15 December 2017

Life in the Titanic Quarter

INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS BENNETT CHAPLAIN IN THE TITANIC QUARTER

We are familiar with chaplains in prisons, universities and hospitals, but we don’t expect to find them in a city centre redevelopment like the Titanic Quarter in Belfast. However this is exactly what is happening at ‘the Dock’. Here we interview one of the chaplains Chris Bennett about this exciting new project.

1. CHRIS, CAN I START BY ASKING YOU TO TELL US A LITTLE OF YOUR PERSONAL JOURNEY AND HOW GOD HAS LED YOU THIS FAR?

Maybe I should start by confessing that I’m an Anglican minister. No, keep reading! Since I’ve been a teenager I’ve had an insistent, unavoidable calling to ministry in the church. Anything else felt like running away. Born and bred a good Church Of Ireland boy, that just seemed like the logical route! So I’m one of those ministers who’s never really had a proper job – I went straight from college, to training college, to my first parish placement. So I didn’t really have much life experience under my belt for those ‘baptism of fire’ early months of ministry and situations like my first-ever hospital visit when the patient died in front of me. But I thoroughly enjoyed all the challenges and adventures of my first 10 years of ministry – first in Larne and then Holywood.

2. HOW DID YOU BECOME A CHAPLAIN IN THE TITANIC QUARTER?

One sentence changed everything! I was having a cuppa with Bishop Harold Miller, telling him that I felt ready for my next challenge. He was suggesting some possible parishes, and I was smiling politely in the way you do when your boss makes ‘suggestions.’ Then he said, “Or you could do something completely mad and start a church on a boat in the Titanic Quarter.” Light bulb! For all the character and momentum and detail that the project has accumulated since that first conversation, I keep going back to that original one-liner. Church on a boat. Something a bit mad, risky. Church, but not as we know it. I was so seized with enthusiasm by the idea that I kept walking the streets of the TQ (at that stage just a wasteland full of foundations and scaffolding) and put together a proposal for this “church on a boat” idea. To their great credit, the church authorities went for it and committed themselves to putting someone in place in the Quarter while it was still developing – rather than parachuting someone in when it had fully emerged. It’s only this year that I’m really beginning to see the fruit of that decision.

3. SO TELL US SOMETHING OF WHAT IS HAPPENING IN BELFAST’S LATEST AND HOTTEST PROJECT?

I take it you mean The Dock, or do you mean the Titanic Quarter project? They’re both pretty hot, so I’ll take one at a time! Titanic Belfast, the massive new star-shaped visitor centre, is opening on 31st March and stands at the centre of the most exciting, visionary development project Belfast has ever seen. There are now hundreds of people living in the Titanic Quarter, thousands of people working at Citibank complex, the Science Park or the movie studios; thousands of people studying at the new campus of the Belfast Met; there’s a skate park, the Public Records Office, and of course at the heart of it all the hugely evocative Titanic heritage that has survived the last 100 years. There is also Drawing Offices where she was designed, the slipways where she was built, the huge dry dock where she stood on dry ground for the last time and the Nomadic tender ship that was built in her shadow. Walking, talking and being church in the midst of this heady mixture of heritage and hope, past and future, is breathtakingly exciting. It’s a fresh new community for 21st Century Belfast, a blank page where we can build something genuinely new while still being rooted – remembering the shoulders we stand on.

Which is exactly the ethos of The Dock – new but rooted. I spent the first 6 months of my post just talking, listening and drinking a LOT of cups of coffee, using the image of the blank page to invite people to dream big dreams of what the church could do and be, given this fresh start. All the ideas and concepts from those early discussions distilled down to two simple line-drawings. One – Bishop Harold’s original suggestion – church on a boat! That idea just seemed to fit – both with the history of the area, and the idea of the churches doing something new. The second line-drawing was a sketch of a typical Northern Irish town with a church on every street corner – and the challenge ‘Anything But This’. If we replicate our brokenness and build separate buildings in this new space, after all the lessons we’ve learnt and all the bold, prophetic progress that has been made over recent decades, then we’ve missed an unprecedented opportunity. But if we can present the hope of the Good News of Jesus Christ, together, on a boat that doesn’t look like a church building from any of our traditions – now that makes my heart beat faster!

4. WHAT HAS BEEN ACCOMPLISHED SO FAR?

A little and a lot! Some days it feels as if this is such a slow process; other days have moved at a pace which has taken my breath away! We don’t have a boat yet, in case you’re wondering, but God’s timing has been proved perfect, again and again, as we’ve walked through this journey. So what has happened:

 The mainstream denominations have all become part of the conversation. Some are officially involved, some are informally involved, some are thinking about it! But I think it’s true to say at this point that the project is truly shared.

 We’ve formed The Dock as a company in its own right (limited by guarantee with charitable status, if you love your technical terminology) with all denominational traditions represented on the Board of Directors and Management Team which will take responsibility for purchasing and maintaining the shared space (i.e. the boat).

 The company has researched, produced and published a Business Plan, a snazzy-looking document making a sensible business case for the big mad idea of church on a boat.

 We’ve researched and visited some boats that are for sale and come up with some very interesting contenders!

 I’ve got a job with Titanic Walking Tours which helps support me financially but has also been a fantastic way to become a part of the TQ community. It has also, incidentally, turned me into a raving card-carrying Titanic nut or a Titanorak as we like to call ourselves!

