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2957: All Saints, Belfast, Northern Ireland
All Saints, Belfast
Photo: © David Smith and used under license
Mystery Worshipper: Servetus.
The church: All Saints, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Church of Ireland, Diocese of Connor.
The building: It's a red brick neo-Gothic structure consisting of nave and chancel, an arcade along each side of the nave, and a high vaulted ceiling. The present building was constructed in the late 1800s to replace the smaller iron church that the congregation outgrew.
The church: All Saints is located very close to Queen's University, which plays a big role in their ministry. They have regular events in which they welcome students, and they also open the homes of church members to provide meals and friendship. They have morning church and a more relaxed evening church each Sunday.
The neighbourhood: All Saints is located right in the heart of the student quarter, a real hive of activity in which they compete with nightclubs and trendy cafés and restaurants.
The cast: The service was opened and closed by the Revd Trevor Johnston, rector.
The date & time: Sunday, 13 December 2015, 7.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Nine Lessons and Carols by Candlelight.

How full was the building?
I arrived in time to get a decent seat near the action. By the time the service commenced, there was barely a seat to be had. There were easily several hundred people of all ages in attendance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. The guy on the door was friendly and asked, "How are you?" There was also an usher who helped us find some seats.

Was your pew comfortable?
There was a nice thickly padded cushion along the pew, which made the whole 90-minute experience totally pain-free.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Pre-service was a jumble of activity: a constant stream of new arrivals and staff running to and fro. All of this against a loud excited chatter. The congregation fell silent when a video began playing on the overhead screen, immediately after which the service was opened.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, everyone. You're all very welcome here at All Saints."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None.

What musical instruments were played?
There was an impressive array on display here tonight: a piano, pipe organ, harp, violins, cello – each generally deployed to great effect.

Did anything distract you?
One of the women in the choir was wearing her spectacles on the end of her nose. I couldn't help looking at them because it appeared quite uncomfortable to me. A young child stomped along the aisle at one point and his footsteps made a surprisingly loud noise for one so small.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The musical items were all done to a very high standard (although one of the strings on the harp was out of tune). The 30-40 strong choir were excellent and clearly enjoyed themselves immensely. The cello was played to wonderful effect and added some extra pathos to the rendition of "Silent Night."

Exactly how long was the sermon?
14 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I found the rector very easy to listen to. He has a strong voice and spoke with clear passion and conviction on his topic. My only quibble would be that his focus was, for me, overly apologetic. I'd have preferred more devotional content in the message. He has only recently returned to parish ministry after several years leading a mission agency, so this perhaps explains his approach.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was an apologetic defense of the Christmas story. We're generally too clever now to be taken in by the myths behind the event, but we go along with it because it makes us feel safe. He compared the Christmas story to popular children's book The Gruffalo (which I found rather intriguing). In the book [he said], the mouse invents a myth in order to exercise some control over a dangerous environment, and is finally surprised to learn the myth is true. Unlike The Gruffalo, however, the Christian story ends not with a voracious deity who wants to eat us, but with a God who reveals himself in Jesus, who "dirties his nappy" and for our sakes gets involved in our mess in order to be our Saviour. We should be stunned by such a revelation. The only appropriate response is to bow down and worship.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Much of the carol-singing was sublime. I especially loved singing "Lo, he comes with clouds descending" accompanied by the pipe organ, as it's a special favourite of mine and is rarely heard nowadays.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Unfortunately most of the readings were rather below par. Some were sloppy, some were rather bland or boring, and there were lots of mistakes. There were, however, some exceptions (see below).

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I got several hellos and friendly nods, and had some banter with a guy on the line for coffee, but no actual conversations as such.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I asked if the coffee was fair-trade and the man offered to show me the packet to prove it. The home-made shortbreads and mince pies were very good and I made a point of visiting more than one of the tables in order to check for consistency!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I'd have no hesitation whatsoever about coming here on a regular basis. It's clearly a friendly place with lots going on and plenty of life in both pulpit and pew.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Definitely. It was a powerful worship experience.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The ninth lesson (John 1:1-14 – the Word became flesh), coming at the theological high point of the service, was particularly powerful and the memory of that will doubtless inspire me at least seven days hence!
 
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