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.
On Wednesday, 23rd March a group from the four Belfast Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches enjoyed an excellent visit to the Belfast City Cemetery. We were blessed by good weather, almost like a summer’s day, which showed off the whole site to its fullest advantage. Designed in the shape of a bell and opened in 1869 it has been the burial place of approximately 225,153 people ranging from the some of the poorest members of society, buried in paupers’ graves, to some of the wealthiest merchants, industrialists and businessmen of Victorian Belfast. Years of neglect and vandalism obscured the importance of the cemetery in the city’s history for a long time, but the remarkable work done by Tom Hartley on the graves and history of the cemetery, not least reflected in his book Belfast City Cemetery, has opened up the cemetery to a wider and appreciative public. It is good too to see the construction of a visitors’ centre and the restoration of some of the larger memorials. Tom Hartley has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and significance of the site and was our informative guide as he showed us round a large proportion of the original Victorian graveyard, so attractively laid out with the Belfast hills providing a dramatic backdrop. Tom made special reference to some of the Presbyterian and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian graves in the cemetery and we encountered the last resting places of some familiar figures from our tradition. Among others we saw the grave of Margaret Byers, the founder of Victoria College, and Elisha Scott, legendary Liverpool goalkeeper. Cemeteries are such important repositories of history: funeral monuments, grave inscriptions, memorial artwork all tell us a great deal and in this case Belfast City Cemetery provides a fascinating window into the growth, development and history of Belfast as a city. After the tour we had lunch at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich. Below are some images of what we saw:
So far in February we have had two online Reflections which look at verses from Matthew chapter 6; Look at the birds of the air, and from Psalm 46; Be still and know that I am God. But the call to still ourselves in the presence of God and an awareness of the natural world around us are both routes to closer engagement with the divine. There are different ways to centre ourselves in a way that leads to deeper communion with God.
I am very pleased too, to have images of birds taken by Graham Bonham which feature in the video, some of which are reproduced here.
February Reflections: Look at the birds of the air Rev Dr David Steers First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Dunmurry Pianist: Allen Yarr Hymn: ‘For the beauty of the earth’ Bird photographs all taken and kindly provided by Graham Bonham
In the month of January 2022 we have uploaded four new short video Reflections to our YouTube channel. These cover Epiphany; the installation of the Rev István Kovács as the new bishop of the Hungarian Unitarian Church in Kolozsvár, Transylvania, Romania; the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity; and Psalm 8. John Strain and Allen Yarr provide music. The Reflections are by Rev David Steers and Jennifer Miles provides a reading. The picture at the top of the page and the thumbnail for the fourth video are images taken remotely from the camera on the International Space Station. The videos can be seen below.
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.
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.
I was back on Lime Street about ten or eleven days after the previous post (Digging up History on Lime Street). Lime Street is most notable for a number of things: the railway station that bears its name and, of course, St George’s Hall.
But as I went past the road works I noticed that all the setts/cobbles had been removed as well as the old tram lines. I also noticed that a very deep hole had been dug in the road.
Stopping to take a picture a voice from behind me asked ‘Are you in the habit of taking pictures of large holes in the road?’ It was one of the work men who seemed pleased that someone was photographing their handiwork. He and his colleague explained that all the setts had been taken away to be re-used by the Council and that the tramlines had been taken away for scrap. They were widening the pavement, adding a cycle lane and – inevitably – narrowing the road. The hole, apparently, was to allow the planting of trees which would form a barrier between the cycle lane and the road.
Further up the road, in front of Lime Street Station, they have already planted trees and I suppose these will be something similar:
There are a lot of road works going on and safer and well-landscaped roads can only be an improvement but I can’t help wondering what they expect to happen to the current volume of traffic. In the meantime the streets are busy with diggers, barriers and cordons:
Our service is filmed in Oxford and features some of the well-known as well as some lesser-known sights of Oxford. Sue Steers reads Psalm 96 and Jenny Narramore shares an important part of College life in Christ Church. We also have a short reading from ex-slave and abolitionist’s autobiography The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Our organists play five hymns: Thine be the glory, John Strain, Ballee; Be still for the presence of the Lord, Laura Patterson Downpatrick; Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, Alfie McClelland, Clough; How deep the Father’s love, Allen Yarr, Dunmurry; Blest are the pure in heart, John Strain, Ballee.
As a visual experience Oxford never disappoints. As the seasons change, as the weather or the light changes even in a single day, so the buildings repay careful scrutiny, with the colours of the stone reflecting the sun, the rain, a glowering sky or the bright blue backdrop of recent sunny days. There are less tourists now. Even the lure of Harry Potter and Inspector Morse are no longer sufficient to cram the streets with eager faces, although the city is busy enough despite the pandemic.
But here are a few images I took recently over a couple of days.