The Dock – Sep15

Chaplain Chris Bennett gives the latest news on The Dock, Belfast.

We have seen amazing growth in many ways but there's no doubt that The Tall Ships festival in Belfast in July certainly put us to the test. It was, in every way, a big event. Fifty ships, 50,000 visitors and, over four days, the Dock Café served 5,510 customers!

We've also just celebrated another milestone in that we have filled a complete Visitors' Book in Dock Café. It may not sound like much but, when we opened in 2012, we commissioned some lovely leather-bound visitors' – books though it seemed impossible that we would ever run out of space. Hundreds of pages, eight entries per page… there would never be that many customers through our doors, would there?

The first entries are back in the days when the amount of customers in an entire day might be less than we now have waiting outside when we open the door in the morning! But looking through the completed book now – it does the heart good to see the multinational, multicultural, multiplicity of people who have signed their name and home and comment on every page of the book.

The Dock - visitors' book

Page after page after page tells a story of visitors finding a welcome, wanderers finding a home, individuals finding friendship, busy people finding peace, stressed people finding space, sorrowful people finding a smile, sceptical people finding faith (or sometimes just some experience of God, or grace, or something divine that they can't quite put their finger on…)

The Dock charity is made up of a number of things: café, art gallery, museum and, of course, church – a church which continues to involve a team of dedicated volunteers and chaplains from across all church backgrounds, both Protestant and Catholic, who are committed to sharing every step of the journey of building community in this new part of Belfast.

We also have a prayer garden where people can rest and reflect, or talk to one of our Prayer Team. It's a little oasis of greenery and peace in the corner of The Dock Café and is open during Café hours; providing a space to reflect, read from our library of books, and maybe write a prayer and post it on the wall or in the prayer journal.

The Dock - tea

Our Sunday Nights at The Dock church gatherings are an opportunity to meet The Dock team, neighbours, supporters and newcomers; to worship, share new insights, celebrate good news and to pray for Belfast and each another. Taking place in The Dock Café on the first Sunday of every month from 6pm, there's plenty of time to chat, enjoy a drink of tea or coffee and receive prayer. These services do not 'belong' to any one denomination and we welcome everyone, of every tradition and background – which was the Dock vision from the very start.

Reflecting on what has happened in The Dock so far makes me realise what a tremendous journey we've been on… including Dock Walks, Titanic commemorations, opening Titanic Belfast, the formation of café itself in the early days with just a handful of volunteers and customers, and then the explosive growth of our beloved cafe/church/community home-away-from-home.

The Dock - outdoor seating

It is breath-taking to realise how much life and joy and transformation have been packed into a few short years in this wonderful place.

The Dock is an ethos, a momentum, a vision to build life in the Titanic Quarter. Under that umbrella, countless expressions of that life can grow, flourish, multiply, propagate. Some (most?) will be temporary, in the right place at the right time. But through it all, we’ll try to stay light on our feet; we’re not here to build a cathedral, an edifice or institution. We’re here to live.

The Dock – update Feb13

Chris Bennett, a Church of Ireland chaplain in Belfast, gives an update on the Dock, including a new café and the development of the Dock Walks.

The Dock began 2012 as the church with no building, just a group of people with a vision for a shared church for the Titanic Quarter, this fantastic, vibrant new part of Belfast. We were walking (our Dock Walks are a new way of doing church, on foot, and they still take place every week); we were praying; we were meeting the neighbours – thanks to the permission of Titanic Quarter Ltd we were allowed occasional use of a vacant shop unit for pop-up coffee mornings, barbeques and community events. We were also open to whatever God was going to do with us which turned out to be more than we could have asked or imagined.

The Titanic Quarter developers agreed to enter Belfast's first 'Meanwhile Contract' on that vacant shop unit – allowing permission for The Dock to use it for a peppercorn rent as a base of operations, a coffee shop, an art gallery and a chaplaincy centre – in the 'meanwhile' time before a commercial tenant could be found for it.

The Dock - cafeThey also gave us a deadline of six days because a BBC crew were arriving in the area to film Titanic Songs of Praise. Was there any chance we could be open and ready in time for them to film in Dock Café?!

Well, there's nothing like a deadline for motivation. The people we had met and started to get to know over those months of walking, praying and talking threw their energy into everything from sweeping the concrete dust from the floor to constructing flat pack furniture. We filled the space with squashy sofas, cosy corners, art, photography, light, life, and the smell of freshly brewed coffee. In the nick of time, we were ready for the film crew and the grand opening of Dock Café.

