Bangor Parish Church, Bangor, Northern Ireland


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Bangor Parish Church
Location: Bangor, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 January 2015, 11:30am

The building

The traditional stone church building of St Comgall's has a very tall steeple visible from most parts of the town. After suffering extensive fire damage several years ago, the interior has been completely refurbished. The low-ceilinged narthex area is pleasing and warm. The nave and sanctuary have high arched ceilings supported by polished sandstone pillars. The whole building is lined with beautiful, tall, slim stained-glass windows giving a very impressive feel to the worship space overall.

The church

Bangor Parish is a name that one hears regularly around Anglican circles as a church that is innovative and forward-thinking. Certainly they are intentional in this; in their entry on the diocesan website they see themselves "at the very tip of [a] powerful arrow" that God will use to tackle the societal problems in their neighbourhood.

The neighborhood

Bangor is a seaside resort, the third largest town in Northern Ireland and generally considered its wealthiest. Bangor Abbey was founded in 558 by St Comgall as a centre for learning and missionary activity. Little remains today of the original structure – sacked by the Danes in 824, it was restored by St Malachy in the 12th century but dissolved during the reign of James I. James Hamilton, the first Viscount Claneboye, who led a successful campaign to preserve much of County Down during the Irish Rebellion of 1641, rebuilt the abbey in 1617. In recent years Bangor was voted the most desirable place to live in Northern Ireland – although the former seafront area, long awaiting redevelopment, remains in a partial state of dereliction and in 2009 was voted Ulster's biggest eyesore. In 2007 a series of UFOs resembling orange lanterns was spotted in the sky over Bangor, the exact nature of which to this day remains a mystery.

The cast

The Revd Nigel Parker, rector, led most of the proceedings, aided by the Revd Jim Cheshire, curate.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Communion

How full was the building?

There were enough bodies to keep the place warm but room for plenty more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I arrived a full 15 minutes early and had barely taken three or four paces through the door before I was greeted by at least three people. I should say, however, that the welcome was very "professional." Everyone who spoke to me was wearing a badge; in fact, apart from the team, none of the ordinary worshippers came near me.

Was your pew comfortable?

The solid wooden-framed chairs were generously cushioned with plush red fabric, very comfortable indeed.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

In the narthex it was like a party: lots of people chatting enthusiastically over coffee and biscuits. Through the open doors to the sanctuary, others could be seen seated and enjoying the music that was being played by the band warming up.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, everyone!" This was followed by a comment about the privilege of being gathered together as God's family.

What books did the congregation use during the service?


What musical instruments were played?

There were a keyboard, acoustic guitars and drums, all played to a high standard.

Did anything distract you?

Three things stand out. First, holy communion is one of the most important parts of the service for me, so I found it quite inappropriate that two women behind me persisted in chatting loudly throughout the entire ritual. Second, a cold draught could be felt at certain points. And third, the down-side of pre- rather than post-service coffee: as the service progressed I felt an elemental need that became more and more urgent until I found myself wishing the service would hurry up and end!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

It was contemporary and engaged in by all with gusto. There were some raised arms and a bit of swaying. Lots of sincere and intense expressions from the group doing the singing.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes or 17 minutes, depending on whether or not you include a segue by the rector into a talk with a parishioner who had been through the Alpha course.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – The rector was animated and didn't restrict himself to the pulpit, but not to the extent that he caused a distraction. I think he got it about right.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Life. The text was Mark 1:4-11, the baptism of the Lord. He explained how Jesus' epiphany reflects his ability to bring life to others in three main ways: through the parting of the waters, which evokes the creation story in Genesis; through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit; and through the verbal commission from God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Communion is my favourite part of any service. The Revd Nigel Parker did it particularly well, as he managed to blend the liturgy with contemporary elements in order to make the meaning of the rite clear and leave just enough to the imagination of the worshipper. I particularly appreciated how he elevated the cups and the loaf of bread and physically broke the bread. My only complaint would be that he hurried some of his lines here.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Once a month they call up to the front everyone who's had a birthday and sing to them and give out gifts. Some would undoubtedly love this, but for my taste it was very cheesy and I could never see myself going forward – ever!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Unfortunately I felt I had to make a hasty exit because those taking the collection disappeared into a side room to count the offering, and I was certain I would be rumbled by my Mystery Worshipper calling card if I hung around!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Here coffee is pre-service, which I think is a wonderful idea (for visitors) as it allows one to relax and feel welcome (if only someone other than the professional team of greeters would mingle with them!). The coffee itself was proper filtered coffee and was served with shop-bought shortbread and wrapped chocolates.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – If I lived a little closer, I could easily see this as a place to put down some roots – assuming I could get someone to talk to me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, especially the communion experience.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The rector holding aloft the loaf and tearing it in two before the congregation.

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