Wills Hill, First Marquis of Downshire (better known to Americans as Secretary of State for the Colonies), built the present church between 1760 and 1773 on the foundations of a previous building destroyed by fire. The style is Georgian Gothic, and the church is essentially the same in appearance today as it was back then (with the addition of heat and electric light). The 180-foot spire is topped by a gilded cross. The ring of eight bells were cast by Thomas Rudhall of Gloucester in 1772, and bell ringing continues to be a church tradition. A carillon is linked to the bells and church clock and plays hymn tunes every two hours. Internally the building retains its original box pews. Sadly, around Christmas 2014, vandals smashed a 250-year-old stained glass window and raided the parish safe.
The present church community seeks to "share the truth of Christ ... grow more like Christ ... care as Christ cared." Four services of different styles are offered each Sunday, and a range of different groups care for different sections of the community, from a parenting course, mothers union and groups for parents and toddlers, through a youth club, open door club, social dance group, and bell ringers. For all there is also a prayer chain.
Hillsborough is a village about 11 miles south of Belfast. The first settlement in the area was called Cromlyn and St Malachy built a church here in the 12th century. In the 17th century all the land in the area was acquired by the Hill family, and in 1662 Charles II granted the settlement a charter, making it a borough, hence the name Hillsborough. Local housing is an attractive mixture of Georgian town houses and small single-storey cottages. Hillsborough Castle, in the centre of the village, is the Northern Ireland official residence of the British Royal Family, and events such as Royal garden parties are regularly held in its grounds. The castle has also been used for diplomatic meetings, for instance between the British Prime Minister and the US President. It also played a significant part in events leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, which brought a measure of political peace to Northern Ireland at the end of the last century. St Malachy's Church stands on a hill, framed at the foot by two smaller buildings of the same date, with a rising avenue of lime trees joining the two.
The Revd Bryan Follis, rector, led the service. The Revd David Martin, curate, was the preacher. The Bible reading and intercessions were offered by members of the congregation.
What was the name of the service?Rejoice
How full was the building?
Fairly full. And a congregation of all ages, from babies and toddlers through to senior citizens.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Lots of people! First, there was another worshipper who said "Good morning" as we both arrived on the doorstep. Then, one of the two official welcomers handed me a leaflet about the church and its worship. After that, at least three more people said hello as I went through the vestibule into the main part of the church.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not particularly. The pews are box pews, and they require one to sit very firmly upright. And all one can see of the rest of congregation (when seated) is their heads.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly quiet but chatty. The worship group were singing a variety of songs at the front and some people were clearly present to listen. However, others were saying hello to their friends. The two priests steadily worked their way up and down the pews, greeting parishioners individually. One or the other of them must have spoken to most of the congregation before the service started.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, folks, and welcome to our Rejoice service."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Bible, New International Version, was supplied in the pew and used extensively in the sermon. Words for worship songs were displayed on a screen hanging towards the east end of the church.
What musical instruments were played?
Electronic keyboard, flute, drums.
Did anything distract you?
A small boy playing with his toy train dropped it. A woman in the pew behind him briefly disappeared out of sight but then rose again waving the train, which she handed back to the little boy.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Relaxed, fairly informal. Lots of songs, a few prayers, and a good Bible-based sermon. The songs had words appropriate to the general themes of the service: the theme of rejoicing and of relationship to God, though they were not great literature.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – The curate had a clear delivery and his sermon was well-paced. Strong Bible-based content. Entitled Jonah messes up (again), it was the last in a series of "pulpit fly-bys" on the book of Jonah. It was Bible study of a very high order, firmly linked to the situation of modern day Christians.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Does God have the right to love our enemies and care for them, as he did for the Ninevites? Do we think God has the right to send or withhold good things from us, as he did for Jonah? Jonah was, at heart, always concerned about himself. We need to be in a different, more holistic (post Resurrection) relationship with God and to reach out to others to help them.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Watching the clergy greet their parishioners. I have never seen a clergy team do such a thorough job of making their people feel welcome. This care continued into the service itself. Directions were clear throughout so that a complete stranger still knew what was coming next, when to sit, when to stand, etc.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not knowing the songs! Also, I find worship songs of this style very similar, and after a while the limited range of harmony and similarity of the melodies begin to pall.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Impossible to hang about looking lost. There was an announcement (with a slide on the screen) at the start of the service that there would be coffee afterwards. The slide was repeated at the end of the service, and the congregation just moved steadily out towards coffee. However, this took time, as the clergy were greeting everyone again as we went past them.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Good, hot, friendly, al fresco. Northern Ireland is noted for its damp climate but had enjoyed a week of sunshine. Being able to take coffee out of doors is so unusual that it was the topic of all the conversations initiated with me by the regular worshippers.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – At least – hard to say. I think I might feel a bit more at home with a more formal structure, but more traditional forms of worship are regularly offered on Sundays in this church. If I tried those and found I liked them, my score could rise.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The hard-working clergy team really engaging with their parishioners (and visitors). This came across as setting an example of the kind of Christ-like caring that this community hopes to demonstrate. It felt very welcoming.