Belfast is changing. And no part of the city is changing faster than the Titanic Quarter. Only a few years ago the Queen’s Island was largely deserted, Belfast’s Titanic heritage surviving among weeds and rusty industrial equipment. Today the story is completely different. A breathtakingly adventurous redevelopment program – kickstarted by private funding, but now attracting public funding as well – is transforming the area into an urban village for the 21st Century. The redevelopment encompasses residential areas, businesses, a new college, a film studio and a huge investment in the tourist potential of the Titanic connection – as well as links through to East Belfast and the nearby Odyssey Arena.
Although the grand plan is a 25-year vision, the pace of the development has recently increased sharply as investors seek to capitalise on the interest surrounding the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic setting sail. According to the current schedule, by that date the £97m Signature Project (a Titanic museum and interactive theatre) will be complete, the new campus of the Belfast Metropolitan College will be open just across the road, and the growth in residential and business use of the area – currently in its infancy – will be well established. And the numbers involved (in the 25-year plan) are staggering:
- 20,000 residents in modern apartments
- 10,000 businesspeople, mostly in finance and IT
- 15,000 students at the new Metropolitan College
- 20,000 partygoers using the facilities at the Odyssey Arena
- 500,000 tourists per annum (the target for the first year alone…)
Clearly the Titanic Quarter, when complete, will be big enough to merit its own local church. But the opportunity runs even deeper than the chance to plant another church along existing models. A brand-new community, in a brand-new part of the city, offers an opportunity to re-envision church for a new cultural context.
My name is Chris Bennett (that’s me with my missus, Susan), and in mid-November 2009 I was appointed Chaplain to the Titanic Quarter. Since then, I’ve tried not to rush to plant a church on an existing model, or to do what is familiar or recognisable. Instead I began a process of meeting with people working in the Titanic Quarter, and those from elsewhere in the city who had an interest in the area. They joined me for coffee in the Odyssey Arena or in the Pump House Cafe at the Titanic Dock, and we brainstormed the ideas, hopes, values and purposes that the church could pursue in the Titanic Quarter. We called the process CoffeeStorming…
One of the first things that emerged was a name that ‘clicked’ – The Dock. A dock is a place where new things are built, where damaged things are restored, and (in terms of modern technology – phones, iPods and cameras) a place where weary things are recharged. All characteristics of church and the work of God.
But the question remained – what would The Dock look like in practise – what shape of church was called-for in this exciting new community? Many superb and exciting suggestions were discussed during those coffeestorming meetings – but at some stage the blur of ideas and pages and words has to be distilled to its core. In this case, the essential ethos boils down to two words – two values.
Shared Future is not just a politically-correct buzzword. As we’ve talked over coffee I’ve come to understand just how deeply it is the longing and desire of so many people in this nation – to move on from decades of division and sectarianism, a time when Northern Ireland was world-famous only for violence, to build a future we truly can share and be proud of.
And so in the Titanic Quarter, this neutral ground – which one person described to me as ‘the best blank page the church has had in Ireland since St Patrick stepped off the boat’ – it’s our challenge and a core value of the Dock to find out what it means to share the ministry in this place.
So, value number one: shared
However, there is a problem if ‘Shared’ is the only value. Churches based on a core principle of sharing ministry often do not flourish; their worship has been boiled down so as to avoid causing offense, and irreconcilable differences between denominations raise their heads. So of equal importance is the second core value:
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the concept of a medley is though a meal. In a vegetable medley, all the ingredients retain their individual flavour, but are all together in the one dish. A medley has more variety than any single vegetable on its own, but more distinctiveness than a soup – in which each component has been blended often beyond recognition. In a medley the flavour comes from the combination – each component may be distinct and strong on its own, but the dish becomes more than the sum of its constituent parts.
So, value number two: medley
A medley suggests a way for the variety of ministries in the Titanic Quarter to work together in unity. By necessity, the ministries in such a diverse place will look very different from one another. An event which appeals to the students at the Metropolitan College will look very different from one aimed at the business professionals in the Science Park, and different again from a ministry to the tourists at the Signature project. The time at which Dock events happen, the location in which they take place, and the culture they connect with may all be very different.
