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'.
Orders of Worship was published in 1932 and was rooted in a deeper, historic liturgical tradition which is outlined in the preface to the book. But it also undoubtedly reflects the times in which it was published, it could hardly not, and when you read a prayer like the one below you can sense the international tensions that would be uppermost in people’s minds when it was written. It is the second of two prayers entitled ‘For the Peace of the World’ published in Orders of Worship. But when I read it the other day it seemed curiously apposite when we consider our contemporary concerns (Presidential elections, Brexit etc) beyond the Coronavirus. I think that is testimony to the skills of the compilers of Orders of Worship, it is a true test of any liturgy that it has a power and relevance beyond the time of its immediate creation. I used it together with a prayer for schools, colleges and universities and a short reflection in a video which was uploaded the other day, it can be seen at the bottom of this page.
From Orders of Worship
November is a month of Remembrance and next Sunday we will have an online Remembrance Service but this weekend’s worship also explores that theme with a service that commemorates the life of Flight Lieutenant John Alexander Bright. Complete with many illustrations from the service that was held at Templepatrick in November 2019 to dedicate his medals the video also includes images that depict his service in the Second World War and the various memorials where he and countless others like him are commemorated:
Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Worship, Sunday, 1st November
Today, 31st October, is Reformation Day and in this week’s Time for a Story Sue Steers tells the story of the production of the Bible in English:
Non-Subscribing Presbyterian reflections:
Filmed at First Presbyterian (NS) Church, Dunmurry
Many of the most vivid phrases that have passed into everyday use in the English language originate in either the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible or in Shakespeare. That is the starting point for our service today. The Bible requires translation for it to be intelligible and it requires interpretation to achieve any relevance for its hearers. For the best part of three centuries one version – the Authorized Version of 1611 – held sway in the English-speaking world. From the end of the nineteenth century onwards this has changed as a plethora of translations have emerged reflecting changes in language and Biblical understanding.
“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks the Ethiopian in Acts ch.8 v.27-40. “How can I, unless some one guides me?” he replies (RSV), or “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” as the NIV says.
Today’s service comes from Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. The reading (2 Timothy ch.3 v.14-ch.4 v.8) is given by Robert Neill (Downpatrick) and Alfie McClelland plays the hymns Through all the changing scenes of life and Jesus the very thought of Thee.
This Sunday’s worship again reflects on the importance of the harvest in our lives, both spiritually and temporally. Our reading is given for us by Dillon Howell and the hymns and harvest music is played by John Strain on the organ at Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.
The video both begins and ends with images from harvest services in our churches over recent years. They are always such uplifting occasions and a great deal of thought goes into making the churches look so attractive. It is nice to be reminded of some of the imaginative and creative displays that we always see in our churches. Click on the above video to see the service.
The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches of Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough are marking the time of Harvest with an online service. The service features readings delivered by members, hymns played on the organs of the three churches by the church organists and film of farming activity across the locality provided by church members.
The service can be viewed here:
The service is led by the minister, Rev Dr David Steers with readings given by:
Elsie Nelson, Deuteronomy ch.26 v.1-4, 8-11
Robert Neill, Psalm 65 v.5-13
Sophia Cleland, Mark ch.4 v.26-34
The Church Organists are:
Laura Patterson, Downpatrick
Come ye thankful people come (‘Hymns of Faith and Freedom’ 454)
We plough the fields and scatter (‘Hymns of Faith and Freedom’ 456)
Alfie McClelland, Clough
Rejoice the Lord is King (‘Hymns of Faith and Freedom’ 62)
John Strain, Ballee
Holy is the seed time
The God of Harvest Praise (‘Hymns of Faith and Freedom’ 457)
This is the time of year for services of Harvest Thanksgiving, important occasions for all kinds of congregations in many different types of denomination. Our service today includes the Diary of a Church Mouse by John Betjeman and read by Sue Steers. In this famous poem the Mouse reveals that :
Christmas and Easter may be feasts For congregations and for priests, And so may Whitsun. All the same, They do not fill my meagre frame. For me the only feast at all Is Autumn’s Harvest Festival
Above all the Harvest underpins our understanding of God.
Christina Rossetti wrote:
Lord, purge our eyes to see within the seed a tree, Within the glowing egg a bird, Within the shroud a butterfly, Til, taught by such, we see beyond all creatures, thee.
