parish of St Bride’s, Old Trafford, regularising a long-standing arrangement for the pastoral care of that area. Later, about half of the former parish of St Peter’s, Whitworth (the University Chaplaincy) was added to that of the Ascension, although this area has few residents.
During Alma’s incumbency, the population of Hulme has increased, as new residential developments have been built, a process that is still not complete. The developers of nearby flats, Bellways, were persuaded to re-pave the entrance area to the church and, later, resurface the church car park at the rear. The church gained a ‘photoboard’ in 2001. A Sunday School, or more accurately ‘Junior Church’ started in 2003. In 2003, the exterior mural was removed after it began to look shabby. The flat was refurbished so that an income could be obtained. By 2005 it had been let to the University and occupied by students. The Ascension has once again been host to a number of ‘placements’, although these have stayed for shorter periods than during the Methuen era.

In 2004, the Ascension celebrated its first wedding since 1992. Morning prayer is held on 4 days of the week, with Mass as well on Tuesday and Wednesdays. Visits are made to Oaklands, the one remaining old people’s home in the area. The Mothers Union branch, virtually the only Ascension ‘institution’ dating from the opening of the church, still meets on a regular basis. In keeping with the times, the Ascension now has a motto - ‘All are welcome to the Ascension, let no one be a stranger here’, making a clear allusion to the Sanctuary, as does a nearby street name. A few who had left in the years after 1996 have returned. The congregation includes some from outside the Hulme area. Over 79% are from the Afro Caribbean community.

2005 saw the departure of Hulme Community Computing from its accommodation in the hall gallery. The same year saw the Ascension launch its own version of ‘Going for Growth’, a wider Diocesan initiative. Locally, this included improving the welcome given to newcomers in the church, making efforts to improve the atmosphere of the worship space, and deepening Christian knowledge A series of house study groups held in 2005 was particularly successful.

The link with St Philips School remains as strong as ever. 6 church members currently serve as school governors. Ascension clergy conduct assemblies at the school, and give other support. Every term two school Eucharists are held, one at the school, the other at the Ascension. The school runs a ‘100 Club’ for fundraising, which suggested by Alma. Ken Flood raised funds for the school by taking part in the ‘Great North Run’ in 2004.

Alma herself is described by her parishioners as ‘likeable, intelligent, human, a do-er, able to deal with other clergy, and able to deliver thought provoking and spiritual sermons’. Like her predecessors. she has an ‘open door policy’. She has a confidence in the church and the area it serves, but is not overtly political, although she did fight hard to get the benefice restored, which occurred in Spring 2005, so that once again there is a Rector of Hulme. In April 2002, Alma became a canon of Manchester Cathedral. She has recently been elected as a member of the General Synod of the Church of England.

At the time of writing (late 2006), following the closure of the nearby Methodist (Wesley) and Catholic (St Wilfrid’s) churches, the Ascension is now the only mainstream church presence in Hulme. The Diocese of Manchester has affirmed its faith in its future to allow it to face the challenge of reaching out to the ‘new Hulme’. The building stands as a testament to the mission of Christ in a modern and ever changing world, and is a unique amalgam of its own short but eventful history and those of its predecessor churches

 

Writing some 20 years ago, Dr. R.J. Murphy in "Cherished though they may be - The Churches of Hulme - Rise & Decline" compared the Ascension to its predecessors and said: "It is rather doubtful if it will stand the test of time as they did".
There are some who would beg to differ with that.

 

 

Ascension Curates and Assistant Priests

 

  • Leonard Fox 1970-72
  • Ronald Attley 1973-75
  • Graham Oakes 1970-74
  • Geoffrey Morgan 1974-77
  • Robin Usher 1978-80
  • Jonathan McGillivray 1980-83
  • Fred Corbin 1984-86
  • Henry West 1986-94
  • David Butler 1988-90
  • Lister Tonge 1988-93
  • Paul Inman 1990-94
  • Matt Thompson 1994-97
  • Ken Flood 2000-05
  • Geoff Howard 2004-2006
  • Acknowledgements

    Past and present clergy of the Ascension: 

    • Rev Gordon Dowden,
    • The Very Rev John Methuen,
    • Rev Matt Thompson
    • Rev Margaret Jackson
    • Rev Canon Alma Servant

    Manchester Diocesan Board of Finance:

    Michael Darlington, Karen Royle & staff.

    Rev Canon Chris Ford — Diocesan Archivist.

    Manchester Central Library local history unit.

    Hulme Library.

     

    Members of the congregation:

    Barbara Birley, Penny Boothman, Maureen Deakin, Wendy McCormack, Tony Milner, Bernice Reid, Simon Schofield, Albert Slippe & Joyce Williams.
    Wendy McCormack for organising the layout & production of this booklet.
     

    ©2006-2012 Robert Nicholls has produced the church history in the capacity of an authorised volunteer.

    Reformatted and edited for the Ascension website by Steven Evans

     ©2012 The Ascension PCC

     

    [Index] [Photo gallery] [History] [Links] [Who are we?] [Services] [Social photos] [A to Z]