Rev Tom Banham – An Appreciation

The Rev Tom Banham died suddenly, but peacefully, on Wednesday, 14 August. His funeral took place at Roselawn Crematorium on Monday, 20 August. I gave the address and reproduce it here as my tribute to someone who achieved so much in his ministry and who was also a great friend.

‘He had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus,

When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose;
for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord.’

Some verses from the book of Acts which sum up something of Tom Banham, the faithful minister. Tom passed away on Wednesday, quite suddenly but also very peacefully in the Somme Nursing Home where he had settled quite comfortably. Tom was in his 91st year but as interested and intellectually involved in his church, his denomination and the world of theology as he always had been. Indeed two of the topics for debate brought to the Synod last June had originated with issues directly raised by Tom.

Tom served this denomination, his presbytery and his churches with tremendous loyalty and devotion over the best part of 50 years. In fact so much of the shape and form of our Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church life was formed by Tom’s vision and endeavour. Tom was a minister, a theologian, an educator, a pastor, a liturgist. Innovative, dynamic and creative he achieved so much. For many of us here today Tom was also a friend, a colleague, a guide, a mentor. For everyone in our churches he was someone who played a key role on so many levels for decades. Typical of Tom he wanted his funeral to be conducted with a minimum of fuss. To be honest, given his achievements, no one deserves more fuss than Tom, but that isn’t the way he would have wanted it.

Tom was one of those people who had tremendous depth. He wasn’t just a leading minister in Northern Ireland throughout the period of the Troubles and beyond, although that would be enough to deservedly win the admiration of everyone. Tom had two consecutive high achieving careers – the first, of course, as an officer in the Royal Navy.

Tom was born in Devon and I think felt the call of the sea from an early age. He went to the Royal Naval College and was trained as an Engineer as he embarked upon his service in the Navy. Tom joined the Navy at a time when you really did see the world and he visited so many places in the course of his naval service. Tom kept pictures on his wall of all the ships he had served on but was unsentimental about the past. His medals and ceremonial sword were donated to the Royal Naval Association some years ago to be auctioned for service charities. He often lamented though that he seemed to have outlived so many of his comrades from the service. As an engineering officer Tom reached the senior rank of Lieutenant Commander bringing a highly specialised technical knowledge to the management of ships.

Tom was someone who was always keen to contribute to society, to make a difference to those in need. He had a long-time association with Scouting and it was this that brought him towards the ministry. As his time in the Navy was drawing to a close Tom was running the Sea Scouts in Bristol which was based at Lewin’s Mead Chapel, a famous and then very large dissenting congregation in the city. Through this association he felt called to the ministry and after around 20 years in the Navy went to the Unitarian College in Manchester to train for the ministry, studying theology at Manchester University leading to the award of the degree of Bachelor of Divinity by the University of London. In those days most of the students were young men, Tom was older and much more experienced, yet everyone who was a student in Manchester in those days remembers him with tremendous affection as a friend.

Had circumstances been only slightly different Tom might well have returned to Bristol to minister but instead Tom was called to Northern Ireland, to be minister of Ballycarry and Raloo churches. So commenced a connection that was to dominate the rest of his life, as a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian church minister.

Tom was ordained by the Presbytery of Antrim in September 1971 and valued his membership of that ancient body. He was clerk for eight years and moderator on a number of occasions. And we can see here what an impact Tom had on the structure of the denomination. He found the method of visitation of congregations to be cumbersome and in need of reform. He straight away set about reconstituting the method of visitation by the presbytery, now basing it on four separate commissions. And so it was that the Presbytery of Antrim, and then the other presbyteries in the denomination, had a new more efficient system of visitation. It was based, Tom always liked to say, on the system used by the Navy for inspecting battleships.

Tom was well respected and very happy in county Antrim but after four years he received a call for a new sphere of work, to First Church, Belfast, the congregation with which he was to be associated for the rest of his life. In 1975 this was a very challenging settlement indeed. The previous minister had been killed in a tragic road accident, the Troubles were at their height, the city centre was under considerable pressure, and the church itself had been badly damaged in a bomb attack; the windows were smashed and the eighteenth-century ceiling lay on the floor. The late Tom Moore, who was such a stalwart member of First Church and a good friend of Tom’s, once said to me that without Tom he didn’t think there would be a First Church today. Tom was the right man in the right place at the right time and under his leadership the Church was resurrected and able to flourish once more.

