Fishwick Presbyterian, Belfast

Fisherwick Presbyterian, Belfast, Northern Ireland

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Fisherwick Presbyterian
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Thursday, 20 October 2011, 7:30pm

The building

It's a large traditional stone edifice with impressive large double doors at the front and stone steps leading up. Inside is airy and massive. There are stone pillars running the length of the nave and the sanctuary. The choir stalls are situated in a grand dome with four tall windows. The walls are painted canary yellow and this offsets the ample wooden pews and roofed pulpit well. There is carpet lining the floor of the pews, but the rest of the building has wooden-tiled flooring.

The church

Their vision motto is "the whole gospel, for the whole person, with the whole church, in the whole world" – a fairly ecumenical statement that suits them well, as they are deeply involved in promoting unity among Ireland's churches. Tonight's event was a meeting of the Irish Council of Churches where 17 different denominations were represented.

The neighborhood

It is situated right in the very heart of the university quarter and is a hive of student activity. The church does a lot of work with students as a result. It is very close to the recently refurbished Ulster Museum and Botanic Gardens. It is also a mere stone's throw from the Stranmillis area, which is a haven for Belfast's art and culture scene, full of trendy coffee shops and eateries where it is always difficult to find a seat.

The cast

The message was brought by the Rt Revd Nicholas Thomas Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham but now research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. The service was led by Gillian Kingston, who is co-chair of the theology forum of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting and a lay leader in the Methodist Church of Ireland. The Revd Dr Niall Coll, senior lecturer at St Mary's University College, Belfast, read the text and pronounced the final blessing. The Revd Dr Derek McKelvey, minister of Fisherwick Presbyterian, opened and closed the ceremony.

What was the name of the service?

Irish Inter-Church Meeting of the Irish Council of Churches

How full was the building?

There were hundreds present but the building was by no means full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Someone handed me a service sheet. I don't remember if they greeted me.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was pretty, all polished. The cushion matched the colour of the carpet but was insufficiently padded and caused me some pain at the, erm, end.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quite noisy – not hushed talking but almost like an outdoor market, especially near the back, where some people were almost shouting at times.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"I bid you welcome and invite you to turn and welcome those standing near you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?


What musical instruments were played?

The pipe organ was the mainstay of the service, with occasional parts played by a flute and something else; these were not in view but were definitely being played somewhere.

Did anything distract you?

Yes. There were cameras flashing at several points during the service. I know Bishop Wright is something of a celebrity, but I thought this was quite uncool actually. Also there was a constant background noise that I thought at first was the rain outside, but as the service progressed I wondered if it was some electrical equipment.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was fairly formal but was exceptionally well done. Some of the reading and prayers were a little stiff but the musical items were well chosen and flawlessly executed. Near the end, seven people representing different churches came forward and each offered prayers for unity and justice. After each supplicant finished, the choir sang in response the Taize chant "O Lord, hear my prayer."

Exactly how long was the sermon?

25 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – Bishop Wright looked every bit the seasoned professional. He was eloquent, highly polished, and yet managed to be passionate too. He only made two minor slip-ups: once when he scratched his head and another when he coughed and had to stop for a sip of water. No one's perfect, I guess.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The bishop's text was John 20:19-30 (the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples and then to Thomas). If you get the resurrection right, everything else will fall naturally into place. The resurrection was not just a happy ending tagged onto a sad story, but rather a new beginning: God's new creation work by which God regenerates the world. The mission of the Church is to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel. If it is hard to believe in the resurrection, it is love that finally makes us believe and not intellectual evidence alone. Therefore the Church's task is to reach out to the world in love so that others may have the same surprising encounter with Jesus as that experienced by Thomas and Peter and Mary Magdalene. This surprising grace is the true source and wellspring of all Christian hope.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

At first, when I saw there were seven people presenting the intercessions, I thought, "Oh no, we'll be here all night!" But as each came forward in turn, I could not help being impressed and deeply inspired by the simplicity and power of this ritual. The music added the finishing touch – simply divine.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

During the service, Psalm 23 was sung by a soloist in the Irish language and there was a line for the congregation to sing in response. The song was hauntingly beautiful, but the hellish part for me was that I hadn't a hope of being able to pronounce the words to sing along, as Irish script is not user-friendly for the non-initiated.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Nothing happened. People were too busy lining up to shake hands with the bishop.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I tried a dry custard cream, which was better than expected, but waived my right to tea or coffee.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – I would gladly return another time. Not sure about weekly, however.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

I felt exhilarated and was buzzing all the way home. It made me wonder hopefully if true unity was really possible after all (I tend towards pessimism on human nature).

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

I will remember Bishop Wright sweeping past me during the processional singing at the top of his voice!

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