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.

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Dunmurry

RtEDunmurryHall

Refreshments at Dunmurry

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Rademon

RtEDownpatrick

Members of Reclaim the Enlightenment at Downpatrick

RtEBalleeBus

On our way back on the bus outside Ballee

 

Downpatrick Harvest 2019

The First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Stream Street, Downpatrick held their annual service of Harvest Thanksgiving on Sunday, 6th October. The special guest preacher was Sam Shaw, a missioner with an ecumenical order who delivered an inspiring address based on the story of the Good Samaritan.

Harvest service 2019 Mary Stewart 01

Photo: Mary Stewart

Special music was provided by the choral group Counterpoint, with their conductor Dr Norman Richardson who has also had a long career working in peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

Harvest service Dpk 2019 Choir

Photo: Marion Moffett

Counterpoint are now in their 70th year and a sang a wonderful, varied and impressive programme. During the service we dedicated the church’s new loop system for the hard of hearing which had been made possible by a generous gift from the Baptist Church in Downpatrick which was given on its closure recently. Sam Shaw was an elder in that church and during the service we expressed our thanks for that generous act by the Baptists in Downpatrick. We were delighted to welcome Sam and his wife Silvana with their children Seán and Aislinn. The church organist was Laura Patterson. The church was beautifully decorated throughout with varied themes on the window ledges expressing different aspects of harvest and the challenges that we face in stewarding and protecting the world’s resources, accompanied also with appropriate prayers for creation.

Harvest service Dpk 2019 Entrance 01

Harvest service Dpk 2019 Entrance 02

Harvest service Dpk 2019 Pulpit

Harvest service Dpk 2019 Window 03

Harvest service Dpk 2019 Window 01

Harvest service Dpk 2019 Window 02

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Harvest service Dpk 2019 Window 06

 

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

Dedication of the Roll of Honour

Dedication Downpatrick 18th November 2018 table 03

Decoration around communion table

Dedication Downpatrick Order of Service

Order of Service

On Sunday, 18th November the First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Downpatrick hosted the service for the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War and the dedication of the new Roll of Honour of all the men and women who served in the war.

Dedication Downpatrick 18th November 2018 table 01

The service included Biblical readings as well as poetry from the First World War and extracts from the diaries and writings of Nurse Emma Duffin and Captain J.S. Davidson, who was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme. Laura Patterson was the organist, Jack Steers played the Last Post while Laura Neill played a lament on the pipes after the dedication of the Roll and at the start of the service.

Dedication Downpatrick 18th November 2018

Some of those taking part in the service (Photo: Mary Stewart)

Those who took part in the service included (left to right) Rev Paul Reid (Larne) who led the congregation in prayer, Jeffrey Martin who read the extracts concerning Captain Davidson, Rev Brian Moodie (Dromore) who read from the diary of Emma Duffin, Rt Rev Colin Campbell (Moderator, Holywood and Ballyclare) who dedicated the Roll, Rev Dr David Steers (Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough) who conducted the service, Rev Rosalind Taggart (Templepatrick) who read John ch.15 v.1-17, Rev Norman Hutton (Newry, Banbridge and Warrenpoint) who preached, Laura Neill who played the bagpipes and Sue Steers who read In Flanders Fields. The Rev Bridget Spain (Dublin – not shown in picture) read Micah ch.4 v.1-5.

Dedication Downpatrick 18th November 2018 poster

Poster, including picture of Downpatrick Church member Rifleman John Hayes, supplied by Richard Edgar

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Some images from before and after the service (Photos: Jeffrey Martin and Mary Stewart)

 

Roll of Honour of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland

The Roll of Honour for the First World War of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is now ready and will be dedicated at the service at Downpatrick on Sunday, 18th November at 3.00 pm.

Everyone is welcome at the service which will also commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War.

The Roll contains an introduction and two sections. The first is a list, by congregation, of all the men and women, with their service details where known, who are known to have served in the First World War. The second part is an alphabetical list of all those who gave their lives in the Great War. The book runs to 50 pages and everyone who attends the service at Downpatrick will receive a complimentary copy. Thereafter the book will be available for purchase at a cost of £5 (postage not included). All profits from sales of the book will go to the Poppy Appeal and Help for Heroes.

Front Cover 02

Front Cover

Back Cover 02

Back Cover

Service to Commemorate the Centenary

of the end of the First World War and

Dedication of the Roll of Honour

in memory of all the men and women of the

Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland

who served or gave their lives in the Great War

Sunday, 18th November 3.00 pm

at the

First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Stream Street, Downpatrick

 

Irish Non-Subscribers serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force

Another curious detail of the First World War Roll of Honour of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland is the high proportion of servicemen who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Out of the 588 names on the Roll a fair number served in overseas regiments including Australia (6), New Zealand (2), and South Africa (1). In addition there were four soldiers who served in the Indian Army and three joined up in the US Army. But by far the largest category for overseas service was the Canadian armed forces which totalled 27 personnel. Of these men 11 were killed during the war.