Both when he was minister and later, when he had retired, Tom could be found every Wednesday morning in Rosemary Street, along with his band of co-workers. Tom was a scholar and a fine preacher and a thinker but he was also an immensely practical person and if there were jobs to be done about the premises Tom would take them on himself. And when the work on the premises was completed there were always books to catalogue in the church library and the index to compile for the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine. Tom was a voracious reader, the arrival of the Postscript catalogue meant more books needed to be bought, many of which he later donated to Rosemary Street. Even in recent times when his health began to decline Tom was, thankfully, still able to read and in the Nursing Home he got to work grappling with the finer points of the theology of Paul Tillich.

So Tom was a minister and a theologian. He was also an educator. He was involved in education both outside the church and inside. He was a governor and ultimately the chairman of the board of governors of Malvern School in Belfast for many years. One major educational contribution he made to the denomination was the creation of the Academic Training Board. With Tom’s vision and energy this body was established for the denomination and for years it provided training and educational courses first of all for ministers but then later for lay people, preachers, church officers and so on. It became an invaluable and essential part of denominational life. Tom devised many of the early courses himself and others followed in his footsteps developing this body for a great many years.

Tom was a liturgist too. The version of the communion service which he devised has been used by many of us in the ministry since and elements of it were later published in Andrew Hill’s Celebrating Life and it was published in full in European Perspectives on Communion in 2001. A couple of years later Tom edited for publication European Perspectives on Baptism in the same series.

Tom was also strongly ecumenical in all his work, most notably serving as the secretary of the Department of Theological Questions of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, the body which brought the Catholic and Protestant churches together. Here Tom held his own with the leading theologians in Ireland and was soon on first-name terms with Cardinals, Bishops and Moderators of all denominations. Indeed he had many friends across the denominations. Tom effectively wrote the DTQ’s paper on the church in modern society and was disappointed when narrow spirits prevented its publication. For a long time Ireland had some of the most sophisticated top-level ecumenical bodies in the British Isles, but what it lacked, particularly during the Troubles was much grass-roots ecumenical contact. Not so for Tom. As a parish minister Tom was keen to work on a cross-community basis. He was a member of the Eclectic Fraternal, which brought all sides together, and in his church he maintained the close connection between Rosemary Street, St Mary’s and St George’s which bore fruit particularly in the joint Christmas Carol services held between the three churches in Rosemary Street every year when Tom was minister. The importance of such events, particularly during the years of the Troubles, cannot be overestimated.

But Tom also loved music and he found in that a way to bring people together, particularly to celebrate God’s love in a broad and joyful way. For the denomination this meant the Choirs’ Festival which Tom set up and which alternated between All Souls’ and Rosemary Street, great gatherings of choirs large and small from all over the denomination singing praises together as well as their own favourite pieces. Tom greatly enjoyed and valued the musical tradition in First Church and right up to this year was helping to see this flourish.

Tom was throughout his life always kind and generous. Sue and myself and our children all have reason to know this, as do many here. It was part of Tom’s nature to be generous. And it extended far and wide. As a pastoral visiting minister Tom would call on those who were elderly or infirm or lonely. But he didn’t just bring prayers and support to those he visited. If he saw situations that needed practical resolution he would return armed with his tool box, and shelves would be fixed, pictures hung up and other items knocked into shape.

In Belfast Tom ran for a great many years what was then called the handicapped Scouts. Tom put in many hours – organising events, transporting young people to different occasions, working with young people with disabilities and doing so much good across the communities all against a background of civil upheaval. But such work was typical of Tom, done quietly without fanfare but so important and appreciated by those he worked with.

Tom believed in the importance of inter-faith dialogue and understanding and was one of the founders of the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum. I know his presence and counsel was much valued in that body.

