The Polish Brethren

At the end of July I was pleased to be part of an organised tour visiting sites connected with the Polish Brethren/Minor Reformed Church organised by the Rev Dr Jay Atkinson of Starr King School for the Ministry in California. When I was at college Arthur Long always used to quote Raymond Holt who said that the story of this little-known Polish church of the radical reformation was an illustration that it is not always the case that something good could not be destroyed by determined persecution. The Polish Brethren were totally wiped out in the counter-reformation: imprisoned, persecuted, exiled, forced to convert. But, of course, it is also true that through their publications and through the witness of those who went into exile something of them did survive and for a church that only existed from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century a surprisingly large amount of physical links with them remain.

They have attracted the attention of a number of highly able Unitarian scholars over the years, most notably, in recent times the late Rev Dr Phillip Hewett who wrote a wonderful article for me for Faith and Freedom in 2017 which can be read online here:

In search of Racovia

One of the points Dr Hewett was always keen to make was that the Transylvanian edict of Torda of 1568 (which marked its 450th anniversary in 2018) was not the first public expression of toleration. This came in Poland in the reign of King Sigismund Augustus, who reigned from 1548 to 1572 and who declared himself ‘King of the people, not of their consciences’.

A combination of weak royal power and reform minded nobles with authority within their own areas meant a variety of religious views developed in Poland including the Polish Brethren who may have numbered as many as 40,000 at their highest, their 200 or so churches extending across all the vast Polish territories which then included Lithuania and parts of Ukraine.

It was fascinating to visit some surviving sites connected with the Polish Brethren and remarkable that some of them had survived, given their effective destruction by royal decree in 1658. The disused buildings that we saw are now recognised by the state and have been re-roofed although they are still in need of considerable restoration.

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The church at Cieszkowy

The first chapel we visited was at Cieszkowy, in the countryside to the north of Kraków, the general location of all the churches we visited. This was similar in design to many of the chapels we were to see with two rooms downstairs, one the chapel and one a schoolroom, with rooms upstairs (which we were not able to visit) which presumably was the house of the minister. I believe this chapel also had a period of use as a Calvinist church, it was generally the case that the landowners decided the religious direction of the locals, and so such buildings could change hands before the full impact of the counter-reformation was felt.

One of the intriguing features of this building was that a number of inscriptions have survived in the interior: including a line from the gospel of Matthew in Polish inside the meeting-house, and a quotation, in Latin, from Virgil above the entrance to the schoolroom. The mixture of classical and scriptural texts suggest the temper and nature of the religious culture of the Polish Brethren.

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Inscription from the gospel of Matthew

Cieszkowy inscription 01

Classical quotation from Virgil

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The interior of the meeting house at Cieszkowy, showing the sixteenth-century doors

Not that far away from Cieszkowy is the chapel at Kolosy. It also has been re-roofed and has a similar layout. Here we shared in an act of worship and, as one of three ministers present, I was privileged to take part in leading the service together with the Rev Dr Sandor Kovacs of Koloszvár, Transylvania  and the Rev Dr Roger Jones of Sacramento, California. It was an unexpected privilege and delight to take part in worship in this building of 1654, built by the Polish Brethren just four years before the expulsion of the Arians (as they were frequently termed, named after Arius, the 3rd/4th century theologian). There can’t have been many services held in here since then.

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Kolosy. The date stone of this church can be seen at the top of this page

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The interior of the meeting house at Kolosy following the service

The next day we went to Moskorzew, originally an estate named after the local family. Here the chapel eventually reverted to Roman Catholicism, following in the direction taken by the family. The crumbling structure of the family home can still be seen as well as post-war Soviet-style social housing. There is also a largely derelict but still essentially intact schoolhouse which dates from the sixteenth century. We were told that when the chapel was reclaimed by the Catholic church the Brethren used the schoolhouse for worship until they were finally outlawed. This building is in state care but would clearly benefit from restoration.

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The church at Moskorzew today

Moskorzew door

The original ancient door of the Moskorzew church

Moskorzew schoolhouse

The schoolhouse at Moskorzew

Inside the much altered church there are still two memorials in the chancel to female members of the Moskorzew family dating from the time of the Polish Brethren in the late sixteenth century.

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Memorial at Moskorzew dating from the 1590s commemorating a member of the Moskorzew family during the Polish Brethren era

Secemin is another Catholic church today but was used as a Calvinist church and here at a synod Unitarian views were first publicly expressed. As with most Catholic churches in Poland the interior is richly decorated but again there is a survival from the reformation period with a memorial in the chancel to Calvinist minister Gregory Broch who died in 1601.

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Secemin church today

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The interior of the church

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Memorial in the chancel to Gregorius Broch

On the estate at Ludynia, in its delightful setting, Mr Gieżyński, the owner, has restored not only the manor house but also the nearby chapel. Here he has also built up an impressive collection of books and prints connected with Raców, the Polish Brethren and Fausto Sozzini which  he shared with us in the chapel.

