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'.
The whole alphabet of Non-Subscription is now available to view on our YouTube channel. This tells the story of Non-Subscribing Presbyterianism in twenty-six chapters looking at a different aspect of the history, ethos, identity, theology or practice of this denomination. Filming began in June and ended in December 2021 with a service going live every week. Filmed at Downpatrick, Ballee, Clough and Dunmurry Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches, music has been provided by John Strain, Laura Patterson, Allen Yarr, Alfie McClelland, and Laura Neill. In addition a team of readers have taken part in these services each week including Elsie Nelson, Annabel Cleland, Noelle Wilson, Mary Stewart, Bobby Graham, Robert Neill, Emma McCrudden, and Gilbert Cameron.
We have now completed the whole of our alphabetical survey having added the letters V to Z over the Christmas period. V stands for Verse, W looks at the role of Women in the church and ministry, X is represented by eXile, Y stands for Yahweh, and Z is for Zechariah. All the videos can be seen below.
Where fishes play and bells do ring
Having reached the letter V in our study of Non-Subscribing Presbyterianism we look at poets and poetry in our tradition. Radicals, United Irishmen, literary giants, writers in Ulster Scots; the story of poets in our tradition is remarkably broad.
Who was the first person to refer to Ireland as the ‘Emerald Isle’? Which Ulster town was described as a place ‘where fishes play and bells do ring’? Which hymn penned by a Non-Subscriber has been in print for over 200 years? To which congregation did the ‘Shipyard Poet’ belong? Find out the answer to these and other questions in today’s service which looks at seven poets from the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian tradition. Conducted by the Rev Dr David Steers and filmed at First Presbyterian (NS) Church, Dunmurry the reading is from Isaiah ch.12 v.4-6. Church organist Allen Yarr plays the hymns: Just as I am, Thine own to be (Church Hymnary 497) and Thy Kingdom come, O God (Church Hymnary 152).
The twenty-third in a series of alphabetical explorations of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. W – Women. Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Worship conducted by the Rev Dr David Steers. Filmed at Ballee and Dunmurry Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches. Reading: Acts ch.16 v.11-15. Organist: John Strain (Ballee) who plays the hymns: My spirit longs for thee (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 301) and Sent forth by God’s blessing (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 409). In today’s service we look at the role of women in our denomination and at the Rev Gertrude von Petzold who has the distinction of being the first women minister, commencing her ministry in Leicester in 1904.
X is for eXile
In this service we look at the considerable contribution made by Non-Subscribers who left their native shores to found churches and extend their faith all around the world, particularly in Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Who knew that there was once a Presbytery of Canada or that the first electoral register in the Cape Colony in South Africa was introduced by a Non-Subscriber and paid no attention to race? The service is conducted by the Rev Dr David Steers and filmed at Downpatrick and Dunmurry Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches. The reader is Gilbert Cameron (Dunmurry) who reads Jeremiah ch.24 v.4-7 and the organist is Laura Patterson (Downpatrick) who plays the hymns: In the bleak midwinter and When he cometh. At the start of the service John Strain also plays ‘Hark a thrilling voice’ on the organ at Ballee.
The name of God
In the penultimate service in our alphabetical journey through our religious tradition we have reached the letter ‘Y’ and look at the Hebrew word for God, what we understand by it and how it influences our faith in the twenty-first century. Filmed at Ballee, Clough and Dunmurry Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches the reader is Elsie Nelson (Clough) who reads Exodus ch.3 v.1-6. John Strain plays the hymns: I heard the voice of Jesus say (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 199) and Go work in my vineyard (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 294). At the start of the service John also plays Lo he comes with clouds descending.
Having reached the letter Z in our journey through the alphabet of our denomination, Z stands for Zechariah. This service is filmed at Ballee and Dunmurry. The reader is Robert Neill (Downpatrick) who reads Luke ch.1 v.67-79. Laura Neill (Downpatrick) plays Auld Lang Syne on the bagpipes. John Strain plays the hymns: I heard the voice of Jesus say (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 199) and Go work in my vineyard (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 294).
