The foundation stone of the present building was laid in 1899 and it was built from the nave out, on the site of the old parish church of St Anne, whose congregation continued to worship in the old church for three years while construction went on around them. A cathedral is a work in progress, and this one is no exception, with the most modern feature being a 40-foot stainless steel "Spire of Hope", which was erected above the sanctuary in 2007 as a sign of Christian hope to the city of Belfast. That spire is one of the highest points in the city and can be seen from afar, illuminated, at night. The Chapel of the Holy Spirit was consecrated in 1932 to mark the 1,500th anniversary of St Patrick's arrival in Ireland. The west front facade is a memorial to the Ulstermen and women who fought in the First World War. The north transept contains the a military chapel of remembrance and features a huge Celtic cross on the exterior. The sanctuary includes the largest church organ in Northern Ireland and is surrounded by an ambulatory open to the public. The Chapel of Unity in the south transept, where today's service took place, displays a mosaic symbol of the World Council of Churches, and the word Oikumene (meaning "the whole world"). There is a large baptistry that features a mosaic domed ceiling composed of 150,000 pieces of glass representing creation, and stained glass windows on the theme of baptism. Stained glass windows in the nave depict Old Testament prophets, while three modern abstract windows in the sanctuary represent God's love.
The Cathedral Church of St Anne is famous in Belfast as the home of the Black Santa. In 1976 the dean, dressed in black cloak, initiated his annual "sit-out" on the steps in the period leading up to Christmas to raise money for charity. This has generated millions of pounds for all kinds of good causes including medical research, vulnerable children and elderly people. In 2004, after the Boxing Day tsunami, the dean decided a second sit-out was appropriate and raised around £1.5 million to help support the affected parts of Asia. The cathedral is also a prominent focus for those in Ireland who strive for unity and reconciliation, and is in partnership with St Peter's Roman Catholic Cathedral in the city.
The cathedral quarter is unique in Belfast for the narrow, cobbled lanes that are now replete with trendy bars and restaurants but once housed only warehouses that serviced Belfast's busy harbour. This area is a magnet for the local art scene and featured in a recent movie called Divorcing Jack, which captured modern Belfast with remarkable authenticity, including the very colourful language!
Unfortunately, I didn't get the name of the minister.
What was the name of the service?Holy Communion.
How full was the building?
There were exactly 58 seats in the chapel and only eight were taken, including mine.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
On entering the cathedral I was greeted warmly and asked where I was from. I was directed to the small Chapel of Unity for the midday service.
Was your pew comfortable?
The seats were solid, good quality wood-frames with very deep and comfortable cushions. They were joined together in rows but were of ample size so as not to feel cramped.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I entered, an elderly woman was complaining loudly about how wet it was when she came out of the supermarket, but she soon stopped and assumed a kneeling posture with hands raised in the classic prayer position. This is the only time I have ever seen anyone actually use a prayer cushion. After this there was total silence and stillness until the service began.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to our midweek service."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer, 2004 edition.
What musical instruments were played?
There was no music.
Did anything distract you?
Yes. The man directly in front of me had a strange accent that was a blend of southern Irish and something else; every time he voiced the response and he was by far the loudest his accent caught my attention. Also, the minister at various points began to wag his finger, which then quickly became a whole-hand gyration. I began to wonder if he suffered from some sort of motor impairment.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was exclusively from the Book of Common Prayer. The only engagement from the congregation was to make the responses. The minister's voice was a touch theatrical throughout and had an almost musical quality. He seemed quite stern, but perhaps it was just solemnity.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The recital of the Lord's Prayer, the meaning of which has impressed me anew over the last several weeks; every time I hear it I am inspired and find myself earnestly longing for it to be answered finally and fully.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There wasn't enough wine in the cup. I was the seventh of eight communicants along the rail, and when the minister handed me the cup there was only the paltriest, measliest dribble left in the bottom. I was hoping to sup heartily but was conscious that I should leave some for the man beside me. I just hope "number eight" didn't blame me for getting such a small portion. Clearly there was none left for the minister to finish.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was none of that. "Number eight" was on his feet even before the final "amen" had left the minister's lips. He then held the door open and waited for the rest of us to file out reverently, where we were warmly greeted by the minister.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – This is a beautiful place. If I worked in the city centre I would probably find myself coming along every once in a while, maybe just to enjoy the silence and draw inspiration from sacred space.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It was very quick, the whole affair lasting less than 30 minutes. In coffee terms this service is definitely closest to an espresso: a quick shot of heady brew designed to restore a bit of zing into one's busy day, but for me it didn't have the desired effect as the proceedings were conducted too quickly. I need time to reflect on the words and the meaning of the ritual; otherwise, as in this case, I don't feel anything much at all.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The beautiful surroundings and the quiet.