I became a Methodist because of bus-strike. Well, actually, that’s not quite true. The Presbyterian Church that my family belonged to was about three miles from where we lived. Now today, in these days of two-car families, people would think nothing of travelling three miles to church, in fact there are certain churches I know which draw their congregations from within a 40 mile radius, which, given the size of Northern Ireland is quite a parish. It really should make us re-think what we mean by the local church.
But that’s now… I’m talking about then. The early 1970s in Belfast. Years of riots, bus-strikes, bombs, vigilantes, and no-car families. My Dad often had to work on a Sunday and my mum eventually got fed up dragging me and my brother down to the bus-stop to wait for bus which might or might not turn up, depending on whether the drivers were out on strike, the UDA had their barricades up or the IRA had burned down the bus depot. So she look us along to the nearest church which happened to be Methodist.
I remember a few things about my first visit to the Methodist Church with my mum. First, there were people standing in the hallway welcoming people. Not just giving out hymnbooks, but actually welcoming people, and there IS a difference, but I’ll come back to that later. But not only were we welcomed as a family, there was a person there who specially welcomed my brother and me... Imagine welcoming children to church!? What a strange idea! The welcome continued into the service where the minister even invited us up to the front for the children’s talk, and, it seems to me, looking back through those rose tinted spectacles we frequently put on when looking back at our childhoods, that he was always interesting. Perhaps he was interesting because he was interested.
The most startling thing however, was the building itself, which was modern, and bright, and warm. It wasn’t exactly designed with children in mind, as you couldn’t actually see anything at the front if you were under 5 feet tall, because it was really long, the pews were all on the flat and the pulpit wasn’t raised up very high, unlike the Presbyterian church where, as a child I always felt as if the top of my head was going to fall off because I had to look so high up to see the preacher in the pulpit. But I didn’t care about not seeing what was going on up at the front most of the time. If I couldn’t see them then they couldn’t see me, and I would be left to my own devices (Is this the same principle which encourages adults to sit in the back pew? More of that anon.) But I learned a lesson then that I have never forgotten, which is that architecture affects our worship more we realize.
Actually, if truth be told, the Methodist Church wasn’t quite the nearest church, as there was a small Catholic Chapel which we passed en route to the Methodist. But given the era in which I grew up, attending that church was never an option. This was deepest, darkest, Protestant East Belfast… and because of that they didn’t advertise their presence too much. There were no bells, or stained glass windows, no crucifix or even a sign outside. To the casual observer it just looked like and electricity sub-station. I was never inside it so I never got to see if it was so Spartan inside. It was a full 10 years before I was inside a Catholic Church, only to discover that it was no more exotic than many Protestant Church buildings. I’ll never get the chance to visit it now however, as it was replaced by a complex of luxury flats, probably occupied by middle class nominal Protestants, who wouldn’t care whether the nearest church was Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic or Hindu, because there won’t cross the threshold of any of them.