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1661: St George's, Belfast, Northern Ireland
St George's, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Mystery Worshipper: Daedalus.
The church: St George's, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Church of Ireland.
The building: The church of St George is situated on High Street in Belfast and was built in 1816 just before the Gothic revival, so it has an old feeling about the place but a comforting one. Leading up to it is possibly the most packed car park I have ever seen. The entrance is decked out with old stone floors and white wood clad walls. Inside, the stone floors continue and the decor is in the finest tradition (ahem) of Anglican austerity. But setting austerity aside, there are some beautiful details such at the colourful frescos in the quire.
The church: St George's is within walking distance of Belfast's shopping district in the city centre, and as such the community is a mixture of regular parishioners and people who come from quite a distance. They sponsor a Sunday Club, featuring liturgy, music and activities especially for small children; the Saint George's Singers, a community mixed chorus in residence at the church; and the Belfast County Trefoil Guild, whose membership is open to anyone aged 18 and over who has been a member of the Guide Association or Scout Association. The eucharist is celebrated twice each Sunday, along with matins and evensong, as well as on weekdays, where it alternates between contemporary and traditional language.
The neighbourhood: St George's, I found, is the oldest Anglican church in the city of Belfast and is right beside the famous Albert Memorial Clock, which is Belfast's answer to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The cast: The Revd Brian Stewart, rector.
The date & time: 21st December 2008, 5.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.

How full was the building?
Largely full, with a few spare seats down the aisles. I suspect that this special service drew many visitors such as myself.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A greeter smiled and handed me a sheet with all the carols, anthems and readings printed on it.

Was your pew comfortable?
Not really. There was something irritating that stuck into my back. There was also some confusion over kneelers. But at the back of the pew in front of me there was a hot water pipe, which meant my feet were warm throughout – a pleasant surprise.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A strange mixture of reverence and gossip. People would come in, spot someone they knew, and go over to have a brief whispered chat. That done, they would then sit in silence for a while. It was quite pleasant to see such a close church community.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
A boy treble sang the first verse of the hymn "Once in Royal David's City."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Just the sheet we were given before the service began.

St George's, Belfast, Northern Ireland

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and choir, which are all you really need for this type of service!

Did anything distract you?
The windows on the sides of the church looked a little grimy; I wondered when they had last been cleaned. There was also a woman beside me who was very nice and smiled when I sat down, but (God love her) she couldn't sing to save her life. Also, the lady who did the first reading had the oddest speaking style that I've ever come across!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very traditional, very high Anglican. Everyone stood and sat at the right intervals, the old words (thank God) were used in the carols, and the readings all seemed to be from the King James version. "A light shineth out in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not" always sends a shiver down my spine. Indeed, one of the readers genuflected when he got up to read!

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music. The choir is reasonably well accomplished and the anthems they chose were very enjoyable and original, rather than the deluge of John Rutter we usually get around Christmas time. Also, the very beginning of the service, when all the lights were switched off and everyone held a candle as the boy treble sang. It was a beautiful moment that I would like to see replicated elsewhere. I was rather disappointed when we were told to extinguish the candles and the lights came back up! Finally, and not really anything to do with the service, the descants to "O Come all ye Faithful" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" always make we weak at the knees.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lady singing beside me completely out of tune, but that wasn't her fault. Every now and again the choir would go off, which jarred and jolted me out of the music-induced trance. I think some of the boy trebles hadn't been trained up very much before the service, as that's where most of the mistakes came from, I think. But they're only young!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There wasn't really anything. A couple of people smiled and sort of beckoned me out and the rector shook my hand, but that was it. Felt a bit of a lemon actually.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Non-existent.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I think I could happily make my way to evensong services here every now and again, but I'm not sure I could do it every Sunday.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. It was good to see a happy community of Christians celebrating Christmas with alacrity, which always warms my heart. There was a definite reverence about the place that I find you don't really get at more modern happy-clappy churches. It felt like a church, if that makes sense.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The candles at the beginning with the soaring boy treble solo would bring a tear to a stone!
 
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