Very Rev William McMillan MBE, MA

I was honoured to be asked to take part in the service of thanksgiving for the life of the Very Rev William McMillan at First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Dunmurry on Thursday, 23rd January 2020. I am posting here the short address I gave as a tribute to a truly inspirational minister.

 

How do we do justice to a person as vivid, as lively, as remarkable as the Rev Mac? There were so many facets to his character, so many ways in which he touched such a wide variety of people, so many ways in which he came to our attention and was such a force for good.

In 2004 the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was published in 60 volumes and launch ceremonies were held across the British Isles including one at Queen’s University. Mac was a contributor to this important publication that lists tens of thousands of biographies and I was there at the publication’s launch with Mac. But one of the features of this set of books when it was first produced was that there was a handful of people whose eminence in different, not necessarily connected, disciplines meant that more than one person had to write their biography. Well Mac is such a person today. It is hard for one person to do justice for the range of achievements, interests and accomplishments which Mac displayed in his life.

First and foremost we should say that Mac was a minister, someone who preached the gospel in our liberal Christian tradition and who was not afraid to stand up for what was right often in difficult circumstances, especially through the period of the Troubles. But I think that everything else he did – and he did such a lot – was rooted in his call to ministry, in his sense of vocation.

So, widely and affectionately known as the Rev Mac, the hosta that was named after him was also called just that and whether it was working in the church or working with flowers in the horticultural world or in many of the other spheres he operated in he brought the values of a reflective, thoughtful, tolerant faith that inspired him all his life through.

When I was minister of All Souls’ Church in the 1990s Mac came to do a floral display to celebrate the centenary of the church building. He flew in through the door like a force of nature bringing friends and collaborators in his wake and creating – what he did in so many places  – a wonderful display that drew on the history, theology, and the architecture of the building using flowers and blooms and plant material which spoke of God’s love and God’s creation, a true expression of faith using natural materials.

This was something that Mac did all around the world, his fame in this area was literally spread across the globe. I remember once asking some ladies in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh if they knew the Rev Mac, “O yes”, they told me and began to reel off when he had been in Scotland what he had done when he was next coming. Indeed I often think you could play a game to find the most remote place where someone has come into contact with someone else who knew the Rev Mac. For starters I would offer the members of my church at Ballee who were on honeymoon in Barbados who met a local person on a beach who somehow found out they were Non-Subscribers. “Do you know the Rev Mac?” was the inevitable next question.

I remember being at the Synod one year when news reached us that Mac had become the leading floral artist in the world. In those pre-internet days news did not travel rapidly but we heard of this great achievement and everyone was truly impressed. It was something to learn that one of our number had achieved this accolade, someone who was also a scholarly minister, a great preacher, a devoted and hard-working pastor, someone who through his work was, like Gamaliel, held in honour by all the people.

Mac was a distinguished minister of this denomination, born into the Dromore church and who went into training after beginning work as a journalist, working for the Dromore Leader. Mac had so many anecdotes about people and places but his account of being taken on as a student, having to preach on trial before the whole presbytery and the severe attitudes of some of the clergy in those days was frightening. Mac went to train at the Unitarian College in Manchester and at Manchester University. There was no financial scholarship to train for the ministry and very little income to do that but was supported anonymously by members of his church.

I don’t think it was easy for Mac in the early days of his training and at one point he had to re-sit the entirety of his exams becoming in the process the only person who had ever done this in one go. He also apparently had – for reasons I don’t understand – to learn a bit of the Icelandic language. I have to confess that I very much doubt that Icelandic ever came to be in any way useful in the work of the ministry.

