A blog about church history and related matters, particularly unitarian and non-subscribing history, as well as matters of faith, theology, liberal christianity, non-creedal religion and related topics. By the editor of 'Faith and Freedom' and the 'Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society'.
At the time of writing the coffin of Her Majesty the Queen is lying in state in Westminster Hall and many thousands of people are queuing in order to be able to pay their last respects. Special services have been held all over the country in the last week and at First Dunmurry (NS) Presbyterian Church we held a short service of prayer and reflection on Friday, 9th December. An edited audio recording of the service can be heard by clicking on the video above. Allen Yarr is the organist.
Below are some images from the lying in state in Westminster Hall.
Earlier in the week, on Monday, 12th September a very moving service of thanksgiving for the life of the Queen was held in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. Below are some images from that occasion.
Services of thanksgiving for the life of the Queen were also held in Belfast and Cardiff.
I shall not die, but live, and shall the works of God discover. The Lord hath me chastised sore, but not to death giv’n over. O set ye open unto me the gates of righteousness; Then will I enter into them, and I the Lord will bless. This is the gate of God, by it the just shall enter in. Thee will I praise, for thou me heard’st and hast my safety been.
Translation of Psalm 118 v.17-21 which was sung in Scots Gaelic by Karen Matheson at the service in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.
These opening lines from God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins supply us with the opening words and the theme of this week’s online service. Filmed at various locations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland places visited include the Hawarden estate, Flintshire, North Wales; the sand dunes at Formby near Liverpool; the Derbyshire Peak district; the River Thames (Isis) at Oxford; Norton Priory, Cheshire; Sefton Park, Liverpool; Rathmullan, county Down; and Dunmurry, county Antrim. As we look at these varied landscapes we explore the meaning of this idea of the divine presence in the natural world alongside readings from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Merton and Ernesto Cardenal.
In the service Graham Murphy reads two poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins – Binsey Poplars and Pied Beauty, both recorded at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Flintshire. In addition Robert Neill and Emma McCrudden read extracts from the works of Thomas Merton and Ernesto Cardenal.
Music played includes:
For the beauty of the earth, played by Allen Yarr, organist of First Presbyterian (NS) Church, Dunmurry.
Come let us sing of a wonderful love, played by John Strain, organist of Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.
O love that wilt not let me go, played by John Strain.
Let saints on earth in concert sing, played by Allen Yarr.
Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into a prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all. – Thomas Merton
To accompany our service of worship conducted from Oxford we have a few views of various parts of the university and its environs.
The service features readings, hymns and prayers as well as poems relating to Oxford. As part of the service we are very pleased to have Graham Murphy read Duns Scotus’s Oxford, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Oxford, by C.S. Lewis.
Readings: Psalm 139 read by Rev Dr David Steers Duns Scotus’s Oxford by Gerard Manley Hopkins, read by Graham Murphy Oxford by C.S. Lewis, read by Graham Murphy Oxford (extract) by T. Lovatt Williams, read by Sue Steers
Hymns: ‘The King of Love my shepherd is’, Alfie McClelland (Clough) ‘From all that dwell below the skies’, Allen Yarr (Dunmurry) ‘Lord of all hopefulness’, John Strain (Ballee) ‘Be still for the presence of the Lord’, Laura Patterson (Downpatrick) ‘In Christ Alone’, John Strain (Ballee) ‘It is well with my soul’, Allen Yarr (Dunmurry)
In the service you will see: Radcliffe Camera, Brasenose College, River Thames (Isis), Harris Manchester College, Mansfield College, New College, Christ Church (Peckwater Quad, Tom Quad, Memorial Garden), Christ Church Meadow, Old English Longhorn Cattle, Divinity School, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, Christ Church Cathedral, University Church, Martyrs Memorial.
Travelling across the Irish Sea from Belfast to Liverpool I was struck by the tranquility and the blue-ness of the sea. I filmed the scene for a couple of minutes, partly in the hope of seeing a pod of dolphins swim past, but found it strangely calming. So with sections of hat film to start and close this short video I put together a few Sea-born Reflections:
Click on the video above to see the Reflections.
