Mystery Worshipper: Servetus
Church: All Souls
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 August 2010, 3:00pm
A stone building dating from 1896 with nave and bell tower. Set amid lots of greenery and partly covered in ivy, it looks very pretty from the street. There is a short winding path leading from the street to the entrance, which is below a wooden porch. Inside there is a warm cosy feel provided by the abundance of woodwork: wooden floors and dark wooden pews and ceiling panels. There is soft lighting and the lights in the altar area are red. There are plenty of windows in wrought-iron frames but no stained glass. Overall, a very nice ambience indeed.
This is a non-creedal church, which means they allow people to make up their own mind on the interpretation of scripture and the nature of God. They claim that since they first opened their doors, they have always been inclusive and welcome "all sorts" in their church.
Elmwood Avenue is a broad tree-lined thoroughfare situated in the heart of the university area of Belfast. The city hospital is right across the road, and the student union building is at the other end of the street. It is a bustling, cosmopolitan area of town, with lots of trendy cafes and bars in every direction.
The Revd Chris Hudson, minister.
What was the name of the service?Belfast Pride Service – A Celebration of Diversity. Today is a first for Northern Ireland: following the gay pride march in the city the previous day, this service was arranged. to accommodate members of the lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender faith community of Belfast
How full was the building?
The two sides were practically empty, but there was a noticeable bulge in the middle and it felt quite full. Around 100 people all in.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I received a warm handshake and a "Lovely to see you." I was told to take a stone from a bowl sitting near the entrance and that the purpose would become clear during the service. I was also given a flyer advertising a gay men's group named the Gathering, which is dedicated to exploring spiritual issues. It is open to Christian and non-Christian alike but only if you are gay, apparently.
Was your pew comfortable?
Given the flimsy nature of the cushioned strip lining the pews, I was surprised to find that they were nevertheless not the usual torture devices they were designed to be by the devil himself.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a reverent hush, some low voices, the sound of last minute choir practice going on in a back room. Some people didn't look entirely at home – clearly not used to being in a church, I suspect. Immediately before the service began, the organist started to play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome. Welcome. A welcome for all to our service celebrating diversity in Belfast."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Mostly just the organ. There was a guy with a guitar but I don't remember seeing it being played. There was also a choir of about 14 voices and two soloists.
Did anything distract you?
One of the men in the choir looked uncannily like ex-England footballer Stuart Pearce. The more I looked, the more convinced I was it might actually be him. Also, there was a fairly pretty girl sitting near me who arrived with another girl, and I couldn't help but wonder if she was, you know, "L" or maybe even "B", but definitely not "T". In fact, I spent a lot of the time wondering who was and who wasn't gay. Some were "obvious", as they used to say, but others just looked so "straight" (no offence intended; I have lived a fairly cloistered existence thus far).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I had fun on the way imagining what gay worship might be like. I was hoping for some kind of disco beat with maybe a nod to Jimmy Somerville, the Scottish pop singer with the falsetto voice. As it turned out, the songs we sang were all well known Christian choruses (not hymns) and fairly inoffensive. The choir, who featured heavily in this service, were more risque; they opened up with ... wait for it ... a rendition of "Love Changes Everything" by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which was admittedly splendid! Every time they sang a piece, they received enthusiastic applause. Also, a poem was recited about finding love in unsuspected places.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – It was an appeal for love, inclusivity and celebration of diversity of every kind, especially in sexual orientation.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Now is the time for the mainstream churches to make peace with the LGBT community. Historically, the Bible has been used to support slavery and apartheid. Just as such applications have since been ruled out of court, it must also be acknowledged that opposing LGBT Christians in the same manner is unbiblical.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The attitude that came through loud and clear was that although the LGBT Christian community in Belfast is small in number, and despite the fact that they feel they have suffered much at the hands of other Christians, they are resolved to adopt a posture of peace and unconditional love toward those who persecute them. This impressed me greatly despite my own unresolved tensions concerning the LGBT issue.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Remember the stones we were given at the door? The minister explained that everyone was expected to file to the front and make a "friendship circle" with our individual stones. I felt under serious pressure. I had previously noticed someone I knew, and really didn't want them to see me. Either my Mystery Worshipper mask would have slipped, or I would have been perceived as gay when I wasn't sure I was ready to handle that! A real dilemma.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I felt too uncomfortable to hang around. The minister encouraged everyone to exchange the peace with one another before leaving, so I shook hands with a few people and made a quick getaway.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any, which was a surprise, as I had spied a bench at the back with a kettle and some biscuit tins. For me, the term celebration conjures up ideas of eating, drinking and making merry, so I think the service-naming committee messed up today. Disappointing.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I don't think I would have a problem attending here again. As for worshipping with LGBT Christians, I don't think I know enough to form a judgment. I didn't even realise they existed until last week! I am certainly interested in spending more time with these people and would like to understand their faith more clearly.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I actually felt slightly disoriented. Often it felt surreal, like I was in an episode of Vicar of Dibley, but the sheer normalcy of most of the proceedings was disarming and has upset my fairly settled world view somewhat.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The incredibly camp rendition of "Love Changes Everything."