Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ulster and Appalachia

Ok, back to the usual stuff.

Ulster and Appalachia. 3500 miles apart, yet so similar – in landscape, in culture, in people.

This shot of bluegrass banjo legend Dr Ralph Stanley is in the booklet to his self-titled 2002 cd. The cover and most of the rest of the booklet features black and white documentary-style photography (by Mary Ellen Mark) of Ralph outside the church - a little wooden building propped up on blocks, out in the middle of nowhere. Ralph is wearing a suit and is by himself. It looks like the heart of the Appalachian mountains. The CD has eleven tracks, four are gospel. It’s a superb album, recorded in the afterglow of his Grammy for the awesome “O Death” that appeared on the soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou?", the movie that brought bluegrass to the masses worldwide.

The pic of Ralph inside the church – possibly the Primitive Baptist Universalist Church that he is still a member of in Dickenson County, Virginia – astounded me when I bought the cd. Because the design of the interior is virtually identical to the interior of Ebenezer Gospel Hall, at the Pink Brae outside Portavogie, where I attended until I was about 21 and also Ballyhalbert Gospel Hall too. Virtually identical! Here it is:

Maybe theologically the Primitive Baptists and the (Plymouth) Brethren here in the UK are similar, I don’t know for sure. (see here and here.

Primitive Baptists have no instruments in their churches. For the Brethren, some gospel halls have an organ or piano which is used in gospel/evangelical meetings (its sometimes jokingly referred to as “the wooden brother”) – but never used on a Sunday morning for the “breaking of bread”. Acapella singing only. A strong preference for the King James Version. No salaried ministers, but voluntary elders appointed from the membership. And, importantly, no centralised organisation. Everything is local. Everything is independent.

But what really struck me is that rural Scotch-Irish/Ulster-Scots communities, thousands of miles apart, in a quest for authentic, simple, New Testament worship have used the same style of building. Wooden floor. Single door at the back, right in the middle of the main room. Wooden “forms” (not pews) on either side of a central strip of carpet which leads up to the platform. No curtains (sometimes just simple roller blinds). Praying, preaching and singing. No art. No decoration. Just the people and the Word.

Today there aren’t many of the original, traditional gospel halls or mission halls left in the Ards. Most have been replaced by (sometimes expensive) modern buildings - Killaughey Mission Hall (near Ballycopeland Windmill) and the People’s Hall (beside Portavogie Harbour) might be the only two old style ones left. But some of the newer buildings have also been designed simply and have much of the spirit of the older ones – Maranatha Hall in Carrowdore is a good example of this (top pic of the four below. The hall is run by my da, Ronnie Wilson and Stephen Jamison. Graeme teaches Sunday School here too) The second pic here is of the platform of the old Carrowdore Mission Hall.

The important thing of course is that whether the building is old or new, the message is still the old fashioned gospel.

I wonder if we could ever get Ralph to visit the Low Country? He’d feel right at home. (last two pics are of the People's Hall in Portavogie, run by my uncle John)