A new dream in Belfast's historic Titanic Quarter
According to Reverend Chris Bennett everyone needs a “BHAG“. That is a "Big Hairy Audacious Goal“. The vicar's BHAG is to buy an old boat and launch a church on the same dock where the Titanic was constructed.
When thinking of Belfast one of the first associations is the “The Troubles“. The other, in this centenary year, is the tragedy of the Titanic built by the city’s men in what is today known as the Titanic Quarters. The sinking of the White Star Line’s prized ship on its maiden voyage a hundred years ago and strife in the name of religion have indeed cast long shadows over this down-to-earth city.
However, Belfast is changing and it is the Titanic Quarters which have undergone the greatest change, transforming from a post-industrial area to what Rev Chris calls "the heart of the new Belfast”.
As chaplain to the Titanic Quarters, he plays a major role in this new development. Together with representatives from other mainstream churches in Northern Ireland, he founded The Dock. The dream of the church group is to buy an old boat based in the Titanic Quarter and revamp it into a community hub and cafe for the whole community. The idea of a chaplaincy centre based on a boat goes along with the idea of creating a space for chaplains to meet and connect in a neutral setting that does not resemble a church building from any denomination.
To Rev Chris, the Titanic Quarter was once described as “the best blank page in Ireland since St Patrick stepped off the boat”. Now the challenge of The Dock Church is to create something new out of it.
“The churches have been working together in this city even when it was dangerous to do so - huge risks have been taken to build unity between traditions and communities“, says Rev Chris.
"We step onto neutral waters together.”
Rev Chris admits that the challenges are tough. To stay motivated when they meet many people who show resistance towards anything church-related is not easy for the team.
“The term 'chaplain' has been quite helpful in this regard. Wearing the clerical collar definitely has not,” he says emphatically.
Another challenge the team has been faced with is to build a church in a rather transient context.
"We're not dealing with a 'parish' community,” he explains.
"People don't move into the Titanic Quarters for life, settle down, start a family and connect to a local church. They are maybe here for a few months, a year or two - or sometimes just a day or two.”
Although it can become discouraging when long-term relationships and rewards are rare, The Dock Church continues to invest in relationships with the community. With the strapline, "Where once we built ships, today we build communities" as its motto, the team runs regular events such as "Meet the neighbours” to reach out and build lasting relationships.
With the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic at the forefront of everyone’s minds, the church made a huge effort to put on events in the last few weeks that would bring people together in commemorating the tragedy sensitively.
“For those of us who have followed along this great story, this Titanic story, in drama, music, spectacle, image, song, poetry, story – the wonderful rollercoaster rush of events over these weeks – the moment where we commemorate that terrible crash has real power,” he said.
At 11:40pm on Saturday night, the exact time the Titanic struck the iceberg that led to its sinking less than three hours later, Rev Chris will lead a vigil that will feature a virtual choir, a reading of Titanic’s SOS messages and a reading aloud of the names of those who were lost.
“Lips may wobble,” he admitted.
“This city will truly, properly pay a profound and heartfelt tribute to that tragic moment which shook so many lives, echoed around the world and [which] still resounds down through the decades.”
Beyond this weekend, the church is looking forward with hope to the next stage of growth with the opening of The Dock Cafe. For now, The Dock Church meets on dry ground, but the team is praying and believing for a boat in the future, a boat that will give people new dreams and a reason for living that stretches beyond this present life.
He explains: “The vision is to provide a space where a full, joyful, warm, welcoming, loving, prophetic expression of the body of Christ, in all its variety, can grow and flourish. How to achieve it - ask me later...So maybe the better answer is just - be ready for whatever God wants to do!“