The latest issue of Faith and Freedom (Volume 24 Part 2, Autumn and Winter 2021, Number 193) is now ready and on its way to subscribers. There has been a slight delay but it is now ready and available to subscribers old and new.
In this issue we are delighted to have Margot Stevenson’s fascinating examination of the life and achievements of Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922): ‘Hindu reformer, scholar and educator, feminist and Christian’. Her religious affiliation changed during her lifetime, but while she became a Christian she was far from being an advocate for proselytism. Both a scholar and an activist she taught in the United States and United Kingdom and also set up schools in India. Although a convert she did not abandon her Hindu culture and Indian forms. Within Christianity she changed direction a few times and was linked to Unitarians for a time. Most of all she was defined by an ardent desire to ameliorate the lot of women, girls and widows in Indian society and would go to great lengths to personally rescue young girls who had been married as children and were subsequently widowed and faced a life of misery as a result. Her article also includes a number of illustrations of Ramabai and her work, a person who, in the words of Margot Stevenson, still ‘exudes a mysterious charisma’, almost a century after her death.
Barrie Needham asks about the idea of progress in religion (a very pertinent question for our journal since Faith and Freedom has described itself as ‘a journal of progressive religion’ since it was instituted in 1947). Truth, discovery about God, moral norms, a fulfilling life – how do we define a progressive religion?
Esther Suter is a journalist and ordained pastor in the Swiss Evangelical Church. She writes about ‘How do we become human?’ in the context of Fritz Buri (1907-1995) one of the most prominent liberal theologians in Europe in the twentieth century. An active member of the IARF with many close associations with Unitarians, Fritz Buri was a disciple of Albert Schweitzer who developed and extended his theology in his long career.
Csaba Tódor, a Unitarian minister and educator in Transylvania, looks at the difficulties experienced by churches behind what was once the ‘iron curtain’ as they transition and their societies transition from the centrally planned, authoritarian system of the Communist era to the market-led liberal democracies of the present era.
Helena Fyfe Thonemann gives us her exegesis of ‘Christ’s fury in the Jerusalem Temple at Passover, and the problem of vicarious sacrifice’ which looks at the meaning of communion in the context of replacing the covenant of the Old Testament.
As always we have some important reviews including Marcus Braybrooke on Andy Bannister, Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?, (Inter-Varsity Press, 2021) and Peter Godfrey on Brian Holley’s personal journey ‘from fundamentalism to faith’. In addition Andrew Hill reviews Samuel Haliday by the editor of the journal and Mary Stewart’s book on her church graveyard.
We have been powering on with our alphabetical journey through the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland and have now added the letters R to U to our survey. R covers the topic ‘Remonstrant’, S is ‘Stained Glass’, T stands for ‘Tokens’ and U is ‘Ubi Spiritus Domini ibi Libertas’. I will upload the video for each letter below.
Remonstrant is an interesting word, not unique to Ireland, but only really used as a denominational name in one other country in Europe. In this video we look at the meaning behind the word and its resonance for us today. Conducted by the Rev Dr David Steers, Robert Neill (Downpatrick) reads Matthew ch.4 v.16-23 and John Strain plays In Christ there is no East or West (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 235), Thy way, not mine, O Lord (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 347) and Be still for the presence of the Lord at the start of the service on the organ at Ballee NSP Church.
Some of our churches have only ever held plain glass through which the light shines directly illuminating our worship. Over time more churches have installed stained glass of various types and designs and have used light to tell a story or to beautify the sanctuary. In this service we look at the stained glass within Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches. Robert Neill is our reader again, reading from Job ch.28 v.12-18, and John Strain, Ballee, plays Bright the vision that delighted (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 35) and Light of ages may Thy ray (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 270).