Conducted by the Rev Dr David Steers, First Presbyterian (NS) Church, Dunmurry.
Hymns: Will your anchor hold in the storms of life played by Laura Patterson (organist Downpatrick) and O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness played on the piano by Allen Yarr (organist Dunmurry).
Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven: see yourself in your Father’s palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as celestial joys: having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the angels.
One of the beauties of Dunmurry is not just the gardens and grounds that surround the church but the variety of animal and bird life that lives there. Louise Steers has been busy filming many of the birds, animals and insects that live there and we have two videos that consist of Louise’s films and photographs of them accompanied by music provided by John Strain on the organ at Ballee. Among the animals you can expect to see in Part One are robins, blue tits, blackbirds, a thrush, grey squirrels, a mouse, ladybirds, a speckled wood butterfly and a peacock butterfly.
Click on the video above to see some of the birds, animals and insects that live in the gardens round the First Presbyterian (NS) Church, Dunmurry. Medley played by John Strain on the organ at Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.
The second of two films featuring some of the birds, animals and insects that live in the gardens round the First Presbyterian (NS) Church, Dunmurry. All pictures are by Louise. In this case the accompaniment is by John Strain on the organ at Ballee playing God speaks to us in bird and song, For the beauty of the earth, and God who made the earth.
Click on the video above to see Part Two. The video includes forty-two images featuring: blue tit, female chaffinch, male chaffinch. starling, thrush, shieldbug, lacewing, bumblebee, carder bumblebee, hoverfly, ladybird, peacock butterfly, speckled wood butterfly, grey squirrel, hedgehog, wood pigeon, blackbird, magpie, fledgling blue tit, male bullfinch, great tit, robin.
Louise also has her own animation channel (InkLightning), which includes animation like this short video:
Volume 75, Part 1, Spring and Summer 2022, Number 194
The latest issue is now ready.
Our lead article is Howard Oliver’s examination of the remarkable career of John Tyndall and his influence on the relationship between science and religion. An outstanding physicist and an excellent lecturer he was also a glaciologist and an experienced mountaineer. Howard Oliver shows that by the 1840s he was a religious freethinker who had explored the role of faith in society in some depth. In 1847 his address in Belfast as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science caused a furore and opened up the debate about the relationship between religion and science, especially in the light of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Our cover picture depicts his portrait from the cover of Vanity Fair in 1872.
We are delighted too to be able include articles by:
Paul Richards, on the spiritual dimension of the works of Richard Wagner which looks at Wagner and anti-Semitism, myth and religious symbolism, Tristran & Isolde, the Ring Cycle, and Parsifal.
Ann Peart, on the response of Unitarians to ministering during the pandemic, an examination of the imaginative and creative ways in which Unitarian ministers have developed new forms of worship and activity during the Covid-19 crisis.
Feargus O’Connor, on the Unitarian contribution to Animal Welfare, by a well-known advocate for human rights who leads the only annual interfaith celebration of animals in the UK.
And Robert Oulton, on the theology and works of Cynthia Bourgeault, an intriguing Episcopalian theologian and priest who is also an expert in mysticism.
We continue to carry some fine reviews including:
Religious Experience – its nature, validity, forms and problems by Principal J. Ernest Davey MA DD, with a Foreword by John, Lord Alderdice
Author and playwright Philip Orr on a new book of writings by Principal J. Ernest Davey (the leading Irish Presbyterian scholar of the twentieth century, Principal of the main Irish Presbyterian theological college, who was accused of heresy) edited by Lord Alderdice, now Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College.
Mona Siddiqui, Human Struggle: Christian and Muslim Perspectives
Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke, one of the leaders of the inter-faith movement in Britain, on Human Struggle: Christian and Muslim Perspectives, the 2016 Gifford Lectures by Mona Siddiqui published last year.
Steven Pinker, Rationality: what it is, why it seems scarce, why it matters
Professor David Williams on the place of rationality in human life according to Steven Pinker’s new book.
Daniel Costley, Life’s Journey Creating Unitarian Rites of Passage
The editor’s discussion of Daniel Costley’s Lindsey Press book on constructing special services.
