Mystery Worshipper: Gabriel Marcel
Church: Shaftesbury Square Reformed Presbyterian
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 July 2009, 11:30am
Very plain yet attractive solidly built red brick Protestant chapel of pleasing traditional design and proportions. The inside is very plain, with minimal decoration other than the merest hint of stained glass.
They hold two worship services each Sunday, one in the morning and another in the evening, with communion on the first Sunday of February, June and October. Prayer meetings are held the second and fourth Wednesday evening of each month. They sponsor a fellowship group for young people studying or working in Belfast, Bible study, and English language classes.
The church is in the epicentre of Belfast's downtown entertainment quarter. Ironically placed in the middle of the pleasure-centre of Belfast, but I think they appreciate this irony and are grateful for it.
The Revd Stephen Atkinson, a visiting minister from Christian Witness to Israel, took the service in the regular minister's absence.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Meeting.
How full was the building?
There were 33 worshippers, but as it is a small building and the congregation were well dispersed, it seemed more full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
My nearest neighbour introduced himself and shook my hand in a friendly way and asked me about myself. He showed more animation than anyone else in the church, most of whom sat silent and immobile, not even looking around them.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. It was deep and well-padded in an attractive crimson material.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and restrained. There was very little chat.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I didn't hear the first words, as my friendly neighbour was still speaking. But they may have been: "Good morning and welcome."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible (I didn't note the version) and The Book of Psalms for Singing.
What musical instruments were played?
None. This church has no instrumental music of any kind.
Did anything distract you?
Very little distracts you in a church like this. It was the least distracting church I have ever attended.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Remarkably restrained. There was no liturgy or ritual of any kind. This is worship pared down to its core elements of the Word, prayer, a sermon, and psalms.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Charismatic – I wasn't bored once! He was infectious about Jewish mission. He threw himself about in the pulpit from time to time. There was plenty of opportunity for this, as the pulpit is enormous. At times he seemed to be going through the motions of preaching, but (as he explained to me later) he had just returned from the United States late the previous night and was jet-lagged.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
A remarkably pro-Semitic sermon. Israel is God's prism through which he displays his glory. Israel is God's parable through which he tells his story. History is in the final chapter.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The elements of the Christian religion so simply and seriously presented. No accretions or irrelevances. It made me cast a vaguely critical eye over worship in my own church.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lack of instrumental music and liturgy. As an Anglican steeped in liturgy, I found this to be a great challenge. Singing psalms without accompaniment seemed pointless. The thin and painful singing distracted from the words without giving the beauty of a proper musical setting. Why not just recite them? The overall seriousness of the service was a little oppressive.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I had no time to look lost. The minister shook my hand in a friendly way.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, rather disappointingly. I do feel I have earned my coffee after a church service, particularly one as serious as this.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – This is a church for serious Christians. I would not be unhappy to make this my regular church, but I would miss the music. I was disappointed there was no coffee – fellowship over coffee can be an easy way to get to know other worshippers. I do think I would be made welcome if I joined this church, although I wouldn't necessarily expect to be involved in an any kind of a group-hug.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It's uncompromising. This is a church for serious Christians.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The seriousness and simplicity of the worship and the church building. And I learned plenty of stimulating facts about Israel.