The Dock, Belfast (Exterior)

The Dock, Belfast, Northern Ireland


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: The Dock
Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 February 2015, 6:00pm

The building

It's a cafe with big windows on the ground floor of a large swanky apartment block right beside the waterfront. Inside are concrete pillars and exposed pipe and brickwork (not the aesthetic kind but rough, grey breeze blocks) decorated with lots and lots of original artwork and vintage posters depicting Northern Ireland's days of yore. There's a central coffee station and furniture scattered around it. There is also a "prayer garden" in the corner.

The church

The Dock project (of which the cafe is the central hub) has been an ecumenical enterprise right from the start: there are six chaplains based here from different denominations – Anglican, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Congregational and Nazarene. Its founder, the Revd Chris Bennett, has been quoted as saying that there are very few working models of how Christians from different backgrounds might all share a ministry, especially in a place where division and sectarianism have caused such problems in the past. The variety of needs here is too great (Bennett has said) ever to be encompassed by one minister or even one denomination. Someone once told Bennett that The Dock seems to be "the best blank page the Church has had in Ireland since St Patrick stepped off the boat."

The neighborhood

The Dock is situated right in the very heart of the burgeoning Titanic Quarter, which is Belfast's historic shipyard. The Titanic was built just a stone's throw from the cafe. Most of Belfast's main attractions are here now, including the Odyssey Centre (home of the Belfast Giants hockey team), the Titanic Museum itself, and the Paint Hall studios, where Northern Ireland's rapidly growing film and television industry is based. The studios are so named because that is where the component parts of ships were once painted in climate controlled conditions.

The cast

The service was led by the Revd Chris Bennett, who was joined by several of the other chaplains at various points.

What was the name of the service?

It's just called Sunday Night.

How full was the building?

It's not a massive building but it was half full; I'd say around 30 or so souls in all. The congregation were surprisingly elderly but everyone seemed very much at ease in one another's company. There was a palpable sense of unity.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

There was no one on the door when I walked in, but after a short time a man who introduced himself as Richard (one of the chaplains) came over and was very welcoming. He spent some time chatting to me. Before the service began, the chaplain who was leading the service also said hello briefly.

Was your pew comfortable?

There was plenty of different types of seating on offer and I wasn't quite sure where to sit. In the end I opted for a deceptively comfortable looking cushioned barstool – which I soon regretted.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Most of the people there were sitting around drinking coffee and eating baked goodies. There was a steady stream of people arriving and many turned up late, one couple arriving a full 30 minutes into the service!

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good evening one and all, and welcome to The Dock."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

We were handed a sheet with several songs on it; the guy handing them out apologised because he hadn't had time to fold them.

What musical instruments were played?

There was an electric keyboard, a saxophone and, later, a tin whistle.

Did anything distract you?

The exposed pipework was not just for show, as I found out shortly into the service. At regular intervals there was a distinct flushing sound that never failed to distract me. I found this mildly amusing!

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

It was fairly mellow, thanks mainly to the dulcet tones of the saxophone and the dim coloured lighting. There was a full 30 minutes of non-stop music before anything else happened in the service. Almost all of the people joined in; in fact it all flowed very naturally.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

50 minutes of talking but no sermon.

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

8 – Though none of them actually preached, they would each score quite highly if they are as passionate about the Bible as they were about their future plans.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Four of the chaplains got up in turn and presented their plans for 2015, most of which were business ideas rather than what most would consider spiritual activities. One man is shortly moving to Dublin; another is starting an "honesty box prayer retreat"; another is starting a photography business using a drone; and finally the Revd Chris almost wet himself with excitement as he revealed his plan to start up a tram service to ferry tourists around the Titanic Quarter.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The moment of transcendence tonight was an extempore musical item in which the congregation were called to join in by singing the line "I'm no longer a slave to fear, I am a child of God."

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

While I appreciate the sentiment, I found being called upon (again extemporaneously) to sing "Thank you Jesus for loving me" was just too childish. It felt like being in Sunday school again.

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

I wandered around for a bit and must certainly have looked a bit awkward. I received plenty of friendly looks and several warm but fleeting smiles, but no actual words – until Richard (bless him) made a point of coming over and speaking to me again, inviting me to come back another time.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee (available both before and after the service) was excellent, as one would expect given the setting. There was a plethora of amazing tray-bakes cut in very generous sizes. I sampled a piece of shortbread big enough to sink the Titanic!

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

7 – The Anglican tradition has always emphasized "belonging in order to believe" rather than the other way around, and I'm fully on board with that approach. However, going by tonight's show, while I'm left in no doubt about all the frenzied activity intended to make connections and generate a sense of belonging in the Titanic Quarter, what I didn't hear at all, really, was a report of any kind of believing happening. Furthermore, looking around the cafe, I saw scant evidence of much growth after five years of ministry. That would be a concern for me.

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

Yes. The excitement and enthusiasm of the chaplains was certainly infectious.

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

It will be hard to forget the constant sound of toilets being emptied!

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