St Gobhan, Portadown, Northern Ireland


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Gobhan
Location: Portadown, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 15 February 2015, 10:30am

The building

Photo: © Mervs68 and used under license It's a stone nave and chancel with bell-tower in the Perpendicular style, begun in 1814 and consecrated on 28 June 1816. It replaces an older church dating from 1661, some of the ruins of which can still be seen. Inside there is an arcade of three arches and a high vaulted roof that gives the place a cavernous feel although it is actually quite small. The east window is a copy of the one in Armagh Cathedral.

The church

The church is also known as Seagoe Parish Church. The name Seagoe reputedly derives from an abbreviation of the Latin phrase sedes Gobhani because of its historic association with St Gobhan, who was a close successor of St Patrick. The church stands on one of the oldest Christian sites in Ireland and appears to be a thriving community still. They have numerous youth groups, including Church Lads’ Brigade and Church Girls’ Brigade and an after school activity club. There are also a mothers' union, cell groups and a healing prayer group. There are two morning and two evening services each Sunday.

The neighborhood

Portadown sits about 23 miles southwest of Belfast. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Portadown was a major centre for the manufacture of linen, but all the mills closed down as the demand for Irish linen fell. Today's industries include carpet-weaving, baking and engineering. Portadown was the site of a large prisoner of war camp during World War II. There are some interesting landmarks, including the restored Victorian era town hall (now a theatre and conference centre) and McConville's Hotel, fully preserved with original etched glass windows and gas light fittings that now run on bottled gas. Seagoe primary school is right next door to the church and is one of only two Anglican-run schools remaining in Northern Ireland.

The cast

The service was led by the rector, the Revd Canon Terence Cadden. Two readings were delivered by Neill and Linzi, and the prayers were led by a man named Philip. The sermon was preached by a man named Ian, who is soon returning to parish ministry.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Worship: Family Service.

How full was the building?

There were quite a lot of people, more than 100, but the building wasn't quite full. The rector remarked that the congregation were "thin on the ground" partly due to the rugby on TV and partly because some people just "couldn't be bothered!"

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Eventually. I had to ask for a service sheet because the girl handing them out was too busy talking to someone. When I reached a pew, an elderly gentleman greeted me warmly. And when another couple came along and sat beside me, the man made a point of saying a clear hello.

Was your pew comfortable?

The sturdy wooden pew was surprisingly roomy and comfortable, but there was a powerful cold draught coming at me from behind. This afflicted me throughout the proceedings.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Lots of loud, excited chatter. People arrived constantly and seemed to be in quite a hurry to get inside and start talking to one another.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. You're welcome to church."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None, although The Holy Bible, New International Version was available in the pews.

What musical instruments were played?

A fine sounding pipe organ was the only musical accompaniment today.

Did anything distract you?

The main distraction was a song titled "O Christ the same," which was sung to the tune of "Danny Boy." I found I simply couldn't take the hymn seriously because of this.

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

There was a healthy blend of hymns, liturgy (on screen), and prayers. What surprised me about the singing, however, given the size of the congregation, was how quiet they were (more about this below).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

14 minutes.

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

8 – Before Ian started, he announced that he "needed practice." He was a bit nervous at first because the mic picked up how dry his mouth was. But he soon relaxed and was actually quite natural. He communicated very well indeed.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Ian's text was Mark 9:2-13 (Mark's account of the Transfiguration), and his theme was revelation. God reveals himself to his followers in order that we will then "go back down the mountain" and act as agents of change in our own world. Revelation comes through the living Word, the written Word, and the proclaimed Word. However, God also reveals himself in broader ways, such as through sacraments, creation, and even humanity (a point I fully appreciated at the end, see below). The challenge for us is to be listening and watching for revelation.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Apart from a few brief "quickening rays," it wasn't until the service ended that I was transported by a revelation through humanity. During the slow procession out, a little baby girl perched on her mother's shoulder gave me the most beautiful smile and made my day.

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

The sung bits were all distinctly under par (the children's song had to be awkwardly restarted and was only rescued when a young lad named Luke came forward to save the rector's blushes). But one song was particularly bad: their rendition of the Chris Tomlin song "Indescribable" was excruciating. Most of those near me didn't want to sing at all, and the rest sounded as if they were trying to whisper the song. What happened to that song today was indefensible!

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

It took almost five full minutes to process out of the nave (God help them if they have a fire some day – and I was so cold I felt like starting one in my pew!). It was like disembarking an aeroplane. However, once I arrived inside the rotunda where the coffee area was, the early morning sun shone through and it felt lovely and warm. I moved around a bit trying to attract conversation, but no one was interested. When I moved toward one gentleman who was standing alone, he walked away! I quickly began to feel like a stranger. By the time I had finished my coffee I felt invisible!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee was filtered and served in ceramic cups. There was a good selection of cake and shortbread on display. The thing about shortbread is that often there is too much butter in the mix, which leaves a slightly rancid after-taste. These shortbreads were just right, and I went back for seconds. To be truthful, I was tempted to clear the plate!

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

4 – Based on today's performance, I couldn't see myself belonging here. The music is painful and the welcome was virtually non-existent. I could possibly be cajoled into sneaking in at the end again for some more of that divine shortbread, though!

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

Somewhat. The sermon was OK and the prayers were better than usual, but mostly it was humdrum.

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

That cute little girl!

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