It's a fairly huge grey stone edifice with vaulted roof and bell-tower. There is a fairly large narthex with floor-to-ceiling glass walls separating the sanctuary. Inside is sumptuously decorated: the wood is highly polished and there is brass in abundance. The ceiling is wood-panelled and there is a large oval window in the ceiling that lets in a lot of light. The front window has a tasteful and minimalist stained glass depiction of the Agnus Dei. On the occasion of our visit, there were banners and flags hanging from the balconies and in the narthex representing dozens of different countries.
Hamilton Road Presbyterian has hosted the Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention faithfully for 75 years. This year the event opened with a grand fête in Belfast's very swish Waterfront Hall that attracted a sell-out crowd. An elderly pastor told me that, while at the height of its powers, the little seaside town of Bangor commissioned more foreign missionaries than anywhere else in Europe. I'm not sure how true that is but it certainly sounds good! Through the Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention, however, literally millions of pounds have been channeled into furthering the spread of Christianity abroad. Their accounts are still in fairly good shape despite the global credit crisis.
Hamilton Road is one of the main roads linking Bangor central with the suburbs. It's less than 10 minutes walk from the very popular seafront and right beside the very pleasant Ward Park which, tonight, was the venue of a major annual open-air music festival featuring some big-name bands. Bangor has always retained a certain cachet, as it is home to many yacht and boat owners as well as a major golf club. On the outskirts there is a fairly rough housing estate, but the centre is mostly for the beautiful ones.
A man called Geoff led the proceedings. Guest speakers were Altin Hysin, general secretary of the Inter-Confessional Bible Society of Albania; and Eddie Arthur, executive director of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Cecil McWilliams, convention treasurer, delivered the treasurer's report.
What was the name of the service?Standing Up for God's Word. This was one of several programmes planned for the Bangor Worldwide Missionary Convention.
How full was the building?
Somewhat less than full, although it is a massive church and there were easily several hundred in attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The door was very busy so I was able to walk in virtually undetected.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not that comfy actually. The pew cushions appeared well-padded and inviting but turned out to be very light sponge. Lots of shifting around was necessary throughout.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of chatter and activity in the narthex, where there was a bookstall. People continued to arrive a good 10 minutes after the service started.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I didn't get the exact words but it was a comment about being in church singing words of eternal worth, versus the people at the music festival in the park across the road singing words of no lasting value.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None, although the pew Bibles were all fitted with padded jackets and each had two pens, which I thought was quite a good idea. No notepaper provided, though.
What musical instruments were played?
The band was impressive: keyboard, two guitars, three trumpets, a trombone, two saxophones, a clarinet, a flute, and drums. There were also two female vocalists.
Did anything distract you?
Yes. At each side of the raised pulpit there are two doors. Throughout the service people were continually getting up and going through the doors, presumably to the bathroom. There was a constant stream and it was impossible to avoid distraction. One gentleman actually exited through the door on one side and returned through the door on the opposite side before starting a conversation with some people over there! Also the concert going on across the road was very loud and could often be heard over the presentations.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was dignified and restrained but quite beautiful in its own way. Many of the crowd didn't bother singing at all, but those who did nevertheless managed to generate quite a volume.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Eddie Arthur, like most missionaries I've met, seems fairly eccentric but he came over quite well. He is animated and clearly very passionate about his work. Much of his address revolved around facts and figures but this didn't take away from its overall impact. He spent much time defending Bible Translation (over 340,000,000 people, he said, are still without a single word of scripture in their own language) in an age when everyone is acutely aware of serious world hunger and socio-economic injustice.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We need to regain a sense of the importance of God's word in world missions. If you give a hungry person the Bible they will remain hungry, won't they? Yes, but hungry people need Jesus too! Many of the present world problems are much the same as those agonised over in the Bible: war, poverty, famine, exile, etc. The Bible is not a nice book, but it is a real book for the real world. It makes sense of suffering and brings hope. Lack of fiscal resources and lack of biblical teaching often tend to go hand-in-hand. Poverty cannot be solved without the Bible. (This was easily the evening's most startling claim!) The spread of the Bible brings literacy, development, reconciliation, justice and hope.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As we entered the final stanza of "As I survey the wondrous Cross" the brass band totally let rip and it was quite a sensation. However, there were stirring moments throughout, one of which was hearing Altin Hysin's personal experience of a journey from atheism to Christianity and his work in bringing the Bible to Albanians.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The treasurer's report should have been more interesting but was delivered in a monotone voice and had too many confusing charts for my liking. Cecil seemed a little sheepish. He mentioned something about not being as important as the other speakers, but if he would spice it up a bit there's no reason why next year's report couldn't be riveting.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was accosted by a street-evangelist who tried to recruit me to his project. We chatted amiably for a few minutes and then he let me go.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The tea and coffee looked pretty gross, to be honest, so I took some juice. It was heavily diluted and not very good quality. But, as I was very thirsty, it was like good news to my weary soul.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – It's a very large church, and feels quite opulent too. I don't think I'd feel entirely at home here, or in Bangor either for that matter.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I was inspired by much of what I saw and heard.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Probably that amazing claim from Eddie Arthur. The more I think about his talk, the deeper the impression gets.