The congregations of All Souls’, the Domestic Mission, Mountpottinger, Belfast First Church, Clough, Downpatrick, Dromore, Glenarm, Holywood, Killinchy, Larne, Newry, Rademon and Templepatrick all number Canadian servicemen amongst those who joined up. Young men who had left their homes to begin a new life in a new country answered the call to return to Europe to fight in the war. As a Dominion Canada declared war on Germany in conjunction with Great Britain and a high proportion of the early volunteers in the Canadian army were men who had emigrated originally from Britain or Ireland.

One feature of the Canadian – and also Australian and New Zealand servicemen – is the online availability of their full military records. It is quite simple to call up their records and follow their careers from enlistment onwards in some detail. It is painfully sad to read of young men killed in France or Flanders and the Canadian authorities making arrangements to send a widows’ pension to their wife perhaps in Winnipeg or perhaps in county Down. It is frequently sad to read the records of those who survived the war. Few came through the years of conflict without a wound or some experience of disease or illness. Many must have suffered for the rest of their lives.

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Extract from the attestation papers of Belfast born Hugh Hanna, a member of Mountpottinger congregation who was killed serving with the 3rd Battalion Canadian Infantry. (At the top of the page can be seen part of the enlistment papers of Robert Black, a member of Downpatrick, originally from Hollymount, Ballydugan who served with the 20th Battalion Canadian Infantry but who survived the war and was discharged in January 1919).

Both images are taken from:

Library and Archives Canada

Personnel Records of the First World War

https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/personnel-records.aspx

 

Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and the Great War

On the 102nd anniversary of the beginning of the battle of the Somme in 1916 I thought I should publish on this site my appeal for any information about members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland who served in the First World War.

I am currently in the process of compiling a full of Roll of Honour of all the men and women of the denomination who served in the Great War. This will be published at a service held at Downpatrick on Sunday, 18th November at 3.00 pm. To date I have identified over 500 men and women who served in the Great War and the names of over 80 men who gave their lives. Having issued an appeal to all churches for information I have received a great deal of help, however, I am also anxious to hear from any church members who had relatives who served in the First World War and were Non-Subscribers.

The number of people who joined up varies from one congregation to another, generally it would be larger in city or town congregations, but the numbers that have so far come to light in some places are almost certainly not complete. So I would appreciate it especially if church officers could make a check of their records and minute books just to see if there are any additional names which may have been overlooked, particularly in those churches where the numbers are currently low.

Also anyone who had a relative involved in the Great War or knows of anyone who served in the First World War and belonged to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland can contact me on editor@faithandfreedom.org.uk to let me know their name and service record.

So far these are the numbers that I have for each congregation (with the number of people who were killed in action or died of wounds shown in brackets):

Antrim 1 (0); Ballee 3 (1); Ballycarry 10 (0); Ballyclare 1 (0); Ballyhemlin 5 (0); Ballymoney 5 (0); Banbridge 12 (2); Belfast All Souls’ 31 (3); Belfast Domestic Mission 22 (0); Belfast Mountpottinger 20 (4); Belfast Rosemary Street 43 (6); Belfast York Street 12 (0); Cairncastle 3 (0); Clough 10 (3); Comber 49 (10); Cork 1 (0); Crumlin 1 (0); Downpatrick 35 (3); Dromore 51 (7); Dublin 11 (5); Dunmurry 14 (1); Glenarm 8 (5); Greyabbey 2 (0); Holywood 54 (9); Killinchy 8 (0); Larne 50 (15); Moira 1 (0); Moneyreagh 6 (2); Newry 21 (2); Newtownards 11 (0); Rademon 7 (3); Raloo 2 (0), Ravara 0 (0); Templepatrick 25 (5); Warrenpoint 0 (0).

The photograph at the top of the page (taken by Baird of Belfast) is of Second-Lieutenant Percival Godding. Originally from Wandsworth he was minister of Ballyclare Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in 1917 and was commissioned in the Royal Irish Rifles in that year. He spent six months in a German prisoner of war camp but returned home safely at the end of the war.

 

 

 

The History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland

The General Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland was only created as recently as 1910 but it represents a liberal theological tradition that runs through Irish history back to the origins of Presbyterianism. Surprisingly there is no generally available history of this small but significant denomination. Over the summer of 2017 I was asked to deliver a series of addresses on this history, I have now put these together on a new website which is intended to give an outline history of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (NSPCI) in five chapters.

