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827: Downshire Road Hall, Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland
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Downshire Road Hall, Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland
Mystery Worshipper: Sister Act.
The church: Downshire Road Hall, Holywood, Co. Down, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Christian Brethren, formally known as Plymouth Brethren.
The building: Red brick 60s style building with pebble-dashed porch and an upper floor at the rear. Small parking area outside with low level chains and pillars to keep it private. Several large scripture texts in glass cases on the front walls.
The church: Nothing special. It is on a busy crossroads, but its nondescript exterior and outdated presentation of the gospel makes it unlikely to attract many visitors in this medium-sized town which has several churches attracting good numbers.
The neighbourhood: The building is situated directly opposite a corner shop where young people hang about, but scripture texts displayed in the King James Version probably mean little to them. What a lost opportunity!
The cast: The service was led by a man referred to as Thomas, and the sermon was given by Noel Loudan, a well-known lay preacher. This denomination has only lay leaders as they believe literally in the "priesthood of all believers". However, this excludes women taking any vocal part in public worship.
What was the name of the service?
Gospel Meeting.

How full was the building?
20 people, mostly women over 60, in a room which would hold four or five times that number.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was a man in the porch to welcome people, but he seemed to be doing something else as I came in, and the entrance door slammed behind me with a loud bang, which put me off a bit. However, I was greeted inside by a lady I knew as a local trader in the town, and the preacher himself welcomed "our one visitor" before starting his message. Nearly everyone came to shake my hand after the meeting.

Was your pew comfortable?
There were individual metal chairs with plastic padded seats. Mine was reasonably comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As there were so few people, everyone sat to the left of the room, where the pulpit also was. It was rather warm, and people seemed keen to chat to me and find out who I was, especially as I was the only woman not wearing a hat!

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening everybody. We will begin by singing hymn number..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Redemption Songs, and everyone had their own Bible, which I suspect were all King James Version, which was what the preacher used.

What musical instruments were played?
There were no musical instruments at all, which is probably due to their beliefs. One of the men "raises" the tune, which worked quite well apart from a few false starts.

Did anything distract you?
A radiator clicking during a prayer. A person with a disability behind me mumbling to herself, but that is not something to be criticised, rather they should be commended for their willing inclusion of this sort of worshipper. Also a lady beside me who kept agreeing "yes" or "mm" to what the preacher was saying. That again is not necessarily a criticism – it is a normal cultural practice in this denomination.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A bit raw and raucous, restrained but definitely enthusiastic. Some of the women did not open their mouths to sing at all and others seemed a bit bored with the words and tunes. The men sang loudly and mostly in tune, and some people harmonised a bit, singing a third below. The hymns were the old-fashioned Moody and Sankey type, most of which would not be familiar to people now, but as I had been brought up in this denomination, I was familiar with all but one. The first 20 minutes was composed of singing about six or seven hymns. All were sung seated, except the last.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
The sermon was 25 minutes long.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Direct style of teaching from an Old Testament reading, no visual aids, and he admitted to wandering off on a tangent for part of the time.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The need for revival in today's world. Reminiscences about the way Sundays used to be, with people coming out to about five different services and Sunday schools; full churches and Gospel Halls; revivalist meetings held at the local outdoor swimming pool where WP Nicholson preached to thousands in the 1930s. And an application of 2 Chronicles 30, where King Hezekiah restored the temple and sent messengers out to persuade people to return to worshipping God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The warm friendliness of the people.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When the preacher was introduced to me and on hearing my name said, "I've heard about you!" And the singing, which really was dire, though perhaps meaningful to some of the people.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was obviously such a novelty to have a stranger present that everyone came to speak to me or shake my hand afterwards. And having said in conversation that I had been in Austria this year, I was handed a leaflet about their missionary outreach in Europe.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no refreshments at all!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Having been brought up in this denomination I've already made that decision, but like them, I don't believe in denominations anyway, and just happen to worship in a different building where the singing is better!

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, no matter which church I'm in, there's a sense of belonging that is one of the good points of being a Christian.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
A sense of being in a time-warp, with the lack of musical instruments, and God always being addressed with "thou" and "thy".
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