Food for Thought at Union Church, Margate - "a radical church"

02 January 2024

Despite its imposing Victorian exterior, Union Church, the Margate Methodist/URC church, feels more like a cafe: there are bright yellow walls, scattered tables covered with gingham cloths and a bubbling tea urn to welcome artists, musicians and many who feel excluded from other churches to its growing faith community.  Before I’ve found a seat I’m asked if I’d like to do a reading. “Churches are like helicopters - rather wonderful, but watch out for the rotas”, says Chris who runs the monthly Food for Thought meetings with genial ease. “If there’s a fire, run that way. If you need the loo, run that way. Don’t confuse the two.” 

His wife, Morag, a celebrated local singer, runs a folk club in the nearby Rosslyn Court arts venue, so can boast many links to local artists and musicians, all of whom regularly grace the stage at the Union Church. In both endeavours, community resides at their heart. This is a musical occasion, and on the morning I visited the Snottledogs are with us, delighting the brimming hall with close harmonies and boundless energy. Morag determinedly changes the words to the hymns to include women too, and when we are invited to sing along, “all those who identify as female are asked to sing along with Morag and the green lyrics.”

There is no formal praying. No one stands to sing. No one stands for anything. Mugs of tea and breakfast are brought to our table. After nine songs, and nine readings - about history, conflict, mental health, politics, Charles Dickens - a retired visiting minister is asked to say a few words. He tells of the joy God sends raining down upon the world, while we stand about holding umbrellas, glumly watching His gifts bounce away. Looking about the Union Church, here at least we are bathing in God’s glorious gifts, and well aware of our good fortune. There are guided meditations, rather than prayers, on the troubles of our loved ones, the wider world, and ourselves. The palpable kindness and kinship fostered here surely contributes to the attendees’ sense of well-being and belonging.

After the service, Chris Butler, who’s been running the Church’s monthly Food for Thought meetings since June, spoke about the thinking behind these events.

“Church membership is plummeting in the UK. However there appears to be plenty of evidence that people who practise a religious faith enjoy better mental health. Throughout the centuries humans have sought ritual, song, the sense of something bigger than themselves and their troubles. We wanted to create a church experience which would suit Margate’s community, which we know to be artistic and non-stereotypical. There is plenty of evidence that being a member of a faith grouping is very positive for mental health and well-being. Unfortunately, the images of faith that are promoted in the news seem to focus more on intolerance, sectarianism and somewhat regressive attitudes to sexuality, gender non-conformity and sexual equality, while also promoting rather idiosyncratic beliefs about science and evolution. This seems a pity, as within Churches themselves we have generally found people to be kind and caring, open-minded and accepting.

There is a national group of Christian churches which promote inclusivity - Inclusive Church -  and we noted that there were no churches in Margate who are part of this group. Therefore, we decided to fill this gap, and to promote a creative and inclusive church experience open to people of all faith, or no faith, who were interested in spirituality in a more general way, but didn’t feel comfortable in a conventional church.”

The monthly Food for Thought meetings have attracted a wide range of speakers and performers, including Clive Fletcher, a musician and Buddhist prison Chaplain, who sang, spoke and led a meditation; Dr Anna Westin, a lecturer in ethics who spoke about Christian and Jewish mysticism and its links to healing; and Professor Pippa Catterall, a trans woman and distinguished British historian, who spoke on faith, hope and trans issues. Usually these occasions involve a musical element too, and attendance figures have been steadily climbing, with the audience members interested in music, good food and big ideas, rather than a conventional religious service. Discussions and questions are encouraged, with some attendees baffled by the new system. “They were used to being told what to think and believe, rather than being asked to articulate their own ideas! It took a while for them to grasp we wanted to know what they had to say.

“The church building we now occupy was originally the Sunday School and Hall of the big Victorian Congregationalist/URC church next door, while the Methodists used to meet in St Stephen’s Church in Cliftonville. However, with both congregations now much smaller, the Congregational Church/URC church became a mosque; St. Stephens became an Egyptian Coptic Church, and the Methodists and URC combined at Union Church. Union Church has always had a reputation for being slightly radical and adventurous. The hall houses quite a number of community events and projects, including the Social Singing Choir rehearsals, a badminton club and martial arts training. It’s a real hub for the community and its many interests, constantly alive, illuminated and bustling, rather than simply a Church. The success of Food for Thoughts demonstrates a heartening hunger for spirituality, community and song.”