Since then, the months have passed in a blur of answered prayer, conversation, laughter and life. The Honesty Box – which replaces a price list for every single cuppa, sandwich, scone and bowl of soup that is served in the cafe – has provoked countless conversations. The volunteer team has grown month-on-month, so we are now able to open six days a week. Students, residents, tourists and businesspeople have all found a safe haven and a warm welcome – a 'local' for a new community.

My contract has been renewed for another three years on the basis that I now work part-time in the Quarter and part-time as Bishop's curate to the parish of St Clement, East Belfast. Part of my role from the very beginning of The Dock had been to find a viable long term, part–time post which would be a solid foundation and support for the more experimental, 'out–there', work in the Titanic Quarter. In the first year of the Dock's existence I did something similar, filling in as temporary minister in Carrowdore and Millisle parish during their vacancy. I then did some tour–guiding with Titanic Walking Tours as a different, and challenging, way to make ends meet while The Dock project made its way forward.

The Dock - walkingIt has made such a difference at the Titanic Quarter to work alongside my Methodist co–chaplain, Karen Spence. We're hoping to see further working partnerships develop in future.

The Dock Walks are still our intentional way of doing church, on foot, in the midst of the Quarter. Everything else that happens through The Dock is focusing on building community and seeing what develops. It's wonderful to now have a physical space at the Dock Café because I know we could use it for all sort of things. Those who struggled to understand the vision of the Dock, or what we meant about encouraging and sustaining a new form of church through the Dock Walks, see the Cafe as being what it's all about. That's not the case because, although it's brilliant to have the premises, The Dock involves a lot more than that!

There is a core of about 10 people who regularly come to the Dock Walk on Sundays. We always have others dipping in to find out what it's all about and, in recent times, we have welcomed walkers who have never had any previous links with church at all. I find that very interesting because it's impossible to come to us and 'hide' in a seat at the back; it's a bit more demanding than that because you simply can't be a 'spectator' on a Dock Walk!

The Dock - walkingIn saying that, no-one is put on the spot, made to speak or pray out loud – and we don't sing, or preach, or walk around with sandwich boards. I find it really encouraging that people without any church links feel able to pitch in with their thoughts and discussions and I like to think that it's because we make everyone feel welcome and part of what's happening. I think there is something very fundamental and natural about going for a walk that releases people to be a lot more personal and to share their opinions with each other. It's also not weird or awkward to have a time of quiet when you are walking.

We start off by walking for about 25 minutes, during which time we just chat to each other. Then, about half an hour in, we stop and listen to the reading from the Wordlive multimedia resources podcast. We then walk for another 10-15 minutes to chat about what we've heard before stopping again to draw together all our thoughts. After that we will listen to the reading again because I believe we can get so much out of it second time around. Onwards again for a while and then we stop to share personal thoughts and discuss the opportunities or challenges we get from the reading.

The Dock - how it worksBy then we'll have walked through the Quarter and areas around it; that's when we stop to listen to some worship music. At that stage we make the return trip and head to the Café for a coffee and more time together. All is constantly subject to change due to weather, people and what is happening in the Titanic Quarter. The whole thing takes about an hour and a half.

Sadly, Belfast has been hitting the headlines again with bad things going on rather than good but The Dock is now making connections with all of the churches in the city and I believe it's one of our goals at The Dock to show the other side of Belfast's story here.

[Part of this article first appeared in the Church of Ireland Gazette.]

The Dock

Chris BennettBelfast's Titanic Quarter is at the heart of the city's regeneration. A few years ago the area was largely deserted, but a large-scale redevelopment programme is transforming it into a 21st century 'urban village'. Chris Bennett is chaplain of The Dock.

I had been in parish ministry for 10 years before taking this on in November 2009 and I can honestly say I have never had so much fun. I am not finding it a burdensome and terrifying thing – though there has been quite an adjustment to make.

In my first year here, after coming from a busy parish, I thought we would be singing songs and getting on with church life within a matter of months. That, of course, was not the case and wise people have talked patience into me.

The Dock - waterIt requires a kind of reordering of your expectations in a new way. It's a process. I was coming in with some expectations which were pretty standard parish-based ideas and it's been fun having that knocked out of me.

I've tried not to rush to plant a church on an existing model, or to do what is familiar or recognisable. Instead I have had to move from the focus on attractional and instead think about something incarnational; that's the essence of chaplaincy. It's about a whole 'other' way of doing things – to go and walk the streets and live the life of the community around you.