In this service we use the history of Tokens – more specifically Communion Tokens – to look at our attitude to Communion which has always been open and inclusive.
In this service Emma McCrudden (Dunmurry) reads from Mark ch.14 v.22-26 and John Strain plays O thou who this mysterious bread (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 407), Put peace into each other’s hands (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 408) and This is the hour of banquet and of song (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 403) at the start of the service. The video contains examples of eighteenth-century communion tokens. Click on the video above to see the service.
Ubi Spiritus Domini ibi Libertas
Under the letter U we look at the phrase Ubi Spiritus Domini ibi Libertas, its meaning and significance to us.
Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Worship conducted by the Rev Dr David Steers. Filmed at Ballee, Clough and Dunmurry Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches the reading is 2 Corinthians ch.3 v.12-18. Ballee organist John Strain plays the Advent hymns O Come, O come, Immanuel (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 112), Hark the glad sound! The saviour comes (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 107) and, at the start of the service, Soon and very soon. The meaning of liberty for us.
We have covered the letters N to Q in our alphabetical look at Non-Subscribing Presbyterianism. These letters cover, in turn; ‘New Light’, ‘Organs’, ‘Pews’ and ‘Quires and Places where they sing’.
Filmed at Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church and conducted by the minister, Rev Dr David Steers, the reading is from Matthew ch.5 v.13-16 and is given by Robert Neill. The organist is Alfie McClelland who plays the hymns Take my life and let it be (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 283) and The wise may bring their learning’ (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 247) as well as Lord of all hopefulness.
N stands for New Light and that is what we look at in the service, a term first coined by the Rev John Malcome in 1720 but indicative of the theological position of the Non-Subscribers ever since.
Non-Subscribing Presbyterians were pioneers in the use of organs and this video looks at their use in the denomination beginning with the building of the first organ in the Second Congregation of Belfast in 1806 and once played by the famous Edward Bunting. Our worship is filmed at Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church and conducted by the minister. Our reader is Robert Neill who reads Psalm 150. John Strain plays the hymns: In Christ there is no East or West (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 235) and Go work in my vineyard (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 294) as well as Here O my Lord I see Thee face to face at the start of the service.
Perhaps the most famous historical organist in our denomination, the recorder of the music of the 1792 Harpers’ Festival in Belfast and organist at Belfast’s Second Congregation which installed the first organ in a dissenting church in Ulster in 1806.
Filmed at the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Downpatrick and conducted by the minister, Rev Dr David Steers, the reading is Psalm 122. The organist is Laura Patterson who plays the hymns: To God be the glory! Great things He hath done, I, the Lord of sea and sky, and Amazing Grace. Having reached the letter P, in the service we look at those essential items of church furniture: Pews.
Quires and Places where they sing
Filmed in Clough, Ballee and Dunmurry churches the reading comes from Psalm 92 v.1-5. Ballee organist: John Strain plays the hymns Immortal, invisible, God only wise (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 30), Make me a channel of your peace’(Hymns of Faith and Freedom 338) and also plays I am not worthy holy Lord.
Having reached the letter Q we look at Quires, an archaic spelling of Choirs which comes from an 1862 prayer book, partly edited by James Martineau, which re-used the original phrasing of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. To find out more click on the video above.
Very special thanks goes to John Strain, organist at Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, who has now recorded over 100 pieces for our online services during the period of the pandemic over the last 18 months. This is a significant contribution which has been a tremendous part of our online worship. Thank you John.
In Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough we held three successful Harvest Thanksgiving Services in the month of October. Always an important part of the year we were restricted by the ongoing rules relating to the pandemic but still we were able to to celebrate the Harvest in a meaningful way. Below are some images from the decoration of the church as well as a video that forms our online Harvest Thanksgiving.
