Can Belfast’s Titanic Quarter become a hotbed for ecumenism?
Admittedly, ‘hotbed’ and ‘ecumenism’ aren’t two words that are usually found in the same sentence, especially a sentence about Northern Ireland. But that seems to be the vision of a young Church of Ireland minister, Chris Bennett, who is chaplain for the Titanic Quarter.
Bennett notes that there are no church buildings proposed for the Titanic Quarter, and he seems to like it this way. He’s currently overseeing a project to procure a ‘church boat’ for the area, which will be open to Christians from all denominations.
A BBC report summed it up like this:
[Bennett] has big plans. He wants a church without walls to close people in. His new church will be on a boat – what else would you do in the birthplace of the famous liner?
Bennett himself said:
“It is the best blank page that the church has had in Ireland since St Patrick stepped off the boat . … It is a unique chance for us to have a new kind of church. Instead of a different building on every street corner, all the Christians down here in the Titanic Quarter are working together and we hope that they will work together off a boat moored here in the Abercorn Basin.” (emphasis mine)
Right now, Bennett and his parishioners meet for a ‘walking church’ each Sunday, strolling together from the Odyssey to the Titanic Quarter. They want to raise £250,000 for their church boat, which Bennett imagines as more like a ‘community hub’ than a traditional church building: ‘a place where people can connect, make friends and even talk about the big spiritual questions of life.’
This vision of church is very different from the traditional, institutionally-based models we are so familiar with in Ireland. It seems to have some resonances with the ‘fresh expressions’ movement in the UK, and perhaps the broader ‘emerging church’ or ‘emergent’ movement in the US and UK.
But it’s not clear from the BBC article if the current walking church is actually attracting Christians from all of Northern Ireland’s diverse denominations.
While Bennett reports that ministers from other denominations have been ‘positive’ when he talked to them about the initiative, there is no sense in the article if clergy or lay leaders from beyond the Church of Ireland are actively involved in the project.
It seems to me like this would be necessary if the Christians on the church boat really want to transcend denominational boundaries, and to avoid being seen only as a Church of Ireland Boat.
Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com