There is a lot of talk around chaplaincy when thinking about its relationship – or not – to fresh expression of church. What I have found in this context is that the chaplaincy word seems to describe what I am aiming at and it also helps those from a traditional situation to grasp what I'm doing. This is quite important from our faith background here in Belfast.

The Dock - craneThe idea of yet another expression of church in a place where division and sectarianism has caused such problems in the past can be seen as not overly helpful. There are very few working models of how Christians all share a ministry other than chaplaincy – why should it not work in the Titanic Quarter? The variety of needs here is too great to ever be encompassed by one minister or even one denomination. Chaplaincy is helping us to work out shared working in denominations. It's a key that unlocks unity rather than describing my absolute mission statement.

Over the next 25 years, the Titanic Quarter will evolve to include residential areas, businesses, a new college, a film studio, the £97m Titanic visitor attraction – and links through to East Belfast and the nearby Odyssey Arena.

The numbers involved will be staggering:

  • 20,000 residents;
  • 10,000 businesspeople, mostly in finance and IT;
  • 15,000 students at the new Metropolitan College;
  • 500,000 tourists per annum (the target for the first year alone).

The Dock - chainClearly 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.

The Dock is in a position to register a new type of Belfast. There really is a feeling here that the Titanic Quarter, as neutral ground, could be seen as Belfast's chance to start again. Someone described it 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.

The Dock - walkI would see our expression of church as our weekly Dock Walk where we chat about a passage of Scripture as we're on the move, or as we stop, pray, or listen to meditations or music. We use Wordlive multimedia resource as a jumping-off point for our chat but people are very welcome just to turn up and we'll take it from there. We don't sing, or preach, or walk around with sandwich boards. It's comfortable for all of us – yet we engage in issues in quite a profound way. Then we all head for coffee afterwards and spend a little more time together.

This is a three-year pilot project post. I now have a job as a Titanic Walking Tour guide for two days a week. The role has got me into all sorts of businesses and buildings I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise and it's also an attempt to show this work can be self-sustaining because most of The Dock's money still comes from the Diocese of Down and Dromore – though we are in the process of being formed as a company, limited by guarantee, with charitable status.

Sometimes I do get asked, 'When is it going to look like a church? When are you going to have people singing songs and listening to a sermon?' but I've got a fantastic amount of support from Bishop Harold (Rt Rev Harold Miller) and all the denominations. I'm very fortunate in that. I also have a Methodist co-chaplain working with me now and hopefully this is the shape of things to come at The Dock.

The Dock - cakeAs part of our future plans, I also hope to get a boat – that has been the concept right from the start. Quite a few people ask us why, particularly with all of the Titanic associations here, but it feels like we are at the stage where we have done all we can do in coffee shops and a boat would give us an operational base. That means people could physically find us rather than having to rely on a website and a phone number for information.

In practical terms it's a good idea because development here is quite tightly controlled – and expensive. A boat is the only way to have a physical space for us and it's a relatively cost-effective way of doing things. Our budget is in the realm of £500,000.

A boat in the Titanic Quarter would carry great iconic power. As a boat doesn't look like a church from any denomination, it would be new territory for all – neutral waters.

The Dock - postitAs for being associated with the name of the Titanic, we're all accustomed to queries as to whether it's bad taste to commemorate that link at all. In fact the view in Northern Ireland is that it was all right when it left here; it was later on when disaster struck. But for many years there was a real level of shame about it – I actually think there is something of God about the way that everything is tying together in Northern Ireland at the moment. Somehow, the Titanic, from being a thing we never much talked about, is being re-born because it pre-dates the Troubles. For all that it was quite clearly a tragedy on its maiden voyage, the very fact that it sank has stamped its name on history. Many other ships suffered tragedies but the scale of the Titanic's amazing construction makes it unique and people now feel it's right to remember the incredible expertise that went into it. That's why there was such interest surrounding the recent 100-year anniversary of the Titanic setting sail.

The Dock - appThe talk in the corridors of political power is all about Shared Future and Community Cohesion – redefining the existing communities and asking them to change but here we have the opportunity to create a new community that looks very different from our sectarian past.

We are aware that the international community is looking at this too. People can view Belfast through a very narrow lens but The Dock can offer a phenomenal witness. In the past, Belfast has been the example of the danger that religion can bring. How wonderful instead to be an example of the healing of faith.