An annual subscription for each volume (two issues) costs £16.00 (postage included) in the United Kingdom. Single copies can be ordered at a cost of £8.00 each (postage included). Cheques should be made out to Faith and Freedom and sent to the business manager:
Nigel Clarke, Business Manager, Faith and Freedom, 16 Fairfields, Kirton in Lindsey, Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. DN21 4GA.
Back in September 2017 I started to look at pew numbers (click here to see that post), particularly looking at Ballee and Downpatrick. Ballee is interesting because numbers like this
were impressively painted on each box pew but removed when the interior was refurbished before the First World War. Since they re-used the timber in the reconstruction of the new interior if you know where to look you can still find the old numbers in odd places like the one above, which is on the inside of a cupboard door. The Ballee numbers, where they still exist, are much larger and emphatic than most pew numbers.
Downpatrick only has pew numbers upstairs in the galleries, and Clough and Dunmurry for instance, don’t have any numbers at all. In modern times the idea of numbering pews is not something that anyone would take up, but for hundreds of years it was essential. Pews were occupied via pew rents, the families who rented them had an entirely proprietorial attitude to the pew or half pew which they paid for. This is the origin of the sense – which many people still have – of a certain pew being ‘their’ pew. In many cases, generations ago, this was quite literally true. In more recent times large urban congregations that had prominent preachers would tell those who rented pews to be in place fifteen minutes before the service began or else their pew would be given to some of the queue of potential hearers formed up outside.
But I have had a look out for pew numbers recently and here is a selection.
First of all a nice example of a ceramic pew number from Killinchy. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Killinchy was built in 1846 and I have no reason to doubt that this sequence of numbers all date from that period:
Older examples, which I would suspect date from the opening of the church in 1783, are the engraved brass numbers affixed to the oak doors of the pews in First Church, Rosemary Street, Belfast:
In Dublin Unitarian Church the numbers are painted and again will date from the opening of the church, in this case in 1863.
You can see the care and precision that has gone into these numbers with their three dimensional gold shields.
All Souls’ Church, Belfast dates from 1896, a building designed by the architect Walter Planck. But the pews are much older and the numbers will be as old as the pews. Again these are brass with the numbers engraved on the surface and picked out in black paint. They still look sharp and clear. The pews in All Souls’ date from 1871. In that year the interior of the Second Congregation, also on Rosemary Street, Belfast, was entirely re-modelled and the box pews replaced with modern open pews, possibly re-using some of the timber from the old pews. This would have been a move as bold and radical in 1871 as a church hauling out its pews today and replacing them with chairs.
The numbers must date from Rosemary Street times because they never were an entirely complete sequence, a tendency which has become more noticeable as more pews have been removed in the last decade.
In all these churches a lot of effort has gone into supplying bespoke numbers for the pews. Times change and their importance has waned but each example speaks to us eloquently of a particular time and place.
On Saturday, 11th June members of Dunmurry along with members of First Belfast and All Souls’ Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches enjoyed a great visit to to Dublin. We were made very welcome by the Unitarian congregation on St Stephen’s Green and treated to an excellent tour of sites connected with the roots of Protestant Dissent in Dublin by Rory Delany.
Rory has a fund of knowledge about the history of Dublin and of the different strands of Dissent in the city, which largely date back to the period of Oliver Cromwell. We were taken on a fascinating walk around some of both the familiar and not so familiar parts of Dublin and all of us gained a deep insight into the way Dissent – Independency – Presbyterianism – Unitarianism – developed in the city and the contribution made by members of the Dissenting churches to the history of the city.
Rory gave us an outline of the plan before we set off. The Unitarian Church was built in 1863 by the congregation of Strand Street and four years later it was joined by the congregation of Eustace Street. These two congregations contained many of the leading merchants in the city, families which had played an important part in civic life for decades, and were groups which were rooted in at least four churches which had maintained a continuity of existence from Cromwellian and Puritan times onwards.
Perhaps the most direct stream of religious life which fed in to the modern church on St Stephen’s Green was that of Wood Street. The first minister connected with this congregation is usually said to be John Owen, a leading Puritan divine who came to Dublin as chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and later became dean of Christ Church, Oxford during the Commonwealth. The congregation may date back to Elizabethan times but the first minister in Wood Street itself is thought to be Stephen Charnock who came to Dublin as chaplain to Henry Cromwell in 1655. A fellow of Trinity College, Dublin he was a ‘lecturer’ at St Werburgh’s and returned to England following the Restoration in 1660.
