On Wednesday, 24th May 2017 Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church was very pleased to welcome the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, Mr John Larkin, QC, to Clough to deliver his lecture concerning the legal case of 1836 which was such a crucial moment in the history of the congregation.
Mr John Larkin, QC, delivers his lecture in the pulpit at Clough
The meeting was very well attended indeed with many visitors from local churches and from farther afield – even as far as Edinburgh – as well as including many members of various societies and organisations including the Presbyterian Historical Society, the Lecale and Downe Historical Society, the Irish Legal History Society and Queen’s University. It was preceded by a short act of worship conducted by the Rev Dr John Nelson, clerk to the Presbytery of Antrim. The congregation joined the Presbytery of Antrim, the original Non-Subscribing Presbyterian body in 1829. The organist was Mr Alfie McClelland. The Rev Dr David Steers, introduced Mr Larkin who has a long-standing interest in presbyterian history, especially in cases such as this where theology intersects with the law.
Left to right: Rev Dr John Nelson; Mr John Larkin, QC; Rev Dr David Steers
The 1836 case rose out of a dispute between subscribers and non-subscribers (to the Westminster Confession of Faith) and resulted in the exclusion of the non-subscribers who went on to build the present church in 1837. Following the lecture a large number of those present were able to go to the church hall for refreshments. The lecture was both preceded and followed by good coverage in many papers including the Down Recorder, the Mourne Observer and the Belfast Telegraph.
Refreshments in the hall following the lecture
The basic issue discussed in the lecture was whether congregations could change their religious views over time. So although a majority of the congregation wanted to call the Rev David Watson as minister in 1829 the fact that they were non-subscribers (ie. they refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith) led the subscribing members and their friends to argue that they had no right to own a meeting house that was (they said) built solely for the use of subscribers. With this there was an argument over how the Christian faith should be defined. The matter went to law and eventually, after prolonged discussion, the courts granted the original meeting house to the subscribers. The non-subscribers left and had to build their own church, still in use today by what is a growing and active congregation.
Something very similar happened at about the same time with the Presbyterian church in Killinchy – which was also taken away from the non-subscribers – and legal proceedings were begun over some churches in Dublin. A parallel process was underway in England over the ownership of the Unitarian churches there and it seemed that Non-Subscribing Presbyterians in Ireland and Unitarians in England would lose all their ancient meeting houses. However, all this was stopped by the passing of what is called the Dissenters Chapels Act in 1844 which guaranteed the legal ownership of churches to those whose families had worshipped there over a period of at least 25 years and allowed for changes in their theological views over time.
The division in the 1830s was very painful at the time and at one point required the militia to be called to restore order. However, it is part of the joint history of both churches in Clough that we need to acknowledge as part of our continuing story.