Ludynia manor house

Ludynia manor house

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The chapel at Ludynia

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Inspecting some of the documents in the chapel

In future posts I will look at other aspects of the tour and the history of Fausto Sozzini and the Polish Brethren.

The Old Meeting House, Mansfield

I was pleased to get the chance in February to visit, for the first time, the Old Meeting House, Mansfield and to be shown around by the minister, the Rev Mária Pap. It’s a very attractive meeting house, dating from 1702, with a warm and comfortable interior that is more Victorian than anything else, but is situated in the middle of some of the dreariest late twentieth-century development that one could imagine. The meeting house, with its ancillary buildings, is marooned in the midst of car parks, underpasses, shopping centres and other buildings of the sort that give town planners a bad name.

Mansfield Exterior

Exterior, including the porch

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Interior looking towards the chancel

The chapel is not really recognisable as an eighteenth-century meeting house. This is not just because of the Gothicised interior but also because of the porch added in 1940. The stone of the porch doesn’t quite match the original building and as The Unitarian Heritage points out it spoils the symmetry of the original frontage although it must add a useful meeting space for the congregation before and after worship.

Mansfield Halls

The congregation’s schools and halls

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The nearby old parsonage, now let out to a charity

One reason I was interested in the building is because of its connection with the Rev Edgar Innes Fripp who was one of my predecessors in the ministry in Belfast. I blogged about him in connection with the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, that can be read here – Edgar Innes Fripp and William Shakespeare. He came from Mansfield to Belfast in 1891 (where he built All Souls’ Church in 1896) and left in 1900 to go back to Mansfield. He had a lot of input to the liturgical development of both places, compiling a version of the Prayer Book, using a robed choir, generally moving to what would be regarded as a more Anglican liturgy. He built a new church in Belfast and I had always assumed that he was responsible for adding a chancel to the originally square shaped meeting house in Mansfield. But Mansfield was ‘turned’ in 1870 and the chancel added in 1881, before E.I. Fripp was called to be minister, although the chancel was further enlarged in 1908, just after he left for the second time but probably modelled on his plans.

Re-orientating and refitting the interiors of old meeting houses was a common practice for many congregations in the second half of the nineteenth century, those that did not demolish and build anew. J. Harrop White’s book The Story of the Old Meeting House, Mansfield (1959) contains plans of the building before and after the various refurbishments:

Mansfield plan

The church possesses a number of interesting stained glass windows including three Burne-Jones windows made by William Morris & Co. These depict ‘Truth and Sincerity’, ‘Justice and Humility’ and ‘Mary Magdalene and Jesus’.

The late nineteenth century woodwork in the church is very impressive.

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Oak door case dating from 1890

I was pleased to see the chapel and see the evident good work that is being done there by the congregation under their new minister, the Rev Mária Pap, not only the first woman minister to the congregation but the first minister to come to Mansfield from the Hungarian Unitarian Church, bringing insight and a deep spirituality from that ancient church which dates from the Reformation.

Mansfield Pulpit

The Rev Mária Pap in the pulpit at Mansfield

Edict of Torda anniversary

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Inside the Catholic Church in Torda immediately prior to the service to mark the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda, much of which was simultaneously translated into English for visitors

Last year I was very pleased and honoured to be present in Torda, Transylvania, to attend the celebrations to mark the 450th anniversary of the Edict of Torda. I blogged about my experiences there and in Transylvania at the time and the blog can be read here:

Edict of Torda 450

In April 2018 I addressed the annual meeting of the Unitarian Historical Society at their meeting at Staverton near Daventry, Northamptonshire. The talk and illustrations were filmed by the Society and subsequently uploaded to YouTube in slightly edited form. But as this week just passed marks the 451st anniversary of the Edict of Torda on 13th January 2019 I thought I would add a link to it for anyone who has not seen it:

 

Another location for theological controversies in Transylvania in the sixteenth century was the cathedral of Gyulafehérvár, for a long time the centre of royal power in Transylvania and the resting place of the only Unitarian king in history. It is a very impressive late Romanesque building as these images which I took last year show:

gyulafehervar cathedral pews

gyulafehervar cathedral pillars

gyulafehervar cathedral pulpit

We were given a fascinating introduction to the cathedral and its history by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Gyulafehérvár who very graciously took us on an extensive guided tour. I was also pleased to get my photograph taken with both the Roman Catholic Archbishop and the Unitarian Bishop. Since I was also the Moderator of the Presbytery of Antrim at the time I thought that this made for an interesting trinity.

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David Steers; György Jakubinyi, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Gyulafehérvár; Ferenc Bálint Benczédi, Bishop of the Hungarian Unitarian Church, at the cathedral, Gyulafehérvár

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Unveiling the new monument to religious freedom at Torda – ‘Ad Astra’, the work of Liviu Mocan, a Romanian artist 

 

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