Willowfield, Belfast

Willowfield, Belfast, Northern Ireland


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Willowfield
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 June 2010, 7:00pm

The building

Traditional, red-brick Anglican building that really stands out, as it is located in a fairly dingy part of town. Inside is absolutely beautiful. Large stained glass windows and sumptuous polished wood set against warm reds and cream decor make for a very pleasant environment.

The church

They have a passion to transform what is a relatively poor community in which they are siutuated. They call all members to generosity.

The neighborhood

It is quite ugly, an untidy neighbourhood strewn with rubbish and boarded-up shopfronts, in a fairly poor area of town.

The cast

The vicar, Canon David McClay, led the service and his wife Hilary preached. The worship group was led by a female soloist named Ruth.

What was the name of the service?

Evening Praise.

How full was the building?

There was a minimum of 350 seats of which around 75 per cent were occupied, mostly by youngish, student age people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We found our own seats, but the vicar came over to greet us and asked if we were new. A few people greeted my "wing man" on the way to and from the bathrooms. The vicar actually took the time to do a kind of welcome patrol before the service began, which is very commendable.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, the seats were quite new and fairly plush, individual and highly-cushioned.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A young woman played a violin while the worshippers assembled, and there was a gentle hubbub until the service commenced.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Friends, good evening and a very warm welcome to you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?


What musical instruments were played?

Violin, three guitars and drums.

Did anything distract you?

There were no real irritations, as the congregation were very attentive. I was constantly drawn to look at the sunlight streaming through the stained glass, and at the altar, which was beautifully decorated.

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

The worship was "phat", 0-100mph in a matter of seconds! The mixture of percussion and strings produced a very rich and full sound that was controlled admirably. I was totally swept away. The soloist, Ruth, has an OK voice and boy, she knows what to do with it. She totally let loose and the whole experience was truly sensational. I didn't want it to end. At several points I was so deeply moved that I couldn't continue singing and just had to soak it up.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes, plus a five minute appeal.

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

5 – Hilary, the vicar's wife, has good diction and spoke very clearly. However, she made some basic mistakes and is clearly not a trained speaker. She mustn't despair, though. All she needs is a little help on a few points.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Good question. The text was Luke 3:21-22 (Jesus is baptised). I found the talk quite difficult to follow. About half way through I wrote in my notes, "What is this about?" There was a too-long introduction talking about politics, and from there it kind of meandered for a while before the point finally became clear: that if Jesus needed the Holy Spirit, then so do we (a great theme). At the end, she invited everyone to come forward and receive a pot with three sunflower seeds as a symbolic action of desiring to be led by Jesus, to be like Jesus and to bring others to Jesus. I wasn't sure how this related to the talk, but it was a novel idea (although in practice it was fairly chaotic and drawn out). Hilary had some good ideas in there but her talk lacked a solid structure. This is something that could be remedied without too much pain, however.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Definitely the praise, which raised the roof and left me wanting more.

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

Hell may be a bit strong, but at the end there was a call for several young leaders-in-training to stand before the congregation, who were then invited to ask God for a word for one of these leaders, and to come forward and speak it to them. I am deeply ambivalent about this. On the one hand, why shouldn't God speak in such a way? Of course he can, and no doubt does. But, in this instance, I felt it was in danger of being contrived and forced. The vicar took a massive risk, in my opinion, and I'm not sure it entirely paid off.

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

I had to re-station myself strategically before someone finally engaged me in conversation, which was nevertheless very pleasant and friendly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee was watery and clearly instant (yuck). However, they had a sensational range of delicious tray-bakes and chocolately buns, which were very well received indeed.

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

9 – I would probably consider moving house just so I could be in this parish and go to this church. Great worship, friendly people, beautiful sanctuary.

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

Not half!

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

That music, and the light on the stained glass.

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