The hymns are We plough the fields, and scatter (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 456) and Come ye thankful people come (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 454) and are played by John Strain on the church organ. You can see the service here:
Time for a Story: Reformation
The end of October sees Reformation Day and Time for a Story retells the story of Martin Luther and the 95 Theses, including the top selling model of Luther manufactured by Playmobil. The story is told by Sue Steers and can be seen here:
Last week we were considering the legacy of Rev Henry Montgomery and using the story in Mark’s gospel of Jesus and the disciples walking through the grainfields and plucking the ears of corn to eat on the Sabbath. In its own way this was a template for being prepared to radically reform religious practice whenever it is deemed essential.
No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; if he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins.
Mark ch.2 v.21-22.
Today’s service continues with this theme. Filmed in the First Presbyterian (NS) Church, Downpatrick the reading is from 2 Corinthians ch.3 v.1-6 and is given by church secretary Mary Stewart. Laura Patterson plays the hymns How deep the Father’s love for us and Great is thy faithfulness. Click on the following link to join in the service:
If you look closely at the film outside the Church in Downpatrick at the start and during the hymns you will catch glimpses of the Swifts flying about the church yard.
Our worship today comes from Dunmurry and considers the theological legacy of the Rev Henry Montgomery, nineteenth-century minister of the church and leader amongst the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians.
That the imposition of human tests and confessions of faith, and the vain efforts of men to produce an unattainable uniformity of belief, have not only tended to encourage hypocrisy, but also to restrict the sacred right of private judgment – to lessen the authority of the Scriptures – to create unrighteous divisions amongst Christians – to sanction the most barbarous persecutions – to trench on the natural and civil rights of men – to place undue power in the hands of the few – to throw a shield over the time-serving – to expose the honest to injuries and persecutions – to perpetuate errors in almost all churches – and to prevent that free inquiry and discussion which are essential to the extension of religious knowledge.
(From the principles expounded by Henry Montgomery in 1830)
Service from the First Presbyterian (NS) Church, Dunmurry. Conducted by the Rev Dr David Steers. Today’s reading is given by Noelle Wilson from Mark ch.2 v.18-28 and 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) on the church organ. Click on the above link to see the service.
And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.
After the flood, while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.
Genesis (ch1 v.31 & ch.8 v.22)
All our churches are now returning to Sunday worship although not on every Sunday just yet during the current crisis. For the time being we will also be continuing with our online acts of worship every Sunday on our YouTube Channel: Downpatrick, Ballee & Clough NSP Churches.
The first service back at Dunmurry after lockdown was also live streamed on Facebook on Sunday, 13th September at 11.30 am. The full service can be seen in the following video:
….And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air…
The service for today considers our experience of the holy, especially in relation to the natural world. The Biblical reading comes from Job ch.12 v.7-10 and is given by Doreen Chambers. Alfie McClelland plays the organ at Clough – the hymns ‘When morning gilds the skies’ (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 26) and ‘City of God, how broad and far’ (Hymns of Faith and Freedom 202). The service is conducted by Rev Dr David Steers. Click on the following video (after 9.45 am on Sunday, 13th September) to join in the act of worship.
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you
I purchased this postcard on eBay recently. It is not in great condition but it is a fairly rare example of a Baird of Belfast postcard of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church at Crumlin. It came with added interest because it was sent by Mrs Ashworth to her friend Mrs Arbuckle of 16 Danube Street, Belfast in June 1908. The message gives us a little glimpse into Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church life in 1908.
Mrs Ashworth, the author, writes in friendly, yet also fairly formal tones to Mrs Arbuckle. Mrs Ashworth (as she describes herself) was the wife of the Rev Alexander Osborne Ashworth minister of York Street Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church at the time. She refers to her husband only as Mr Ashworth in her short note although also mentions a person called Blanche who appears to be their daughter. They are also staying in the manse at Crumlin. ‘Mr Ashworth, Blanche and I’ came to the manse on 1st June, ‘Mr & Mrs Bowen & Jack’ left the same evening for Wales where they would remain for most of the month before returning for a six week stay at Carnlough. Prior to sending the card the Ashworths had made some unsuccessful attempts to meet up with Mrs Arbuckle and her family.
It’s not possible to identify the Mrs Arbuckle, but there is a good chance that she was a member of York Street Church, indeed there was a Mary Arbuckle living on York Street itself in the 1901 census and Danube Street is certainly within the catchment area of York Street Church.
Most of the contents reveal mundane domestic arrangements involving three Belfast families over 110 years ago. But knowing that two of those families were the families of NSP ministers and the fact that it was all written on a postcard depicting Crumlin Church enables us to put some flesh on the bones of this brief correspondence.
