30th January, Belfast
What happens if 27 people from at least 4 different countries and more faith traditions and denominations walk round Belfast for two and half hours visiting churches? Well, if today’s churches walk as part of the festival is anything to go by, what you get is an afternoon of riveting social, political and religious history. But that’s not all. You also get a sense of the changing and changed face of this city.
This year’s inaugural “Churches Walk” event had a simple premise; we would gather in four different churches in various parts of the centre of Belfast for 20 minutes. During that 20 minutes we would hear a little of the history of and current situation for that particular church, after that, we would walk to the next church. It was a format that worked a treat.
To begin the walk, we gathered at St George’s Anglican Church in High Street on what was a very cold day. Despite the weather, 27 people came together. We had 4 Japanese students, at least two Scottish people, one Italian and a smattering of Belfast people and beyond. We were also diverse in our faith standpoints. This was to make for very rich conversation throughout the afternoon.
In St George’s Church, the Rector Brian Stewart gave us a sense of the rich history of this beautiful church. He traced it right back to the times of one King Billy (ever heard of him?!?) and then right up to modern times; telling us about the many times it was damaged in our recent “Troubles”. He told us that, no matter how much damage it sustained, the church always remained open as a house of worship. We had an opportunity to get a picture or two of the stained glass windows and the very seat that the said King Billy once sat in before we bid our farewells to Brian and set off round the city centre to our next destination.
And so we came to First Presbyterian in Rosemary Street. Here we were welcomed by their minister, John McNeill Scott and their historian Raymond O’Reagan. John gave us a real sense of the history of the Non-subscribing Presbyterian tradition throughout history and right up to the present. He spoke with great love for his congregation who continue to attend each week in steady numbers. Raymond then gave us what can only be described as an exciting, living history lesson. He traced the history of Belfast and wider Ireland by telling us a little of the lives of the people who sat in the very pews we were sitting in today listening to him. There were great industrialists and political figures as well as social reformers and revolutionaries. Again, we bid our farewells after our 20 minutes and set off to our next church.
St Mary’s Church in Chapel Lane is a quiet oasis of prayer and reflection in an otherwise busy part of Belfast. Our host Fr John Nevin told us of the many people who come to St Mary’s every day for Mass or to light a candle in prayer for a special intention. St Mary’s has a long history and historian Raymond O’Reagan who came with us from Rosemary Street shared some of that history with us. He took us from the times of the Penal Laws (when Catholics were forbidden to celebrate Mass), through to the building of this church with the help of money donated by Protestant people to the present day. We were enthralled by this history and the beautiful appointments in the church. After our 20 minutes, we said goodbye to Fr John and Raymond and moved on to our final destination.
Sandy Row Methodist Church is located in the heart of the Sandy Row community. Unlike the other 3 churches we visited – who minister mainly to people who travel from other parts of the city to be there – it ministers to people who live close to the church itself which Rev Emily Hyland told us, has shaped the outworking of that ministry. The church has a real heart for working with the families and children of the district. They often find themselves supporting and building up families where there have been difficulties. They do so by providing a place of prayer and worship, of support and relaxation. Rev Emily finished off our visit to her church by praying for us all and for the success of the 4 Corners Festival.
So what was today all about? Well, it cut to the core of what the festival itself is about. 4 Corners Festival is all about getting us out of our own little corner of the city and into corners we would not traditionally have visited. Fr Martin Magill, who ably led us on our walk, asked us in each church to put our hands up if we had never visited there before. In each church there were at least half of us who had never been there. In that sense, it was a real journey into unknown corners.
We also learned something of our shared history. We were surprised and pleased to hear about the support between churches for funding building and furnishing work in the past.
Two and a half hours after we gathered in St George’s church, 27 people went home having had a good walk, great history lessons, stimulating conversations and an opportunity to explore 4 very different but very beautiful churches in our city.
Find more of this year’s events here.