Ballee Pulpit fall IMTom Caven

Ballee Pulpit Fall featuring the logo and motto of the Church

 

The site is broken down into:

The First Subscription Controversy [of the 1720s]

The Second Subscription Controversy [of the 1820s]

The Dissenters’ Chapels Act [of 1844]

Division and Controversy [the second half of the nineteenth century]

Consolidation [the reunification of the different Non-Subscribing elements in 1910]

It is an interesting and valuable history and one that is increasingly overlooked or misunderstood even by those who are involved in the NSPCI. But I hope this website will go some way to providing an accessible way of learning about this history both for those who are familiar with something of the story and for newcomers. I hope also to make it a useful database for images connected with NSPCI history.

The site can be found here:

https://nonsubscribingpresbyterian.wordpress.com/

Rademon window 2008

Rademon fanlight

 

 

 

Remonstrant Meeting-House, Ballymena

A visit to Ballymena meant the opportunity to go and have a look at the former Remonstrant meeting-house there. The entry in the Unitarian Heritage book is a bit limited, as the Irish section of that otherwise invaluable book often is. It says simply ’High Street. Antrim. 1845’ in the disused churches section and gives no further details and has no illustrations. Although it is situated on the High Street it’s actually a bit tucked away and not that easy to find.

But as the photos show it is an interesting and unusual building that was erected by the Non-Subscribers in 1845. The date stone can still be seen, and although the congregation finally departed in 1926 it is not ‘disused’ having been the home of the Faith Mission church for decades.

Date plaque Ballymena 04

Having said that there is precious little information on the ground in Ballymena about this building. I asked in the Faith Mission shop if they had any information on the building and they told me no. In the Council run Braid Centre – a Museum and Arts Centre – although they had an interesting collection of leaflets and other pamphlets, they had nothing on this building.

I was surprised the Council had nothing because their predecessor, the Ballymena Borough Council, had thought it worthy enough to merit a plaque which was put up in 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the building’s opening. I knew this because I was there all those years ago and somewhere have a black and white press picture of the occasion.

Remonstrant plaque 03

It is a curious building designed by Thomas Jackson, an architect with a Quaker background, who contributed a great deal to the buildings of Belfast including St Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church which, although much grander by far, nevertheless shares some architectural details with the Ballymena Remonstrant church.

The Ballymena congregation was part of the impressive missionary drive inaugurated by the Remonstrant Synod and was opened on Sunday, 9th November by Rev Henry Montgomery. I am indebted to ‘Dryasdust’ writing in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian in September 1994 for details concerning the congregation’s life. He writes that the original congregation had 57 families in its first year of existence. Given that they had built such a notable edifice they might have been expected to be able to flourish. The first minister was the Rev Francis McCammon who was born in Larne but had been ministering in Diss in Norfolk immediately prior to receiving a call to Ballymena. Unfortunately his ministry ended fairly acrimoniously as did the ministry of his successor James McFerran. However, he was followed by the Rev J.A. Crozier (1855-1865) who seems to have been highly successful in building the church up into a flourishing cause. Unfortunately following his departure to Newry in 1865 numbers never really recovered and the last minister (Rev Halliwell Thomas) left in 1875. The congregation struggled on in some form or other until the First World War but finally closed in the 1920s with the building being sold in 1926.

Faith Mission full view side

The Bible Christian reported the opening in the following way:

The meeting-house of the new congregation in Ballymena, in connexion with the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster, was opened for divine worship, on Sunday, Nov. 9, by Dr Montgomery, who preached from Matthew, 10th chapter and 34th verse, an eloquent and powerful discourse. It has been erected from the designs, and under the direction of Mr. Thomas Jackson, architect Belfast. The style of the building is an adaptation of the ecclesiastical style (commonly, but erroneously called Gothic) of about the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The front elevation is in the form of a gable, boldly enriched by projecting buttresses, with cut-stone weatherings, surmounted by pinnacles and leaving embrasures, with cut-stone dressings, extended between them. The entrance door, with the windows in front, and on the flanks of the building, is surrounded by appropriate cut-stone dressings, the sash frames being of cast metal in imitation of cut stone. In the centre of the front, over the door entrance, is a large ornamental wheel window, also formed of cast metal. The meeting-house contains 250 sittings; it is entered through a commodious porch and hall, over which is a school room, which is arranged so as to admit of being added as a gallery to the house, at a future time, should additional accommodation be required. The committee contemplate the erection of a residence for their clergyman, contiguous to the meeting-house. The following gentlemen acted as collectors on the occasion: Thomas Casement, Esq. J.P. Ballee-house; Wm. Coates, Esq. J.P. Glentoran, Belfast; Archibald Barklie, Esq. Inver, Larne; John Dickey, Esq. Leighenmore, Ballymena; Alexander O’Rorke, Esq. Ballymena; William Beggs, Esq. Lisnafillen, Ballymena. The collection, including donations from parties who could not attend, amounted to upwards of £170.

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