Mac’s training included a stint doing a pastorate in our church in Cork, quite a different world then in so many ways but the culmination of all his work was to be called to be minister of Newry and Warrenpoint where he also took on a role teaching. Mac was minister to those two churches from 1959 to 1970 and was held in high regard and great affection by all the congregations. His ministry there coincided with the start of the Troubles and Mac was at the forefront of those who tried to calm down the growing tension, at one point being hit on the head by a breeze block when he was attempting to stop a riot. This was a serious enough injury and the situation was so dangerous that he and some other clergy had to take shelter overnight in the convent, but it did also end the painful migraines he had been experiencing. Not a conventional cure or one you could expect on the NHS but effective nevertheless.

In 1970 Mac accepted a call to Dunmurry in succession to his father in law, the Rev John McCleery, and remained as minister here until 2016 when he retired and became the senior minister. The congregation flourished under his leadership and I know that everyone is devastated by the loss of their senior minister. From 1976 to 1980 he also had charge of the Moira congregation.

Mac’s service to this denomination on different committees, funds and organisations was enormous. But among other things he was moderator of the General Synod from 1969 to 1971 and again from 1985 to 1987.

But his ministry was multi-faceted, it reached into so many places and manifested itself in different ways.

In one way it was truly international. Mac represented this denomination on the International Association for Religious Freedom, the world’s oldest international inter-faith organisation for twenty years from 1961. He was held in very high regard by all his colleagues there. Partly through that organisation Mac travelled to many places as a preacher and lecturer. He preached at the famous King’s Chapel in Boston in the 1960s and told me that he received more for that one service than he was paid for a whole year at the time! In Europe he had a close link with many church people of a similar mind, particularly with liberal and free Christian groups in Switzerland, France and Germany where the affection in which he was held by the professors and church leaders of those groups was always palpable when you met them. He also travelled to Romania during the Communist era to visit the Unitarian Church in Transylvania, enduring the challenge of the arduous and lengthy night time rail journey across the border from Budapest to Kolozsvár which was then the only way in to that city. Here he was one of the first Westerners allowed to preach at that time but always under the watchful scrutiny of the Securitate, the secret police.

Mac’s work in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles, particularly in regard to the establishment of cross-community nursery schools, at a time when such things were regarded as dangerously novel was recognised and supported by the IARF and resulted in him being awarded the Albert Schweitzer Award at the 1978 Congress in Oxford, a signal honour for his work in breaking down barriers.

But another aspect of his ministry was his tremendous achievement as an historian. This grew out of his training for the ministry in Manchester where he went on to be awarded a Master’s degree on ‘The Subscription Controversy in Irish Presbyterianism from the Plantation of Ulster to the Present Day’ by Manchester University in 1959. Mac’s knowledge and understanding of the history of this denomination was unparalleled. It was sustained by his interest in antiquarian books which led him to build up a tremendous library, originally by careful scrutiny of what was available in Smithfield Market until he built up an astonishing collection of books, periodicals, prints and sermons. Mac’s knowledge was formidable, often I would ring him with random questions about obscure figures and Mac would tell me who I was looking for and all there was to know about him. Mac had developed a wonderful fasti or biographical resource of everyone who had entered the ministry in our tradition and with these he had amassed a great collection of images and illustrations. From this he was able to produce many excellent books, articles and pamphlets often drawn out of lectures or talks that he had given. There is not time to list them all here but his writings displayed both a depth and breadth of knowledge presented in a style that was eloquent, accurate and instructive. He was always so willing to help any inquirer with information.

At the end of his biography of Henry Montgomery, A Profile in Courage, Mac quotes the Rev C.J. McAlester preaching at his memorial service in this church in 1865 and I will close my words with that quote which is equally applicable to Mac:

More acceptable to our venerated friend than ‘storied urn or animated bust’ would be the earnest efforts of those who honour him to cultivate with diligence, and guard with jealous care, those principles of Christian freedom, truth and love, which it was the noblest labour of his lengthened life to vindicate and extend.