 We started a prayer walk on Sunday afternoons which has turned into a weekly event, the Dock Walk, and has become, almost without realising it, our ‘church service’ – this is what ‘Church Without Walls’ looks like! A group of people from all sorts of backgrounds walking, praying, discussing Scripture, listening to readings and worship songs under clear blue skies, wintry sunsets, circling gulls (and just occasionally a wee drop of soft Belfast rain…).

 On a Dock Walk last Easter we commissioned the first person to officially join me on the team of Chaplains. Karen, minister of Sydenham Methodist, is now also Chaplain to the Dock. It’s fab being part of a team, and she is hopefully the first of many!

 We also started a regular event called ‘Meet The Neighbours’ a chance for all the new residents, students, businesspeople and visitors to the TQ to start meeting, talking and building genuine community. This is something that the church is generally good at, but modern secular culture struggles with. It’s one of the ways we can be genuinely Good News at the heart of the TQ community. Starting off with occasional events, held in an empty shop unit at the base of the apartments, it is in the process of growing into a ‘Meanwhile Project’; an ongoing use of that empty retail unit until a commercial tenant shows up. This allows us to have a ‘practice run’ for the boat in a vacant shop!

 Lots of other little things… a book group, an online community based around the Dock blog (www.the-dock. org), chances to minister at the big Titanic Centenary events like the launch celebrations last May and the big anniversary commemorations this year…

Phew, I suppose that’s quite a lot really!

5. WHAT IS THE BIG VISION FOR THE FUTURE?

A day when:

 People moving away from the Titanic Quarter cry big snotty tears of grief to be leaving behind the most loving, welcoming community they’ve ever been part of.

 Visitors from all over the world carry home the stories of Christians working together in Belfast – in a way that motivates them to build bridges.

 The Kingdom of God bubbles up in all sorts of wonderful, unexpected ways for those who live, work, study, breathe, move and have their being in the Titanic Quarter.

…on a boat.

6. HOW MIGHT THE RETAIL UNIT WORK?

Good question – and in some ways it’s the same question as “How might the boat work, some day?” The best example we’ve come across is a chaplaincy sofa. When I was at uni (I’m a Trinity boy), the chaplaincy room was a big, welcoming, comfortable space. You could call in if you wanted to chat, if you had a worry, or if you just wanted to crash on a sofa with a cup of coffee. It was completely informal and relational, but it wasn’t just ‘blank space’. God was on the agenda, not just in the formal gatherings which occurred around the weekly calendar, but in the conversations, debates and faith-stretching encounters with people from the whole spectrum of denominational backgrounds. The chaplaincy sofa seems to me to be that sweet-spot between a coffee shop and a church building – relational but spiritual, informal but intentional.

Which is a long and complicated way of saying that the retail unit will contain the best coffee, the best local artwork and the best visitor information in the Titanic Quarter. It will be open throughout the week run by teams of volunteers. It will be, we pray, the community hub of the TQ and the Chaplains will be there, ready to put the kettle on and start the conversations about Life in the Titanic Quarter – in all its fullness.

7. HOW COULD OUR READERSHIP SUPPORT THE BOAT PROJECT?

First of all, last of all and all of the in-between – prayer.

There are links to prayer points on The Dock website, and it’s absolutely vital to know that there are people holding this project in prayer. This is new territory for the church and the Kingdom of God – but we know we have an enemy who is interested in claiming territory too and who wants a chance to write on the blank page. So pray, pray, pray – for The Dock and for the whole Titanic Quarter development and all the hope it holds for the future of Belfast.

You could also, if you’re of a mind, help us to buy a lovely old boat…! And once we’ve actually bought it, the fun will really start. There will be days of scrubbing decks, sanding paint, angle-grinding bits of rusty metal and other things involving getting our hands all grimy. Can’t wait!

And you can come down to the Titanic Quarter and see it all for yourself. If you’ve never been, I guarantee you’ll be astounded by all that’s happening right on our doorstep. And if you want to see it and pray for it at the same time – Dock Walk with us on a Sunday afternoon!

8. WHEN DO THE DOCK WALKS TAKE PLACE?

We meet every Sunday at 3:33pm at the Dock cafe in the Titanic Quarter. Check out www.the-dock.org just in case there are changes – there are some events around the Titanic Centenary which will mean changes in our usual routine – but our regular slot is 3:33ish. And in case you’re wondering, it’s a reasonable-length walk (about 2 miles there and back), and we still go out when it’s raining, or snowing, or blowing a gale. You haven’t experienced ‘Breathe On Me, Breath Of God’ until you’ve listened to it with the wind howling around on a crisp winter’s day! There’s coffee, tea or hot chocolate at the Dock cafe at the end!

9. HOW SHOULD WE BE PRAYING FOR THE DOCK?

This month we’re praying for the establishment of the Meanwhile Project in the shop unit, for more and more churches and denominations to catch the vision and get involved, for wisdom as we boat-hunt! Pray for a true sense of community in the Titanic Quarter, for opportunities to share faith in all the different ‘not-churchy’ environments (colleges, business parks, movie studios, tourism venues…) In the big picture, pray for God’s blessing on our city and province through this momentous year – that we might enter a new season of peace. There are always new prayer points popping up on www.the-dock.org, and if you’d like to receive regular prayer update emails, or indeed regular news update emails, just send a message through the contact form on the website.

Chris Bennett

Chaplain to Titanic Quarter