Based on his understanding of the history of this denomination and his knowledge of the development of its witness Tom had a vision of how to make his church most effective and most true to its calling as a liberal Christian community. Tom always had an eye for the practical solution or identified a need to devise a new structure when necessary. So something as simple and useful as the Aide Memoire for the denomination was created by Tom – and physically put together by him and his co-workers for many years. The Sunday School Games was his brainchild too and for many years he participated and led in that. Tom helped at every level of this event and once was sitting acting as scribe for a team in the under 5 section of the quiz. In one round the children were asked ‘Who was swallowed by a whale’. Four small faces all looked blank until one turned to Tom and answered brightly ‘Pinocchio’. Tom felt he had no choice but to nod and dutifully write down the answer, for Pinocchio certainly was swallowed by a whale.

On top of all this Tom found time to do even more. He was secretary or chair or convenor or treasurer of many different committees and bodies. And though he was primarily minister first of all of Ballycarry and Raloo and later of First Church he was minister in charge of a great many other churches over the years, that is the minister during a vacancy, bringing pastoral care and help to many other congregations. I don’t think I could prepare an adequate list of the many churches he helped over the last fifty years. But many people will have memories of Tom coming to their church all over the country at different times.

It was a big upheaval for Tom to give up his home on the Cliftonville Road but it was a necessary move and he felt very comfortable in the Somme Nursing Home. At the time of his move I arranged for his papers to be sent to Harris Manchester College, Oxford to be stored there. It took three enormous boxes to carry them and the College had to buy additional archive boxes to store them in but it means so much of Tom’s working life – in the church, in the presbytery, in the denomination, in the DTQ, in ecumenical and inter-faith bodies is preserved for the future.

A few years ago Tom gave me his old Book of Occasional Services which is a minister’s book for the conduct of baptisms, weddings and funerals and so on. In one of the annotations which Tom has added he has written:

To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die

I am sure that is true and we will all long remember Tom, as the valued colleague or minister or friend he was to us.

We commend him to God now in glad thanksgiving for having known him and shared in life with him in all its fullness. And I would close with some words from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress:

Then said he, ’I am going to my Father’s, and though with great difficulty I am got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his battles who now will be my rewarder.’ When the day that he must go hence, was come, many accompanied him to the river side, into which, as he went, he said, ‘Death where is thy sting?’ and as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave where is thy victory?’ So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”

Exposition of Presbyterian Church Order

 

A number of people asked me for a copy of the Exposition of Presbyterian Church Order given at the ordination and installation of the Rev Dr Heather Walker at Rademon this afternoon. Our best wishes go to Dr Walker and her congregation as they begin this new ministry. A number also spoke to me about John Henry Lorimer’s ‘The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk’ which I am pleased to reproduce here.

It is my responsibility today to deliver what is called the Exposition of Presbyterian Church Order. This part of the service is required by the Code of Discipline to be delivered at all services of ordination or installation of both elders as well, in fact, as ministers.

It is meant to describe and explain the system that governs our church life which we term Presbyterian. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines ‘Presbyterianism’ as ‘a form of ecclesiastical polity wherein the Church is governed by presbyters’.

So what is a presbyter? Basically this comes from the Greek word presbuteros, which generally means elder, a word found in the New Testament as describing those who were given positions of leadership in the early church. In Acts ch.14 v.20-23 we see Paul and the disciples appoint the first presbyters in the new churches they founded:

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,
strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.
And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. 

The Greek word behind what is rendered here as elders is presbuteros a word also used by followers of the Jewish religion at the time who administered their synagogues through bodies of presbuteroi.

So this is the Biblical root for our system and our name. Of course, other ecclesiastical systems are also derived from the Bible, based on different understandings of different words and the different traditions that have grown up over the centuries. Presbyterianism really re-emerges after the Reformation when the reformers develop a system of church government that they presented as truest to the earliest formation of the church.

