Belfast'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.
It 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 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).
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.
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.
I 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.
As 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.
As 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 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.