Rev Mac

Visit to seven churches – in one day

I was pleased to lead members of Reclaim the Enlightenment on a tour of no less than seven Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches on Saturday, 26th October. We were fortunate to enjoy a beautiful bright day and although we couldn’t see everything or hear the full story in each place we did cover a lot of ground and saw a great deal. We visited, in turn, All Souls’, Belfast; Dunmurry (where the ladies kindly provided very welcome sustenance in the form of tea and scones); Rademon; Clough; Downpatrick; Ballee and Killinchy. As we went around the congregations we were welcomed by clergy and church members and I gave a talk about each church in each place except in Rademon where Jim Ferris gave a wonderful talk about his church. Below are some images from the day. You can read about Reclaim the Enlightenment here.

RtEDunmurryExt

Dunmurry

RtEDunmurryHall

Refreshments at Dunmurry

RtERademon01

Rademon

RtEDownpatrick

Members of Reclaim the Enlightenment at Downpatrick

RtEBalleeBus

On our way back on the bus outside Ballee

 

Ballyclare Male Choir Concert at Dunmurry

Dunmurry window crop

Dunmurry Tiffany window viewed from the outside on the way into church

On Friday, 30th November First Dunmurry NS Presbyterian Church hosted a wonderful concert by Ballyclare Male Choir. The choir provided a varied and exciting programme under the direction of Paul Briggs (who wore a different waistcoat for each segment of the show!) with accompaniment by Sheelagh Greer on the church’s new piano.

Dunmurry choir 02

Dunmurry choir 03

Dunmurry window ledge

Ballyclare Male Choir

Blue Plaque for the Rev Henry Montgomery

A good number of people braved winter weather, heavy traffic and seasonal busy-ness to attend the unveiling of the Ulster History Circle Blue Plaque commemorating the Rev Henry Montgomery (1788-1865) on the walls of his old meeting house in Dunmurry on 18th December 2015. Appropriately enough the unveiling was done by the Very Rev William McMillan, Henry Montgomery’s successor for 45 years and undoubtedly the person most knowledgeable about his life and career.

 

People gather outside the meeting house in anticipation of the unveiling of the blue plaque
People gather outside the meeting house in anticipation of the unveiling of the blue plaque

 

The premises and grounds of Dunmurry have always been immaculately kept and the meeting house provided a very suitable space for the speeches immediately after the unveiling. This has been a year of commemoration marking the 150th anniversary of Henry Montgomery’s death and, as Ian Crozier observed in his speech, the Ulster Scots Agency had assisted in the republication of Bill McMillan’s booklet on Montgomery, A Profile in Courage, first published fifty years ago and still the most useful introduction to his life and work.

 

As was also pointed out in the speeches this is not the first blue plaque to a Rev Henry Montgomery (the other one being the founder of the Shankill Road Mission), and it is certainly not the first blue plaque for a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian, but I think it is the first blue plaque for a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister (although at least two sons of the manse have already made it onto a blue plaque).

 

Rev Mac unveils the plaque
Rev Mac unveils the plaque

 

In his speech the Rev Bill McMillan quoted comments made by the Banner of Ulster, a newspaper not sympathetic to Montgomery’s religious position. At the time of his death it said:

 

Never did his powers of eloquence shine out more conspicuously than when he was denouncing tyranny, in other lands or his own; or pleading for the rights of humanity. He contended that a man’s religion should never subject him to penalty or inconvenience and he claimed liberty alike for Protestant and Catholic, for Christian, Jew and Deist.

 

Very much a pioneer and champion of what today would be called human rights it seems fitting that he should be remembered. Henry Cooke, his old opponent, after all has a prominent statue, Henry Montgomery certainly deserves his plaque.

 

Rev Henry Montgomery (1788-1865) . Minister, teacher, reformer
Rev Henry Montgomery (1788-1865) . Minister, teacher, reformer

The last photograph of Alexander Gordon

The Rev Alexander Gordon was one of the leading Unitarian scholars of the late nineteenth century. He had an international reputation and connections that spanned continents, languages and areas of research. He also combined his academic work with committed pastoral ministry much of which he exercised in Ireland.