Again, the same principles apply to the involvement of different denominations – the ‘shared’ principle. Each church has its own authority structures, its own ordination training, and some practises and doctrinal beliefs which are distinct. Does this mean that they are fundamentally incompatible – incapable of sharing the same dish? Experience suggests not – Alpha courses, youth outreach events, summer schemes, prayer groups – all sorts of ministries have been run by churches working together in co-operation. They may have found that they don’t agree on everything – but they have shared in the work of God. Is the Titanic Quarter an opportunity for this kind of unity, this ‘shared medley’ ministry, which often happens informally and organically, to be recognised and encouraged structurally and intentionally?
In the course of these discussions, I became increasingly aware that I had seen a model of this kind of ministry before. At Trinity College Dublin, where I studied for seven years, there was an open invitation to visit House 27 on the main quad – the Chaplaincy house. Waiting within were some shabby, comfortable sofas, a supply of coffee and a warm welcome – from any of the Chaplains appointed by the different denominations. Each Chaplain ran some events which were specific to their distinct identity – for example, there was an Anglican Holy Communion service on Tuesday lunchtimes – but they also all connected in the shared space, so that their witness to the students was first and foremost one of unity. Distinct but connected. A shared medley.
Chaplaincy seems to me to be an excellent model for ministry not just in universities – or hospitals or armed forces – but for the situation in the Titanic Quarter as well. The variety of needs is too great to ever be encompassed by one minister or even one denomination. And the yearning of the culture is to see the church modeling Shared Future. Chaplaincy provides a road map to a desired destination.
The vision for The Dock, then, is simply this: to be the Chaplaincy sofa. To be the hub where the community meets the ministry of the churches, in an informal, inclusive, but intentionally spiritual setting. To that end, there are three next steps to be taken:
The Limited Company
Even a neutral space must be owned by somebody. The Dock is in the process of being formed as a company, limited by guarantee, with charitable status. Built-in to its constitution is the possibility of a flexible number of board members, so that many different ministries and denominations can be represented.
There’s just something about a boat. One idea for ministry in the Titanic Quarter which really caught the imagination of almost everyone I met, was the possibility that it could be based on a boat. There are precedents for this, in London and Cardiff, but even if that were not the case, a boat in the Titanic Quarter would carry great iconic power. Not only would it connect to the shipbuilding history of the area, but it would also provide a powerful visual symbol of the ‘shared medley’. As a boat doesn’t look like a church from any denomination, it would be new territory for all – neutral waters.
The third step is to open the invitation to connect to The Dock.
One other image of ‘shared medley’ which I have found helpful is this gadget – a ‘juice jack’. It functions as a connecting hub for the different operating systems of all the brands of mobile phones – Nokia, Samsung, LG, iPhone… Each phone does fundamentally the same thing in a slightly different way – and each is recharged and re-energised by connecting to the hub or (if you prefer) the dock…
In the same way, the vision for The Dock is to operate as a connecting hub for a diverse medley of ministries. Some will be diverse by the nature of the culture they serve – where they fit into the huge variety of ministry opportunities in the Titanic Quarter. Some will be diverse by the nature of their denominational background. But all agree to connect – to share the sofa – because the unity of the body of Christ is Jesus’ blueprint for our mission to the world:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Jesus’ command is simply to love – that’s compelling enough. But he also gives us the reason – because loving one another is the most missional thing we can do. It will reach a needy world far more effectively than mighty teaching, imaginative programming or boundless creativity. It is Jesus’ preferred (or maybe only) model for mission. And so we need to take this command to heart as the Titanic Quarter becomes a mission field (and a thriving community) over the coming years.
This vision presentation is available as a booklet if anyone without internet access is interested in hearing it. I’m also willing to give the presentation, answer questions on it, be challenged about it, to any group or gathering – just get in contact through the links on the website.