The Dock - update Mar14

Monday, 3 March, 2014

Chris Bennett updates the story of The Dock and how it has been on a fresh expressions journey.

Duration: 11:32   | Download Download video (flv) | Download Download video (wmv) | View on YouTube


Chris Bennett: The Dock project began back in 2009 and at that stage everything around here was still a building site, it was still scaffolding and big holes in the ground. But at that stage I was asked by Bishop Harold, I'm an ordained Church of Ireland Minister, and I'd been kind of looking for my next challenge and Harold suggested that the challenge might be trying to dream up and think up what might be an appropriate expression of church in the midst of the Titanic Quarter as it grew. We knew even back at that stage that it was going to be massive, probably couldn't have guessed quite how massive it would become even within a couple of years, but there are projections for thousands of people to live down here, thousands of jobs being created down here, millions of tourists will be here in coming years to see all the Titanic attractions, the student populations is massive with the new college that's come down here. So knowing that this was all on its way, even though all you could see was the scaffolding at that stage, the bishop commissioned me to be the chaplain to the area, chaplain to the Titanic Quarter and start thinking about what it might look like to grow church down here.

For the first year as chaplain to the Titanic Quarter you could quite easily have asked what on earth I was doing with my time, there was nothing to show for it in some ways. It was a year very much of dreaming and talking, we called it coffee-storming, I would just invite anybody - and I mean anybody - who had a vision or a plan or a hope for this new part of Belfast to meet me for a cup of coffee and we just kept asking the question, what could the church do or be down here? Somebody said to me in one of those meetings, and I've never forgotten the phrase, they said this is the best blank page that the church has had in Ireland since St Patrick stepped off the boat. It's a chance to dream from the ground up and to not have to worry about the different buildings or denominations or traditions that might already be in place, and that was a colossally exciting process. And that went on maybe for a good year or so, the formation of the Dock vision, but as well as the vision a group of people who owned it because they had been part of kind of creating it.

The key factor of the people who gathered around the Dock back at the beginning, even when we were literally in single figures, was that they all came from different church traditions here in Belfast. And that in some ways was the very exciting part of it, that this was a unique chance for us to build something together and to brainstorm together and then to actually put it all into action together. And so even when we counted ourselves in single figures, we were Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist... all different traditions working together. And that has been the case right until the present day and so the team that formed, small as it was, there was just a real excitement about working together in a way that our traditional church buildings and structures hadn't really allowed us to up until that point.

During 2010, as people were starting to move in to the apartment blocks and the college was getting ready to open and the office blocks were starting to fill up, there was still no little community hub, there was nowhere where you could say meet you after work or, you know, sit down have a cup of coffee and slouch down and get to know your neighbours. So we ran a thing called Meet the Neighbours. It was an open air deckchair café, we just bought some old deckchairs and a kettle and we set up on the area outside the apartment blocks every Saturday morning and invited all of the new residents, most of whom had never met each other and didn't know who was living next door, to come down and meet their neighbours. And that went really well, that just turned out to be the right idea at the right time and the development company who own the apartment blocks and also own - there's a series of shop units underneath the apartments which were all standing empty at that point, and so they gave us the keys, that if it rained on a Saturday morning we were able to actually come in and shelter from the rain. And that kind of developed, they sort of said it was OK for us to leave our deckchairs and our kettles behind from one week to the next, and then we ran a few things - the Christmas party and a few summer barbecues and things, the momentum just kept growing. And then at the start of 2012 it was suggested that we sign, it was quite a new thing at the time although I think it's become more common now, it's called a 'meanwhile' lease and it means that you have permission to use a commercial unit, free of charge, on the condition that when a commercial tenant comes along offering to pay for it that you'll get out and you'll make sure that all of your stuff is popup and that you can move out as quickly as possible. So we signed that lease at the start of 2012 and we opened the Dock café in March 2012, just in time for the big Titanic anniversary.

We now open six days a week, that is we are here to be a community living room, a place for people to sit and meet their neighbours and catch up with their friends and get to know new people. So we open eleven to seven, Monday to Saturday, it's completely run by volunteers, so your coffee is served not by somebody who's there sort of because they have to be because they're earning a wage, but by somebody who just loves being part of community life. We've tried to dot the place full of conversation starters so we have lots of old quirky bits of local history and shipyard art and sculpture and all different mad things, just so that it's easy to start conversations and the place is always just full of the buzz of people meeting. And so the volunteers keep the coffee bar running, the customers don't pay and there's an honesty box and so the donations - people pay a donation for their cup of coffee and their scone or whatever they've had and that covers the cost of actually running the coffee bar. And so the whole thing lurches from one week to the next as just on the fun of being community, forming community in a new space which only a couple of years ago was just rubble and weeds.

