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Presbyterian, Newcastle, Northern Ireland
Presbyterian, Newcastle, Northern Ireland.
Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
Traditional, with large bell-tower and grey sanded brickwork.
There is what appears to be a newish, more modern annexe alongside,
which nevertheless blends in well with the rest of the structure.
Inside is quite nice: grey arches, vaulted wood-paneled ceiling,
traditional just-below-shoulder height pews. The windows are
stained but minimalist – no icons or figures, just very
basic non-religious designs.
Newcastle Presbyterian is home to the newly-elected moderator
of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Revd Ivan Patterson.
He describes himself as "conservatively biblical with a strong
evangelical outlook" and says he gets great satisfaction from
helping people. I chose to attend this service in order to report
on the Revd Patterson, but alas, he was out helping some people
elsewhere. The church has many different activities, most of
which are designed for outreach in the community.
Newcastle is a small seaside resort in County Down. The front
doors of the church open onto the main street, a very busy thoroughfare
almost always packed with tourists and day-trippers from Belfast
who come here for ice-cream, dodgems, and the lovely beachfront
scenery. Newcastle sits under the shade of Slieve Donard, Northern
Ireland's highest mountain, which can be scaled in around 90
minutes or so on a good day.
The Revd Barry Reid, assistant minister, led the service and
preached the sermon. Mr Reid appeared to have what can only
be described as a "bed-head" – when you are
in too much of a rush to do anything with your hair before going
out. The children's talk was given by a young man named Michael,
who may have been Michael Rutledge, one of the parish organisation
The date & time:
Sunday 27 February 2011, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
It was bunged to the gill, as we say in Northern Ireland –
not a single spare seat in the house! In fact, extra aisle seating
was provided and taken. At least 200 people in all.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman at the door said hello and gave me a sheet containing
the church notices.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was comfortable enough for me not to think about it for most
of the service, until I stood up at the end and felt a bit sore.
How would you describe the pre-service
Bustling, kind of like in a busy restaurant where you can barely
hear yourself think. The noise got progressively louder until
the service started.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Well, good morning... er... our choir is going to bring
us an introit."
What books did the congregation use during the
There was a veritable library in the pews: The Holy Bible,
New International Version, a psalter, Songs of Fellowship,
and a worship supplement, as well as several leaflets advertising
What musical instruments
Mostly just a church organ. A guitar was played for some performance
pieces. There was also a choir of around 14 fairly elderly people.
Did anything distract
The choir had to remain sitting facing the congregation throughout
the sermon, and I found it interesting to watch them. Most of
them held themselves quite well, but one man couldn't help looking
around him from time to time. Also, while the sermon was delivered,
the three projection screens all displayed a picture of an old
church that I couldn't identify but which looked like a middle-eastern
scene, perhaps from Israel. This was quite distracting actually,
and didn't seem to serve any real purpose.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
It was traditional, bordering on old-fashioned. The choir was
dominated by wee-old-lady voices and could really do with some
strong male voices and younger members in there. All in all,
though, I really appreciated the simplicity and sincerity of
their worship. During the prayers, reference was made to "savage
wolves" who come in amongst the congregation in order to
"trouble and annoy" the church. I asked myself if
they would consider the Mystery Worshipper a troublemaker or
not. If so, I would hasten to assure them that no harm is intended.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
8 The assistant minister, Barry Reid, was surprisingly
good considering his copious use of the interjection "er"
up to this point in the service and his tendency to trip over
his words during the reading and announcements. The sermon was
very impressive actually: good exegesis, communicated with clarity,
conviction and power. This is easily the best sermon I have
heard so far this year. My only criticism would be that he didn't
go far enough in his application, settling for a merely pietistic
lesson instead of addressing the real social issues arising
from the story.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
The text was Luke 15:11-32, the parable of the prodigal son.
But he focussed primarily on the second son, the religious one.
It is possible to be alienated from God by keeping the rules
just as easily as by breaking them. He mentioned "sinners",
and I wondered what would happen, for example, if some sinners
happened to come among this fairly religious congregation? How
might they be received?
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The assistant minister seemed personable, sincere, and exuded
pastoral warmth. In addition to some wonderful moments of clarity
during the sermon, there was a very funny illustration during
the children's talk. Michael made a figure from modeling clay
to explain the creation story. After squashing the figure to
express anger at human rebellion against God, he explained that
"if you do bad things you might get turned into a ball!" I thought
this was hilarious – not sure about the theology behind
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
It was announced there would be "specialty coffee" after the
service, but when I went through afterwards all I could see
was horrible polystyrene cups in horrible brown plastic holders
with a selection of cheap nasty dry biscuits. I wouldn't have
been so disappointed if not for the promise.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I felt fairly invisible. No one picked me up as I drifted slowly
with the throng toward coffee, not even a glance in my general
How would you describe the after-service
Not remotely appealing. What is the deal with churches offering
cheap, tasteless biscuits? Better off offering nothing instead
of presenting inferior goods!
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 A bit too traditional for me.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
The sermon in particular challenged me and brought some good perspective.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Having missed the Revd Patterson. This "savage wolf"
will "trouble and annoy" you some other time.
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