Hillsborough Forest Park is one of Northern Ireland's most beautiful and peaceful places. It is around 150 acres of woodland enclosing a lake that is home to more than a dozen swans as well as several other types of waterfowl. The service took place in a spot between the lake on one side and the walls of Hillsborough castle on the other, with the tall steeple of St Malachy's Church prominent in the background.
The service was sponsored by the Seymour Street Methodist Church but was open for other church groups to attend. The Seymour Street Methodist congregation have been present in the city of Lisburn since 1875. In recent years they became too big for their building, necessitating another church plant nearby. Both congregations continue to thrive, bucking the general downward trend of Methodism elsewhere in Great Britain. On a Sunday there is morning worship at 11.30, an evening service at 6.30 a couple of times a month, and other regular initiatives such as cafe church and youth fellowship. The church also hosts Bible study groups, children's activities, and social and sports groups.
Hillsborough is a very pretty village south of Lisburn with lots of old listed buildings and houses (many of which have been left unoccupied for some time) and some nice pubs and restaurants, including The Parson's Nose, which is run by celebrity chef Danny Millar.
The Revd Brian Anderson, minister of Seymour Street Methodist Church, presided. A gentleman named Wilson set everything up while "the two Stevens" played guitar.
What was the name of the service?Sunrise Service.
How full was the building?
There were well over 100 people in attendance by the end. I know this because I overheard the welcomer say he had printed 100 service sheets and later announced they had run out so please could everyone share with the latecomers.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man handed me a service sheet and said, "Good morning."
Was your pew comfortable?
There were no seats but I was glad to stand because I needed to move around a bit to keep warm.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived it was fairly empty. There was just a guy setting up some amps and repeating "1, 2, 1, 2" over and over. People began to arrive in large clumps and generally kept to their individual groups. There was some good banter about being up so early and joking about one man in particular who turned up in shorts.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning. I was going to tell you it was bright and breezy but you would probably hate me."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Two acoustic guitars.
Did anything distract you?
Despite the bright sun it was still quite chilly and my hand became so stiff that it was difficult to keep taking sermon notes.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There were a few hymns and a liturgical prayer. A few people sang out but mostly the worship was rather quiet. Call me crazy, but the thought of getting up at the crack of dawn and traipsing out to a chilly field just to stand and mumble through the words doesn't quite make sense!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The Revd Brian Anderson was quite good. What impressed me most was his boldness and clarity. He had a warm and pastoral manner, and his message was succinct and easy to understand.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"Easter Transformation" was the title. The Resurrection is "hard to get your head around." All four accounts are slightly different. This is because each writer struggled to find appropriate words to describe the enormity of what happened. Just as a caterpillar turns into "gook" and then produces a butterfly, Jesus was transformed for us from death into life. Is the power of the Resurrection noticeable in our daily lives? Is it ongoing and transforming us each and every day? In order for resurrection to take place there must be death, and sometimes we must be prepared to let go of stuff and allow it to die in order that resurrection transformation may take place in us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
When the preacher boldly and loudly proclaimed that "Christ is risen, alleluia" in the broad open public space away from the protection of a church building, this struck me as particularly powerful. How often does this happen nowadays? Also, near the end the sun hit me just right and sent a very welcome shaft of warmth all over my cold skin. That was divine!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There was an awkward moment when we were directed to exchange the peace and everyone around me seemed reluctant to speak to me. I received a few handshakes, however.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I milled around for a few minutes, but as soon as we broke everyone fell back to their standard positions and formed their in-group clusters once more. They didn't seem interested in talking to anyone else.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None. Although if ever I could have done with a lovely cup of hot, fairly traded ground coffee and a fresh, moist chocolate doughnut, it was right then!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Not enough information gleaned today to make the decision, but based on the limited data I have, I didn't feel they were open or welcoming enough.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Sure, the preacher in particular really impressed.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The sudden feeling of warmth when the sun finally hit me.