Presbyterianism begins in Geneva but spreads across Europe as the reformed church spreads. It can take different forms, in different places. In England historic Presbyterianism was based not round the presbytery but on what they termed the classis. English Presbyterianism was crucially important at one time, however else would we have got a document termed the Westminster Confession of Faith? But in the English-speaking world generally the Church of Scotland becomes the model and example of how a Presbyterian church is formed and governs itself.

One of the places we think of first when think of Presbyterianism is Scotland and particularly Edinburgh. The figure of John Knox played an important part in the development of Presbyterianism in these islands and Edinburgh was right at the heart of this development.

If you go to Edinburgh and visit the National Gallery of Scotland you can inspect many wonderful, beautiful and fascinating paintings, but one of my favourites there is entitled ‘The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk’ by John Henry Lorimer. This was painted in 1891 and shows a minister offering prayer over a group of newly ordained elders gathered before the pulpit in a plain church, maybe one not dissimilar from this meeting house. The minister and the elders stand in front of the pulpit situated at the centre of a long wall pretty much as in this building.

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‘The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk’, John Henry Lorimer. (National Gallery of Scotland).

To me it exhibits something of the best of the Presbyterian tradition at its widest. It captures the simple but sincere piety of the occasion. There is a great humanity about the expressions of the people captured in the painting and the down to earth setting frames what is an encounter with the divine, something holy, as the new elders bow their heads in prayer.

But it shows Presbyterianism in action. Of course, any system can be a success if it is operated by men and women of goodwill but this is the system that history has bequeathed to us. If we take our system seriously and endow it with proper respect – without treating it as an end in itself – then it will not be a burden or a restraint on us but rather an effective means for the expression of our faith.

In our tradition the presbyter – or the elder – takes two forms:

the ruling elder

and the teaching or preaching elder, who is more commonly styled the minister.

Both are chosen by members of the congregation and both are ordained in the same way by the representatives of the presbytery which is really all the local congregations acting together.

In our system each congregation is managed by a committee and a session both of which are elected by the members. For us the committees are elected each year and look after the financial and material and organisational side of church business. The membership of the session, which comprises the elders and the minister, is elected for life and they have charge of the spiritual side of the church. It is the role of the minister to chair the committee and session, to be the moderator of the session.

Originally the elders shared in the task of what was called discipline, that is to say the oversight of Christian morality. But we would see that in modern terms as pastoral care, having care for the well-being of all the members of the congregation. Tied in to this the elders also have a part to play in the administration of communion and in visiting. But in both pastoral care and the administration of the sacraments the minister clearly has the central and essential role.

The elders also have a role in providing representatives to the other courts of the church, namely the presbyteries and the synods. And this is a key fact that all our church bodies are made up of both ministers and lay representatives, and the elders, as the lay representatives, play an equal part in the work of these bodies. So each congregation has one representative elder who attends the various courts of the church alongside the minister.

The Presbyterian system is a representative system with each level being made up of representatives of the basic unit, the congregation. It is a democratic structure with congregations at the base. Above that a representative meeting of ministers and elders make the presbytery and above that congregational representatives and ministers within a group of presbyteries come together to form a synod. In larger denominations than ours a group of synods would form a general assembly.

But the basic building block for the system is the congregation. This congregation has a long and impressive history tracing its origins back to 1713 and being associated with the pioneering academy run by Rev Moses Neilson which educated boys of all religious backgrounds, many of whom entered the ministry or the priesthood. This illustrates very well the role freedom of thought and openness to inquiry has played in the formation of our denomination across the centuries.

So for us each individual congregation belongs to a presbytery. This could be the Presbytery of Antrim which was formed in 1725 when the first Non-Subscribers – those who objected to the imposition of the Westminster Confession – were placed together in the same presbytery.

It could be the Presbytery of Bangor of which this congregation is a member, founded following the second subscription controversy again by those who objected to the Westminster Confession on principle. They took the view that the Bible alone was the rule of faith and practice. No secondary document was necessary because it would either be repeating what was already in the Bible and therefore superfluous, or it was introducing something new, which could be, they said, pernicious.

Or a congregation could be a member of the Synod of Munster which has the standing of both presbytery and synod within our system and is the third element in our basic structure.