The brief notes that follow illuminate something of his life and work but were prompted by the discovery of this delightful photograph:

Alexander Gordon, 18th January 1931
Alexander Gordon, 18th January 1931

I am indebted to Alan Ruston for discovering it. He found it, printed up as a post card, inside a copy of Herbert McLachlan’s biography of Gordon published in 1932. The card itself is dated 18th January 1931 and it must represent the last photograph taken of this distinguished minister since he died just over a month later. It is a remarkably sharp and clear picture, presumably taken on something like a Box Brownie, with, we must suspect no prior warning and no attempt to pose the main subject.

Alexander Gordon is shown walking up to the meeting house at Dunmurry, county Antrim, indeed the section of wall (at the rear going towards the entrance to the vestry) is still clearly recognisable today, although greatly restored. The significance of the day the photograph was taken is underlined by a quotation from page 123 of Herbert McLachlan’s biography part of which is written on the back of the card:

On Sunday, 18 January 1931, Alexander Gordon drove in a jaunting-car from Belfast to Dunmurry to take service for an old friend laid aside by illness. It was to be his fare-well office of faith and affection. His last public appearance was on the 11th of February, when he took the chair at a Meeting of the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland. Ten days later, after a week’s illness and a day in bed, he passed into the world of light. In the grave-yard attached to the ancient Meeting-House at Dunmurry his body was interred on Monday, 23 February, when amongst those who took part in the service was the Very Rev Dr John McMillan of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. Together with old pupils and friends who gathered to pay him a last tribute of respect and love was the old driver with the car which had carried him to and fro in the north of Ireland for fifty years save one, with whom, I doubt not, he had oft exchanged a merry jest.

Describing himself as “an Englishman by birth, a Scotsman by education and an Irishman by inclination”, Alexander Gordon was the leading historian of religious dissent in Britain and Ireland at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries. I contributed the short biography of him which can be read online at the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography – .http://uudb.org/articles/alexandergordon.html. Alan Ruston wrote the entry on him in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography which can also be read online although this requires a subscription. Gordon himself is particualrly remembered as one of the most prolific contributors to the original nineteenth-century Dictionary of National Biography. Amongst many other publications he contributed 778 biographies to that landmark publication. His scholarly commitment and devotion to detail was unsurpassed. Alongside this he was both a minister and educator, combining his ministry at Rosemary Street in Belfast, between 1877 and 1889, with the role of divinity tutor to students for the Non-Subscribing ministry. In 1890 he became principal of the Unitarian Home Missionary College, Manchester and the first lecturer in Ecclesiastical History at the University of Manchester in what is always described as the first ‘free’ faculty of theology in the UK, in other words one that taught theology without any denominational affiliation or confessional standpoint. Throughout his time in Manchester he maintained his contact with Belfast, serving as a governor of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution for around fifty years and regularly travelling back to Dunmurry to attend communion there under the ministry of his friend the Rev. J.A. Kelly who regarded him as an ‘unpaid assistant’. He was closely involved with the consolidation of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian denomination in 1910 and for the rest of his life was a regular traveller across the Irish Sea, continuing throughout the First World War and at one point losing some proofs of his Cheshire Classis Minutes with the sinking of the Leinster in 1918.

This is an intriguing photograph of a venerable old clergyman, then in his 90th year, making his way to preach what was to be his last sermon. Who was there waiting with a camera? Who is the member of the congregation in bowler hat, carnation, white gloves and spats? Who had it printed and distributed? And which person – possibly a former student – had this copy which, judging by marks left by drawing pins, seems to have pinned it up in a place of honour?

We probably won’t ever know the answer to these particular questions but it is nice to have such a photograph, a link with our history.

And here is a picture of a more youthful (and hatless) Alexander Gordon, also carrying his distinctive signature:

Alx Gordon