Traditional, with large bell-tower and grey sanded brickwork. There is what appears to be a newish, more modern annexe alongside, which nevertheless blends in well with the rest of the structure. Inside is quite nice: grey arches, vaulted wood-paneled ceiling, traditional just-below-shoulder height pews. The windows are stained but minimalist – no icons or figures, just very basic non-religious designs.
Newcastle Presbyterian is home to the newly-elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Revd Ivan Patterson. He describes himself as "conservatively biblical with a strong evangelical outlook" and says he gets great satisfaction from helping people. I chose to attend this service in order to report on the Revd Patterson, but alas, he was out helping some people elsewhere. The church has many different activities, most of which are designed for outreach in the community.
Newcastle is a small seaside resort in County Down. The front doors of the church open onto the main street, a very busy thoroughfare almost always packed with tourists and day-trippers from Belfast who come here for ice-cream, dodgems, and the lovely beachfront scenery. Newcastle sits under the shade of Slieve Donard, Northern Ireland's highest mountain, which can be scaled in around 90 minutes or so on a good day.
The Revd Barry Reid, assistant minister, led the service and preached the sermon. Mr Reid appeared to have what can only be described as a "bed-head" – when you are in too much of a rush to do anything with your hair before going out. The children's talk was given by a young man named Michael, who may have been Michael Rutledge, one of the parish organisation leaders.
What was the name of the service?Morning Service
How full was the building?
It was bunged to the gill, as we say in Northern Ireland – not a single spare seat in the house! In fact, extra aisle seating was provided and taken. At least 200 people in all.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman at the door said hello and gave me a sheet containing the church notices.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was comfortable enough for me not to think about it for most of the service, until I stood up at the end and felt a bit sore.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Bustling, kind of like in a busy restaurant where you can barely hear yourself think. The noise got progressively louder until the service started.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Well, good morning... er... our choir is going to bring us an introit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a veritable library in the pews: The Holy Bible, New International Version, a psalter, Songs of Fellowship, and a worship supplement, as well as several leaflets advertising various events.
What musical instruments were played?
Mostly just a church organ. A guitar was played for some performance pieces. There was also a choir of around 14 fairly elderly people.
Did anything distract you?
The choir had to remain sitting facing the congregation throughout the sermon, and I found it interesting to watch them. Most of them held themselves quite well, but one man couldn't help looking around him from time to time. Also, while the sermon was delivered, the three projection screens all displayed a picture of an old church that I couldn't identify but which looked like a middle-eastern scene, perhaps from Israel. This was quite distracting actually, and didn't seem to serve any real purpose.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was traditional, bordering on old-fashioned. The choir was dominated by wee-old-lady voices and could really do with some strong male voices and younger members in there. All in all, though, I really appreciated the simplicity and sincerity of their worship. During the prayers, reference was made to "savage wolves" who come in amongst the congregation in order to "trouble and annoy" the church. I asked myself if they would consider the Mystery Worshipper a troublemaker or not. If so, I would hasten to assure them that no harm is intended.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The assistant minister, Barry Reid, was surprisingly good considering his copious use of the interjection "er" up to this point in the service and his tendency to trip over his words during the reading and announcements. The sermon was very impressive actually: good exegesis, communicated with clarity, conviction and power. This is easily the best sermon I have heard so far this year. My only criticism would be that he didn't go far enough in his application, settling for a merely pietistic lesson instead of addressing the real social issues arising from the story.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The text was Luke 15:11-32, the parable of the prodigal son. But he focussed primarily on the second son, the religious one. It is possible to be alienated from God by keeping the rules just as easily as by breaking them. He mentioned "sinners", and I wondered what would happen, for example, if some sinners happened to come among this fairly religious congregation? How might they be received?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The assistant minister seemed personable, sincere, and exuded pastoral warmth. In addition to some wonderful moments of clarity during the sermon, there was a very funny illustration during the children's talk. Michael made a figure from modeling clay to explain the creation story. After squashing the figure to express anger at human rebellion against God, he explained that "if you do bad things you might get turned into a ball!" I thought this was hilarious – not sure about the theology behind it, however.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was announced there would be "specialty coffee" after the service, but when I went through afterwards all I could see was horrible polystyrene cups in horrible brown plastic holders with a selection of cheap nasty dry biscuits. I wouldn't have been so disappointed if not for the promise.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I felt fairly invisible. No one picked me up as I drifted slowly with the throng toward coffee, not even a glance in my general direction.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Not remotely appealing. What is the deal with churches offering cheap, tasteless biscuits? Better off offering nothing instead of presenting inferior goods!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – A bit too traditional for me.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The sermon in particular challenged me and brought some good perspective.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Having missed the Revd Patterson. This "savage wolf" will "trouble and annoy" you some other time.