First Presbyterian Non-Subscribing Church, Holywood, Northern Ireland

First Presbyterian, Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland


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Mystery Worshipper: Adiemus
Church: First Presbyterian
Location: Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 June 2009, 12:00am

The building

A large, imposing neoclassical structure completed in 1849, with a symmetrical facade featuring a huge columned entrance, set back from the road, and with a small car park. The front has recently been repainted pink with red doors from a previous green, but the back is beautiful stone-work! The inside is a plain, squarish room, with no decoration except a beautiful flower arrangement on a table in front of the pulpit. But it's a bright, airy space, with the sun streaming in through large windows. There is a central pulpit and central and side pews with two separate aisles. There are seats at the side for a choir, but I was told that the choir was down to one member and had to disband.

The church

The congregation was founded in 1704. They hold one service each Sunday and run a very popular Saturday coffee morning in the basement.

The neighborhood

Holywood is in County Down, between Belfast and Bangor. In the 19th century it was a popular seaside resort. The coming of the railway in 1848 led to rapid development, and today Holywood is a popular residential area known for its fashionable shops. In the centre of town stands a maypole, said to have been erected in 1700 by shipwrecked Dutch sailors in gratitude for assistance rendered by the townsfolk. The church is right in the middle of the high street.

The cast

The Rt Revd Colin Campbell, M.A., B.Phil., minister, presided, vested in a clerical collar and gown. The organist was Jean McArdle.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Service.

How full was the building?

About 25 present, including a few children. Despite its central location, the church is not well attended.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Lots of people (mostly women) said, "Good morning! Nice to see you!"

Was your pew comfortable?

Fairly comfortable. It was a very upright traditional wooden pew, but it had a cushion!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet, with some chatting among the people, who seemed happy to be there.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Well, good morning. It's good to be here again! Let's draw aside from the hustle and bustle outside."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns of Faith & Freedom.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?

The salmon-pink paint job on the front exterior, which half the town hates and the other half actually likes!

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

Pipe organ accompaniment of five traditional hymns spaced throughout the service, sung fairly slowly. The content was traditional but gender inclusive, e.g. "Courage, friends, and do not stumble" instead of "Courage, brother, do not stumble." The minister conducted the entire service himself, reading the scripture lessons and reciting the prayers without any time for silence or reflection. There was no communion, but Presbyterians usually have communion only about four times per year.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

8 – Mr Campbell spoke in a conversational style, very easy to listen to.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His theme was "What is important?" He began with a consideration of 2 Chronicles 18, where Jehoshaphat and King Ahab discuss whether or not to go to war. He also referred to Irenaeus of Lyons, the 2nd Century bishop who was the first Christian writer to list the four canonical gospels as divinely inspired. Young people are attracted by materialism; the Church needs to put down markers about what is important in life. We all need a core belief, following Jesus' example. Theological argument is less important than living by faith.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The children had recently been given prizes for attendance, and this Sunday they made a presentation to their Sunday school teacher. I was in for another heavenly surprise regarding the Sunday school – read on!

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

There were several elderly people in the congregation who appeared to be hard of hearing. Not "of the other place" in and of itself, but I was saddened to think of the afflictions waiting for us in old age.

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

I was given some leaflets and invited to speak with the minister before I left. But this was done in a "no pressure" sort of way. I noticed that one of the children showed the minister a drawing she had done to illustrate what she thought God looked like. She had drawn a decidedly female image, and the minister praised her for this! Another example of gender inclusiveness.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none, but I believe they do a very good coffee morning every Saturday in the basement!

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

9 – I am seriously considering it! I am looking for a church to have a wedding blessing in, after having just left one of the more common here (subscribing-type) Presbyterian churches.

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

Yes, it gave me no cause to regret being involved in Christianity, as in some other more mainstream Presbyterian churches!

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

On leaving, I saw the Sunday school teacher exiting a nearby cafe with her class in tow. It seems that a church member had recently died and had left the Sunday school £40, which they spent on giving the children a nice lunch!

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