Our service includes:
Psalm 65 v.1-13 read by Dillon Howell John ch.4 v.31-38 read by Sophia Cleland Psalm 104 v.1-12 read by Robert Neill 2 Corinthians ch.9 v.6-11 read by Elsie Nelson Harvest Samba sung by Dillon and Haydn Howell Ode to Autumn by John Keats read by Sue Steers All things bright and beautiful sung by Sarah Rooney
As well as hymns played by John Strain: Come ye thankful people come (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 454) Welcome harvest, now beginning (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 462 We plough the fields and scatter (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 456) Plus a Harvest Medley
The First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Downpatrick will publish this new book in October 2021. Written by Mary Stewart, the Church secretary, it is a 36 page, illustrated guide to the notable graves and memorials in the churchyard.
A Guide to the Notable Grave Inscriptions in The First Presbyterian (NS) Church, Downpatrick
contains 39 black and white illustrations within a colour cover. It costs just £3 and will be available in the Church from October. They will also be available to order by post.
We have now reached the letters, K to M in our alphabetical survey of Non-Subscribing Presbyterianism. So our next three videos look, in turn, at Kedron, the Lord’s Supper and Henry Montgomery.
When the Paschal evening fell Deep on Kedron’s hallowed dell, When around the festal board Sat the Apostles with their Lord, Then his parting word he said, Blessed the cup and brake the bread – “This whene’er ye do or see, Evermore remember me.” From a hymn by A.P. Stanley
James Martineau wrote another hymn which mentions Kedron, which is our subject for the letter K. To find out what links Jerusalem’s Kedron valley with the churchyard at Downpatrick watch this service. Filmed at the First Presbyterian Church (NS) Downpatrick, Mary Stewart gives the reading from John ch.18 v.1-9, and church organist, Laura Patterson, plays the hymns Christ, be our light and Great is thy faithfulness’.
The Lord’s Supper
L stands for the Lord’s Supper and in this short film we look at how we understand this important service. Filmed at Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church the reading comes from 1 Corinthians ch.11 v.23-25. Church organist, John Strain, plays Lord of all hopefulness, May the mind of Christ my Saviour and My faith looks up to Thee.
The thirteenth instalment in the series is the letter M and features the Rev Dr Henry Montgomery. Filmed at Dunmurry, where Montgomery himself ministered from 1809 to his death in 1865, we look at his importance and his legacy. The reader is Bobby Graham who reads Matthew ch.23 v.1-12. Allen Yarr plays the hymns From all that dwell below the skies and Let saints on earth in concert sing.
We continue our journey through an alphabet of Non-Subscribing Presbyterian ideas, thoughts and objects and have now covered the letters H to J.
Hymns and Hymnbooks
Filmed at Ballee and Downpatrick, in this film we look at some historic hymnbooks and hymns within the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, where there is a tradition of writing hymns and producing hymnbooks which can be traced right back to the early nineteenth century. Conducted by the minister, the reading comes from Colossians ch.3 v.12-17 and is given by Elsie Nelson. Ballee organist John Strain plays the hymns: May the mind of Christ my Saviour (Irish Presbyterian Hymn Book 512) and Thine be the glory (Irish Church Hymnal 288).
Faith should be open and inquiring, we should have a faith that asks questions and is not simply content to be told what to believe. The ninth service in our series is filmed at Clough (with a bit of extra filming at Downpatrick). Conducted by the minister, the reader is Annabel Cleland who reads from John ch.20 v.24-29. Clough organist Alfie McClelland plays the hymns Thou whose almighty word (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 173) and Lord in the fullness of my might (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 269).
In this video we look at Non-Subscribing Presbyterian understandings of Jesus. How do we see him? How do we understand him? Filmed in Dunmurry with a reading from Luke ch.6 v.46-49 given by Noelle Wilson the service is conducted by the minister in charge. Dunmurry organist Allen Yarr plays the hymns Stand up! Stand up for Jesus (Church Hymnary 532), From all that dwell below the skies (Church Hymnary 228) and Let saints on earth in concert sing (Church Hymnary 227) on the piano.