The Presbytery of Antrim and the Presbytery of Bangor when they meet together – or when their composite ministers and representative elders assemble for a stated meeting – do so as the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster.

And when the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster representatives and the Synod of Munster ministers and elders gather together then they do so as the General Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the highest court of our church body.

This, very briefly, is the outline of the Presbyterian system as it has come to us. It is derived from the course of our history, it is rooted in the Bible and it symbolises – at its best – a system that is democratic and inclusive.

With this in mind we should thank God for our system which in the end exists solely to help us build his kingdom. As we gather under its auspices today we pray for God’s blessing on our assembly and the work we do in his name, on this congregation, and on the minister who this day we ordain.

 

Downpatrick First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church

Downpatrick 1 Oct 2016

Downpatrick is one of the finest 18th-century T-shaped meeting-houses in Ireland. Built in 1711 at the start of the ministry of the Rev Thomas Nevin, a pioneer Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister who became a founder member of the Presbytery of Antrim, the church is one of the most notable buildings in this part of county Down.

It is not a new thing but it is worth flagging up the 360 degree virtual tour of the interior which was put online courtesy of VirtualVisitTours. The panoramic view can be explored here:

http://www.virtualvisittours.com/downpatrick-first-presbyterian-non-subscribing-church/

 

 

Attorney General’s lecture at Clough

 

On Wednesday, 24th May 2017 Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church was very pleased to welcome the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, Mr John Larkin, QC, to Clough to deliver his lecture concerning the legal case of 1836 which was such a crucial moment in the history of the congregation.

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Mr John Larkin, QC, delivers his lecture in the pulpit at Clough

The meeting was very well attended indeed with many visitors from local churches and from farther afield – even as far as Edinburgh – as well as including many members of various societies and organisations including the Presbyterian Historical Society, the Lecale and Downe Historical Society, the Irish Legal History Society and Queen’s University. It was preceded by a short act of worship conducted by the Rev Dr John Nelson, clerk to the Presbytery of Antrim. The congregation joined the Presbytery of Antrim, the original Non-Subscribing Presbyterian body in 1829. The organist was Mr Alfie McClelland. The Rev Dr David Steers, introduced Mr Larkin who has a long-standing interest in presbyterian history, especially in cases such as this where theology intersects with the law.

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Left to right: Rev Dr John Nelson; Mr John Larkin, QC; Rev Dr David Steers

The 1836 case rose out of a dispute between subscribers and non-subscribers (to the Westminster Confession of Faith) and resulted in the exclusion of the non-subscribers who went on to build the present church in 1837. Following the lecture a large number of those present were able to go to the church hall for refreshments. The lecture was both preceded and followed by good coverage in many papers including the Down Recorder, the Mourne Observer and the Belfast Telegraph.

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Clough AG 04

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Clough AG 08

Refreshments in the hall following the lecture

The basic issue discussed in the lecture was whether congregations could change their religious views over time. So although a majority of the congregation wanted to call the Rev David Watson as minister in 1829 the fact that they were non-subscribers (ie. they refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith) led the subscribing members and their friends to argue that they had no right to own a meeting house that was (they said) built solely for the use of subscribers. With this there was an argument over how the Christian faith should be defined. The matter went to law and eventually, after prolonged discussion, the courts granted the original meeting house to the subscribers. The non-subscribers left and had to build their own church, still in use today by what is a growing and active congregation.

Something very similar happened at about the same time with the Presbyterian church in Killinchy – which was also taken away from the non-subscribers – and legal proceedings were begun over some churches in Dublin. A parallel process was underway in England over the ownership of the Unitarian churches there and it seemed that Non-Subscribing Presbyterians in Ireland and Unitarians in England would lose all their ancient meeting houses. However, all this was stopped by the passing of what is called the Dissenters Chapels Act in 1844 which guaranteed the legal ownership of churches to those whose families had worshipped there over a period of at least 25 years and allowed for changes in their theological views over time.

The division in the 1830s was very painful at the time and at one point required the militia to be called to restore order. However, it is part of the joint history of both churches in Clough that we need to acknowledge as part of our continuing story.