Mystery Worshipper: Alan in Belfast
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 10 February 2008, 8:00pm
Ikon currently meets in the Black Box arts venue in the heart of Belfast's cathedral quarter. (It's painted white on the outside, but black inside.) It's a large wooden-floored room, with a bar along one side, a small (unused) stage at the front, and tables and chairs arranged around the floor, leaving a gap in the middle. Dark lighting and a continuous flow of ambient music completes the atmosphere.
Ikon is not a denomination and is not trying to become one. It's a religious act held once a month, that (according to its website) promises to be iconic, apocalyptic, heretical, emerging and failing.
The area of Belfast surrounding St Anne's Cathedral (Church of Ireland) is one of the city's oldest and most historic districts. It has seen rapid development in recent years, but not without concern over a lack of general leadership and accountability. Despite it all, on a Sunday evening the street outside the Black Box venue is somewhere between quiet and deserted!
Two persons who introduced themselves as Pete and Cary, and two others who didn't give their names.
What was the name of the service?The Place of Power – their monthly "gathering."
How full was the building?
There were about 40 in attendance with room for more, but it didn't feel empty.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. As soon as I walked in the door into the room, someone looked up from a group of folks chatting near the door, stuck out his hand, introduced himself, and made conversation. I also ended up chatting to someone else there for the first time. Everyone seemed very friendly and willing to talk.
Was your pew comfortable?
There were fairly simple curved wooden chair arranged around small silvery round tables – the kind of furniture you'd find in a cafe.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The ambient music filled the gaps in conversation. People tended to congregate around the bar to get a drink before settling down at a table. Lovely buzz in the gloom. I did wonder, though, how many simply enjoyed their pint and then drove home. None, one hopes.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"I was born an original sinner" sung by a man playing an acoustic guitar sitting on top of an upturned crate in the middle of the floor.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books. The speakers leading the event drew folded-up pieces of A4 paper from their back pockets on which were printed extended quotes from Nietzsche and Kierkegaard about power.
What musical instruments were played?
The aforementioned guitar. The ambient background music came from an Apple laptop.
Did anything distract you?
For about five minutes during the first half, someone seemed to have their MP3 player turned up very loud as there was some kind of jazzy music that clashed with the subtle ambient noise. I don't think it was deliberate – more like someone exerting their power!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
After a minute or so of "I was born an original sinner" the man on the upturned crate slipped into the more familiar "More love, more power, more of you in my life" and then a chorus of "It's raining men, hallelujah." He concluded with a reprise of "More love, more power." We sat and listened ... and thought. As all this was going on, a large chalk circle was drawn on the wooden floor, rugs and cushions were laid on the floor within the circle, candles were set on the rugs (looked like a bit of a fire hazard!), and three small black and white monitors were set on a table and connected to a video camera. Later on, after a brief interval where many returned to the bar for reinforcements, we were asked to get up from our chairs, remove everything that had been set up in the middle of the room, and take some bread and wine. Penny coins had previously been scattered about the floor, but these were not evident due to the dark lighting. Their presence and purpose would soon be revealed.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The whole "religious act" (as Ikon refers to it) was the sermon. So I'd say it was about 32 minutes long, broken into five minute chunks led by the four leaders.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – They mostly read from their folded pieces of paper. They weren't boring speakers, but they certainly weren't fiery preachers. More like artists explaining what was on their hearts.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The evening was all about remembering, celebrating and deconstructing power. We have the power to choose and amass, but as Christians we won't be powerful, as Christ emptied himself of power. Having been introduced to the theme of power, we were then told that "tonight's ritual is to empty this place of the power in the centre by coming and taking something from the circle back with you, and take some bread and wine."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
One of the speakers said that tonight's religious act "doesn't seek the ninety and nine in the circle, but rather the one outside." He then informed us of the pennies that had been scattered on the floor, and encouraged us to pick one up to take home as a reminder of "the one." While simple (and not entirely original), I thought that was a good way to remember the image of the chalk circle and the idea of power. Another of the speakers mentioned an "Atheism for Lent" book study that's looking at the works of prominent atheist writers to see what we can learn from their views. And it was also announced – but wait for it – that an "Evangelism Project" was underway where a group from Ikon are meeting with a local Scientologist, again to learn more about their own beliefs through the challenge of others! Novel idea.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
My initial impression was that it was all a bit pretentious. Creative and arty for art's sake. The first half irritated me, and during the interval at the bar another first-timer turned to me and confessed that he was finding it a bit weird. But as the second half progressed, my mood lifted, and I found that the lack of familiarity didn't detract from this religious act's ability to challenge and help point me toward God.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People chatted. They were warm, open, friendly, and quite ready to start conversations and talk.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The bar remained open, but not for tea or coffee!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Ikon is not a replacement for a regular church. It's not trying to be a church. But it is trying to be a faith community unafraid to discuss issues – albeit in a creative, arty way! I think it would be a fun place to visit every now and again.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Ikon offered an environment that felt like a family, even though I was a newbie first-timer. It was OK to have questions and feel a bit uncomfortable. I wasn't alone, and no one seemed to hide their feelings. Even the organisers didn't quite know how the evening would go. It was an openness that I don't always find in more traditional settings.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Jesus related with the disempowered, and as his followers so should we. And if we are disempowered ourselves in the process – so much the better.