Wood Street was the scene of the ministry of Daniel Williams for approximately 20 years. Welsh-born he moved to London in 1687 and became the leading figure in English Dissent, establishing the library that bears his name to this day. Other distinguished and sometimes controversial ministers to serve this congregation include Joseph Boyse, Thomas Emlyn, John Abernethy and James Duchal (click on the links where shown for more information on this blog) . The congregation moved to Strand Street in 1764.
Samuel Winter, a key figure in Cromwellian Ireland and Provost of Trinity College, was also preacher at St Nicholas’ Church from 1650 and had as colleague from 1656 Samuel Mather, the son of Richard Mather (for more on his family and their connection with Toxteth click here) a leading Puritan in England, New England and Ireland. Samuel Mather was a lecturer at Christ Church and a Fellow of Trinity College. He died in 1671 and was buried in St Nicholas’ Church. He was later succeeded in the ministry by his brother Nathaniel, by which time the congregation had built their own meeting house on New Row.
Eventually New Row moved to Eustace Street in 1728. Nearby was a Quaker meeting-house and Rory told us that one of the Quakers said of the Eustace Street meeting-house that ‘When there is so much vanity without, there won’t be much religion within’. But it is actually a very well-proportioned and elegant building, although eighteenth-century Quakers had their own view of such things. Having said that what survives of Eustace Street today is only the facade and that is not shown off to best effect by the banners hung outside by the Ark Theatre group that use the new building.
Eustace Street was also the location of the first ministry of James Martineau (click here to read more about James Martineau on this blog).
We had a brief look at the City Hall, built originally as the Royal Exchange in 1779 by the precursor of the Chamber of Commerce. The merchants who made up the membership of the Chamber of Commerce included a disproportionate number of Protestant Dissenters, and of these a large proportion were members of one of the three Presbyterian (Unitarian) congregations in Dublin. Indeed, Rory told us, a majority of the Presidents of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce between 1785 and 1870 were trustees or members of the congregations which went on to form the St Stephens Green congregation.
It was a wonderful day full of interest and we are all indebted to Rory for sharing his considerable knowledge with us.
Our two most recent videos involve both celebrating and nourishing the natural environment. Our first video contains a ‘Prayer for the Glory of the Outward World’, which is based on one found in Orders of Worship, and includes ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ played on the piano by Allen Yarr, church organist. It features some of the lovely plants growing around First Dunmurry (NS) Presbyterian Church and it can be seen here:
Many of our churches celebrated the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and at Ballee and Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches special services were followed by the planting of trees to mark the occasion, a Mountain Ash at Ballee and a Magnolia ‘Black Tulip’ at Clough. This is part of the Queen’s ‘Green Canopy’ which aims to plant trees to enhance the natural environment. We are grateful to everyone who took part, to Sue Steers FRSA who led the service and to John Strain and Jack Steers who provided the music. The video can be seen here:
In an overgrown corner of Belfast’s City Cemetery stands a bold and intricately carved Celtic cross which marks the grave of the Rev John Scott Porter.
Son of a prominent Presbyterian minister and brother to two more he was part of a significant dynasty. This week’s Reflection looks at the life and work of John Scott Porter.
Educated at the Belfast Academical Institution he commenced his ministry at Carter Lane Chapel, London (which became Unity Chapel, Islington), where he became a prominent proponent of the Arian group within English Presbyterianism, editing the Christian Moderator. He returned to Belfast, to the First Presbyterian Church, in 1831.
In the video we reflect on his career as a theologian, controversialist, Biblical scholar and Unitarian. Other members of his family are buried with him including his brother William, one time attorney general at the Cape Colony, who brought in a franchise that was inclusive of all races.
What can we learn from reflecting on the impressive Celtic cross that marks his grave? An eloquent Victorian statement of piety and memory, for decades long forgotten, yet still making a statement about his beliefs and his ministry.