Right from the start we had this vision of this kind of community hub, this community café, but always the desire that it somehow represented the faith that had brought us here and was an expression of church in some shape or form. And so quite early on we started doing Sunday prayer walks and those have kind of evolved now into a thing that we call the Dock Walk. We meet every week at 3.33 on a Sunday afternoon, for no great spiritual reason, just because 3.33 is easy to remember. And we meet up, we go for a walk, we try to bless what we see out here because almost every week we see a new path or a new road or a new building or a new bit of work being done. And so we just keep praying blessing over the Titanic Quarter as it develops. And then once we get out into the wilds, into the undeveloped area out here we open up a Scripture passage, we play it out through a podcast and then we chat about it as we walk. We all bring our own different insights and interpretations from our different traditions and the conversation sometimes is just fantastic, to hear everybody's different insights. And then once we reach the water's edge down at the far end of the quarter we play out some worship music through a little speaker. We don't sing, we think that would look a little bit cheesy to stand in the open air and sing along, but we just stand in the beauty of creation listening to some worship music and praising the Creator.

[...the skill and size of it all, that you know this is just beyond - almost nonsensical in human terms.]

[Female voice 1: The only way that anybody can come into the kingdom and understand the theology...]

Chris Bennett: The distinction between church and chaplaincy is, I guess, a conversation that is still ongoing. I'm not quite sure where we are on that. I'm not sure that this is yet a fresh expression of church because we don't have that sense of being a gathered church where we have regular members. It's very much a thing that's in flux, even the people who live here, study here, work here... it's mostly short-term contracts and we have this constant turnover of people and we're trying to offer a ministry and just a chance for God to do his thing in the middle of all of that. So in some ways I think it's a lot closer to chaplaincy, in some ways you could maybe say it's a fresh expression of chaplaincy. It's the idea of taking what would usually happen in a university chaplaincy, where you'd have this kind of slightly shabby, chic social space where people can call in day or night and where they know that the God conversations are on the agenda, we're taking that out of a university context or a hospital context and saying that it might be a valid model of kingdom building for a community, for a place where people live and work and study. And so we have our kind of chaplaincy sofa I guess in all these little comfy shabby corners in Dock Café. We have something that looks a little bit like church in the Dock Walks on Sundays because there is teaching and Scripture and fellowship and worship and prayer involved on those walks. And the two sort of play off each other - and the Dock Walks certainly feeds those of us who then provide the chaplaincy experience during the week. But how that grows and develops I guess I'm still open to seeing how that story grows, because I'm not sure we've come to any conclusions just yet.

When we started out, the first bright idea that seemed to be the defining idea of the Dock, was that we would buy a boat. And we spent - I'll not say wasted - but spent quite a lot of time in the first year or two boat-hunting. We went to see all sorts of different little boats that we thought might have been a suitable space for us to be based upon. And then, with the way things happened - or with the provision of God I suppose I should say - the boat came along and turned out to be not a boat at all, it turned out to be the use - the meanwhile lease - on this massive big café space which is double the size if not more of any of the boats that we were looking at and doesn't carry all of those responsibilities to be looking out for leaks and having to, you know, scrape barnacles off the hull and all the rest of it. And ironically in the last couple of weeks we have now, in some ways, been offered a boat. There's a ship called the Nomadic which was actually the tender ship that brought passengers out to the Titanic. And so it's here in the Titanic Quarter now as a tourist attraction, as a way that you can walk in the footsteps of Titanic's passengers. And they came to us a couple of weeks ago and said that they would love to have some sort of Sunday service on board and could we, as the Dock, think about what that might look like. And so now the chaplains and the groups and the people that we have involved here in the café, we have this great opportunity to brainstorm what it might look like to have worship on the Nomadic and the church on a boat that we dreamt of at the beginning, all of a sudden is almost just falling in our laps. And I just... you just stand back and say more than I could have asked or imagined, God knows what he's doing.

This story is an update to:


Just a quick shout out about the amazing quality of shot selection, editing and sound capture. Lovely!

Thanks Kevin. We aim to please!

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