|838: Martyrs' Memorial Free Presbyterian Church, Belfast, Northern Ireland|
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Mystery Worshipper: Sister Act.
The church: Martyrs' Memorial Free Presbyterian Church, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.
The building: A large, imposing modern brick structure, set back from the road, with trees and building startlingly floodlit in purple neon in the evening. Inside, the seating faces a long wall, with the pupit in the centre of the wall, and there is a large gallery across the back and along the two sides. A type of cloistered passage runs around the whole worship area, with busts and plaques at intervals of the martyrs to which the building is dedicated. The words "We preach Christ Crucified" are hung above the pulpit, and on either side are two banners declaring "Jesus Christ is Lord" and "Salvation to the Uttermost".
The church: The minister, Ian Paisley is famously lifelong moderator of the Free Presbyterian Church, the denomination which he personally founded, and also leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, now the largest political party in Northern Ireland – so there is a strong Protestant political connection.
The neighbourhood: The church is situated on the corner of a relatively quiet arterial road and a wide, tree-lined residential road, about a mile from the city centre, facing a large public park. As we approached the building, electronic bells played hymn tunes to the surrounding area.
The cast: Rev. Dr Ian K. Paisley, and a visiting musical group of a woman and two men, called the Monteith Family, who sang three songs in close harmony.
What was the name of the service?
Old Time Gospel Hour at 7.00pm.
How full was the building?
Approximately 200 altogether. The church probably has a capacity of about 1,000 people, and there were a lot of empty pews.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I entered by a side door, and walked around the full length of the surrounding passageway and chose a seat at the far side, but no one spoke to me. I also wandered into the front porch looking lost, but still no welcome. However, some time after I sat down, a man approached me and asked was I a stranger, and offered me a leaflet explaining why this church only uses the King James Version of the Bible. A lady behind me nodded and said hello.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a wooden pew with no cushion, but enough leg length in the seat to be reasonably comfortable until towards the end of the sermon.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People chatted among themselves, and at 6.55pm the organist started playing hymns on the electronic organ, which may have been the source of the bell music we had heard as we arrived. At 7.00pm precisely, Dr Paisley mounted the pulpit, and a sense of great awe and anticipation arose.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"LET'S COMMENCE OUR GOSPEL SERVICE BY JOINING IN THE SINGING OF HYMN NUMBER 692!" Yes, it was shouted.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster – Psalms, Paraphrases and Hymns, and the Bibles in the pews were all in the Authorised (King James) Version. This was explained in the order of service: "No modern perversions used in this Church!"
What musical instruments were played?
An electronic organ with extra musical effects was used for the hymns, and the visiting singing group used a portable electronic keyboard.
Did anything distract you?
The ladies' hats. They ranged from berets to large-brimmed hats, to those no self-respecting bride's mother would feel ashamed to wear at the wedding! In fact, all the women were wearing hats, except the young girls. Even the woman in the singing group had a tall black elaborate one with springy feathers.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The hymns were mostly gospel revivalist type, conducted by Dr Paisley himself, who seemed to choose the timing of each new line. They were sung to their own particular tempo, which I only got the hang of by watching Dr Paisley's movements and trying to read his lips. There was no clapping or swaying, but deep sincerity none the less, and great accentuation by Dr Paisley. At the end of the service, the group sang, "Almost persuaded, now to believe", and everybody listened reverentially.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 The sermon was shouted from beginning to end. There was a somewhat obscure three-point outline, but it sounded as if he had preached it a hundred times. He also seemed somewhat tired, but having fought and won a general election recently, he was amazingly hale and hearty.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The text was Acts 4:12 – "Neither is there salvation in any other..." – and the point was strongly made that Jesus was the only way to God, and Christianity was the only religion that was right. There was 1) "None other location" for salvation to be found but in the word of God. 2) "None other demonstration" of salvation but by Jesus' death. All other religions were born of hell. And 3) "None other foundation" of the gospel but faith in God and acceptance of his grace. This was followed by "a word of personal testimony", describing how he had suffered a time of sore conscience, but the blessed Spirit of God opened his eyes and showed him One hanging on the cross, through which he was saved by the grace of God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The fact that Jesus' name was consistently declared to be lifted high, and I have no reason to doubt that it was, in the hearts of those present.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The maroon and gold flocked wallpaper on the back walls of the gallery, against the modern grey brick wall behind the pulpit.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood and examined the busts and plaques of the martyrs, while people walked past me, except a local councillor I knew who just said hello. I wandered into the entrance hall, but people just ignored me and talked to their friends. However, Dr Paisley had said at the end of the sermon that anyone who wanted to speak to him about the state of their soul before God should come to the room at the back, but I did not avail of that opportunity... Coward? Yes! There was a pulpit welcome to any new attenders to come again, but it was quite impersonal.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I had to go home for that.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 Zero actually! The word dogmatic was used too much for a postmodern evangelical like me!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It didn't make me any more glad than I am anyway.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The stories about the martyrs and how and why they died. They gave me food for thought about early Catholicism.