Mr and Mrs Bowen were the Rev Samuel Evans Bowen and his wife. S. E. Bowen was called to be minister of Crumlin in 1908, he was ordained later in the year on 3rd September by the Presbytery of Templepatrick. It may be that Alexander Ashworth and his wife were preparing the manse for their arrival, although he was clerk of the Presbytery of Antrim at that time and was still minister of York Street until 1909 when he retired, although he continued as a very active senior minister until 1913 and remained active in his denomination for many years afterwards until his death in 1935. Ashworth was born in the Rossendale valley in Lancashire in 1846 and trained at the Unitarian Home Missionary College. He came to York Street in 1893 after previous ministries in Chatham, Stalybridge, Doncaster and South Shields. For many years he was also the Sunday School Convenor for the Non-Subscribers. This job was no sinecure, in 1909, for instance, he organised the Annual Sunday School Conference at Downpatrick, an event which attracted 450 participants.
The Rev Alexander Ashworth is probably hardly remembered today, for one thing the church where he had his longest and most significant ministry was destroyed in the blitz of 1941, but he gave devoted service in many different ways for decades.
The same was true of S.E. Bowen. Another former student of the Unitarian College in Manchester he was minister in Crumlin for over twenty years (to 1929) before returning to his native Wales to minister at Allt-y-placa, Capel-y-bryn and Cwm Sychbant for 27 years. But with this postcard we get a view of the Crumlin meeting-house. Judging by the trees it is of a similar, although not identical, vintage to the photograph that appeared in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine in October 1908 to accompany the account of his ordination. In both pictures the ivy seems to be contained in identical positions but the postcard shows a small tree or bush to the right of the church which is not there in the magazine image. The postcard could be quite a few years older than the other photograph.
The Crumlin meeting-house is fairly secluded and can’t be seen from the main road. Built in 1835 it replaced an earlier church of 1715. It is a miniature replica of Belfast’s First Presbyterian Church designed by Roger Mulholland. It is interesting that the congregation of Crumlin took that building as a template for their new church over 60 years later.
Whenever I try to take an architectural photograph I always aim to get a shot of the building without the distractions of either people or vehicles. I wasn’t able to do this with this picture of Crumlin taken in the autumn of 2019. The foreground is crowded with cars. But in the long term a photograph of something like a church which includes other details that date it actually makes it more interesting to the viewer. But if I was going to compose the cars for a photograph I wouldn’t park them like that!
The interior of Crumlin has an elegant charm.
The account of S.E. Bowen’s ordination published in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine is quite full and interesting. In the service the Rev S.E. Bowen said that ‘Unitarians were a people who believed not so much in attempting a definition of religion as in working for truth and liberty, being bound together by a profound belief in the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.’ Later, over the welcome dinner there were a number of speeches given. Representing the Presbytery of Antrim the Rev W.S. Smith told the whole congregation to pick a day in October and arrive at the manse with a spade ready for three hours of work, leading the author of the report to note that the manse garden must ‘to say the least, be inferior in condition to the Garden of Eden when it was given to the father of all living to dress it and keep it’. The Rev Alexander Gordon was also there speaking highly of S.E. Bowen as a former student of his. He also related how he had recently been in the south of France and attended worship in a Protestant congregation there where the service was conducted by a young man in a congregation that only numbered sixteen, ‘yet he had been favourably impressed with the manifest consciousness of the congregation that they had come to worship, and with the energy and the earnestness of the preacher.’ It made me wonder what else Alexander Gordon did in the south of France in the summer of 1908, I can’t imagine that he just went there to sunbathe.
Thou, whose almighty word Chaos and darkness heard, And took their flight; Hear us, we humbly pray; And, where the gospel’s day Sheds not its glorious ray, Let there be light!
Sunday, 6th September marks the day we have started our return to worshipping together in church but our online services continue and today this one comes from Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.
Mountains and hills play a key part in the Old Testament and as we reflect on them we contemplate the whole of Creation and our part in it:
Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God! His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, (Psalm 48)
The service is conducted by the Rev Dr David Steers, the reading (Psalm 121) is given by Carol Nixon at Downpatrick, and John Strain plays the organ at Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. Click on the above link to join in this short act of worship.
Time for a Story: The Riverbank
This week Time for a Story looks at Kenneth Grahame’s famous book The Wind in the Willows. Told by Sue Steers is also features special animation. Click on the above link to see the video.