Fancy a Face? That seems a very unusual way of asking a female for a date in the Presbyterian dominated hills of north Antrim during the mid Seventies until the early Eighties.
But a ‘Face’ was a Christian fundamentalist term for a date, and it was Exclusive Brethren chums who first taught me the term and what it meant.
In the North East Ulster Bible Belt, Christians did not frequent the pubs or clubs; those venues were ‘of the devil’ and the lair of sinners.
Ballymena was then at the heart of that Bible Belt with a DUP-run borough council, so there were three places to go as young Christians in your teens and twenties if you wanted to meet someone for a date - a venue known locally in Harryville as ‘Ken’s Carpark’, the so-called ‘Church Parties’ hosted in Presbyterian or Orange halls, and the Friday and Saturday prayer meetings of three denominations in the region - the Brethren (known as the Gospel Hallers), Pentecostalists (known as the Penties) and the Free Presbyterians (known as the Free P’s).
While Harryville was to gain a notoriety in later years for loyalist pickets at the Catholic chapel, it also hosted a large carpark near a burger bar. There was no DoE signage which read ‘Ken’s Carpark’, but my peers of that era knew exactly where the location was.
Thursday nights would be spent cleaning your car and you would meet up with two or three mates and travel to ‘Ken’s Carpark’ - but you had to be there before nine o’clock on Friday or Saturday evenings. Why? After 9 pm, the Exclusive and Plymouth Brethren lads would pile into the carpark in their fancy cars and suits.
If there were, say, three of us lads in a car, we would be looking for a car with three lassies in it! If the girls agreed to a ‘Face’, it was off to a secluded rural lay-by for the practical side of the ‘Face’ (within Biblical codes, of course!).
But for mainstream Presbyterian lads like ourselves, the Brethren lads were the main opposition. Their cars were much fancier, and their dress code was much better. We were in jeans and tee-shirts, the Brethren lads in their Sunday-best suits.
They had just come from Friday or Saturday evening prayer meetings and had told their parents they were just going to Harryville for ‘chips’; Aye right! That was their code to throw their parents off the scent that they were in ‘Ken’s Carpark’ looking for women!
Even with good tuning and polishing, our second-hand, souped-up jalopies stood no chance against the big high performance cars driven by the Brethren boys. One lad even came alone in his dad’s Jag looking for a ‘Face’, even though the unwritten rule was you didn’t go to ‘Ken’s Carpark’ on your own.
For me, as the son of a mainstream Presbyterian minister, going to the prayer meetings of other denominations was out - I’d stick out like a sore thumb.
I might have got away with casual Friday or Saturday night dress code at the Pentecostalists, but certainly not at the Gospel halls or the Free Presbyterian Church.
So what was the trick to getting a ‘Face’ if you went to the Pentecostal prayer meetings? Point one; don’t go alone. You went with a couple of your chums and you all sat together. Point two; you waited until after the singing - Pentecostal praise time was usually fairly lively. By that time, the girls - usually also sitting together in three’s or four’s - would be starting to get ‘drunk with the Holy Spirit’.
Then you would wave at the girls to let them know you were interested in meeting later in ‘Ken’s Carpark’ for a ‘Face’! If you got the ‘nod or wink’ back from the girls, you knew the ‘Face’ was on; no wink, no date!
The girls would travel separately in their car to ‘Ken’s Carpark’ and you and your mates in your jalopy - we lads would take it in turn to be the driver!
So it was a case of three lads in a car meeting up with three lassies in the car - and we’d been able to arrange the ‘Face’ well before the Brethren contingent got to ‘Ken’s Carpark’. We ‘blackmouth dissenters’ certainly knew how to outwit the Gospel hallers!
But given the superb cars and fancy clothes the Brethren lads could muster, there would also be many occasions when the prayer meeting tactic would backfire and the lassies would dump us Presbyterians for the bright lights of the Brethren!
But the real places of fun to get a ‘Face’ were the legion of ‘Church Parties’, usually advertised in the local Press. The adverts for ‘A Party’ were informatively simple - location, date, and time.
There was no dancing, only musical games such as ‘Farmer Wants A Wife’ and ‘Wheels of Troy’. The music was provided by a thrown-together country music band, but they didn’t play dance tunes - just made an out-of-tune racket to enable you to select a girl for ‘Farmer Wants A Wife’. You would form a big human chain of around a dozen people, then when the ‘farmers’ had enough ‘wives’ selected, you would spin in a circle!
There was no alcohol, cigarettes, contraceptives or drugs; just a tuck shop and soft drinks. The lads would all stand around in one corner, eyeing up the female talent in another corner. Then up you would get and select your lassie.
This all seems very heterosexual male/female, but you must remember these ‘Church Parties’ took place in an era when homosexuality was illegal so the LGBTQ+ community had to operate virtually as an underground movement.
You didn’t need your mates to get a ‘Face’ at the ‘Church Parties’; merely bring your own car. While Friday evening ‘Church Parties’ could run into the early hours of Saturday, a Saturday evening ‘Church Party’ had to be finished before midnight - there was no way it could run into the Sabbath.
Occasionally, the ‘Church Party’ would be a fancy dress affair, but zombies, vampires or devils were severely frowned upon! And there was to be no singing during the games, especially if the band was totally out-of -tune.
I once got a severe telling off at a ‘Church Party’ when I noticed that the tune the supposed country band was playing to ‘Farmer Wants A Wife’ was, in fact, ‘The Red Flag’ - so I began belting out the socialist lyrics at the top of my voice!
I think I got one verse out before the ever-watchful duty Presbyterian elder told me to be quiet! Maybe it was that youthful prank which sparked the rumour that ‘the Presbyterian minister’s son is actually a closet member of the Young Communist League!’
But there were some thin red lines - forgive that pun - that you simply did not cross at ‘Church Parties.’
While the parties hosted in Orange halls were neutral venues in terms of asking any lassie up for a game of ‘Farmer Wants A Wife’, in some of the rural Presbyterian halls, the local farm boys guarded certain girls with tremendous jealousy.
Such girls were ‘The Untouchables’; never to be asked up! They were the pride, joy - and property - of the local farmer boys. I learnt that lesson the hard way.
At a ‘Church Party’ in a rural Presbyterian hall, I picked a young lassie for that game. Within minutes, I felt the thump of a cowboy boot on my butt! A very tall yokel informed me in a broad north Antrim accent to “leave her alone boy!”
She was an ‘Untouchable’ and I had overstepped the mark. Even the fact that my dad and that church’s minister were Presbyterian clerical buddies would not save me - I had to leave, and fast!
On another occasion when a group of us lads arrived at a Presbyterian church hall for a ‘Party’, the doors were slammed in our faces by one of the local Rednecks. I even tried to show him the advert in the Press for the ‘Party’, but we were told where to go to as he didn’t want us having a ‘Face’ with their lassies!
By 2020 standards, the ‘Church Parties’ were mild and harmless, but at least our parents knew there would be no alcohol, drugs, date rape or STDs and you would be home by midnight.
Perhaps when the lockdown ends and churches return to normal activities, they could once again make a mark in society with the fun and games of these ‘stay safe’ parties.