Harvest Thanksgiving

 

The services of Harvest Thanksgiving at the congregations of Downpatrick, Ballee and Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches were all joyous and uplifting occasions.

At Downpatrick we welcomed the Rev Dr John Nelson as guest preacher and the Harlandic Male Voice Choir conducted by Elaine Hawthorne to lead our worship. Laura Patterson played the organ and the church was very thoughtfully decorated to represent the changing seasons of the year as well as the sacrifice of those who served in the First World War.

At Ballee the walls were decorated by the Sunday School with the first verse of W.G. Tarrant’s hymn “Go work in my vineyard, my garden and field, and bring me the fruits and the flowers they yield. The voice of the Master the labourers heard, and into his harvest they went at his word” and each window was superbly decorated with a different line from this. Our visiting preacher was the Very Rev William McMillan and we welcomed back the Bailliesmills Accordion Band who played at the service. The organ was played by John Strain.

At Clough I was the preacher and we welcomed the Clare Chorale under the direction of Sheelagh Greer to lead our worship. A large and accomplished choir their singing filled the church which was beautifully decorated for the occasion. Alfie McClelland played the organ.

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Ballee

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Clough

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In a forgotten corner

As the congregation was preparing for the Harvest Thanksgiving service at Downpatrick on 2nd October some members turned over an old grave stone that had lain face down for as long as anybody could remember. Indeed it had fallen such a long time ago that there was no record of the inscription. Having lain flat to the ground for so long it was not a surprise to see how crisp and sharp the lettering appeared when it was turned over. However, what was surprising was to see that the stone’s inscription included a long quotation in Greek.

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Made by Hastings the local stonemasons who had crafted many of the gravestones in the locality it was a good example of their art. They can’t have been called upon very often to execute inscriptions in the Greek alphabet but they certainly weren’t daunted by the challenge. The Greek letters were as sharp and precise as the rest.

 

It is the grave of Mary Ann McNea (1820-1884) who was clearly a devoted and much loved servant of the Nelson family. The Nelsons were a highly scholarly ministerial family. James Nelson had been minister at Downpatrick from 1792 to l838 and kept a classical school in the town. His father, Moses Ne(i)lson, had founded the famous Rademon Academy and many of his descendants had entered the ministry. James’s son Samuel Craig Nelson joined his father as minister in Downpatick in 1835 and remained for the rest of his life until he died in 1891

 

Mary herself could have spent 50 years in the service of the family. In the nineteenth century domestic service accounted for a very large proportion of the working population. She could have been with them from a very young age and when she died they added a verse from Philemon to her memorial:

 

FAITHFUL, KIND AND TRUE,

THE NELSON FAMILY

GRATEFULLY REMEMBER HER

ουκετι ώς δουλην

αλλ’ αδελφην αγαπητην.

φιλ. 16.

(PHILEMON. 16 v.)

 

I would take the Greek to mean something like “more than a servant, a beloved brother [sister]”.

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Clearly remembered fondly and honoured by a scholarly family, the wording of their tribute in the language of the New Testament was hidden for many decades but was brought to light again on the day after the feast day of St Jerome, Eusebius Hieronymus, the person responsible for translating the Bible into Latin, and the patron saint of translators.

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Faith and Freedom 183

 

‘God as mask-wearer’ and the ‘stylish Tillich’

The Autumn and Winter 2016 issue of Faith and Freedom (Volume 69 part 2, Number 183) is now available, featuring a picture of a fourteenth-century carved figure of a pilgrim in Chester Cathedral on its cover. In it leading expert on Welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas, Professor John McEllhenney, discusses the poet’s annotations of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology and Theology of Culture. Interpretation of Tillich also features in Plínio de Góes’ examination of the theology of ‘fashionable rebel pastor’ Jay Bakker and his Revolution Church. Jay Bakker is the son of the notorious TV evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker but rejected their kind of style and developed a different type of church identified as ‘hipster Christianity’. We also carry the full text of Tehmina Kazi’s keynote address to the 2016 Unitarian GA, she is the former Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy and now works for the Cork Equal and Sustainable Communities Alliance. Yvonne Craig, a retired social worker and former JP, gives some careful thought to the question to false accusations of sexual abuse in ‘Blaming, Naming, Shaming and Biblical Justice’. Katharine Parsons discusses ‘God and the Problem of Language’ and Barrie Needham unpacks the novels of Marilynne Robinson. There are also accounts from Alan Ruston and David Wykes of the events marking the 300th anniversary of the death of Dr Daniel Williams

Faith and Freedom is always very strong in its reviews and this issue has Bob Janis-Dillon on refugees and asylum, Maud Robinson on Quaker views of assisted dying, Ernest Baker on Benjamin Franklin in London, Andrew Hill on Bryan Tully’s humanist anthology, and Rosemary Arthur on Bishop John Shelby Spong as well as reviews of Marsilio Ficino, Sue Woolley’s new book, Jennifer Kavanagh’s Simplicity Made Easy and Alan Ruston’s new collection of historical biographies.

Subscribers to this issue in the UK and Ireland also receive a free copy of the published papers given at the Unitarian Theology Conference held at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester in May of this year.

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An annual subscription to Faith and Freedom costs only £15 per annum (for two issues) and is available online at  http://www.faithandfreedom.org.uk/subs.htm

 

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Second Banbridge NSP Congregation

The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Banbridge has a very fine and impressive building. The congregation recently celebrated its tercentenary and this striking Victorian photograph of the exterior was republished in conjunction with the special service.

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First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Banbridge

But it is probably not widely known that nearby is the building that once housed the second Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church in Banbridge. Standing in Church Square as you enter the town it stands opposite the memorial to the polar explorer Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier who died in 1845. This is probably the only memorial anywhere which incorporates polar bears in its design.

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Crozier Monument

Despite its prominent location the Second Congregation is often overlooked. The Unitarian Heritage: An Architectural Survey published in 1986 is a usually a very reliable guide to church buildings in the Unitarian and Non-Subscribing Presbyterian tradition but the section on Ireland carries no mention of Second Banbridge at all. Indeed it seems to have been very largely forgotten although the size and location of the building suggests it was quite an important congregation in its day.

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The former meeting house of the Second Congregation

Dryasdust gives an account of the congregation’s history in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian (April 1995) and tells how it grew out of a dispute over the appointment of the Rev John Montgomery, a nephew of the Rev Henry Montgomery. A minority left and formed a new congregation and called the Rev David Gordon as their minister who was installed on 15th March 1848. The new building was opened sometime after that.

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Rev David Gordon

David Gordon remained until 1866, later becoming minister of Downpatrick, but he was succeeded by the Rev Richard Acland Armstrong. R.A. Armstrong ended up as a very distinguished minister of Hope Street Church in Liverpool but he arrived in Banbridge straight from College in 1866.

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Rev R.A. Armstrong in later life

Fortunately for posterity R.A. Armstrong’s son published a Memoir of his father in 1906 which included a number of family reminiscences of his time in Banbridge and this gives us a rare glimpse into the operation of the Second Congregation.

His father, the Rev George Armstrong, had been the Church of Ireland incumbent of Bangor Abbey before becoming a Unitarian and minister of Lewin’s Mead, Bristol. It was perhaps not surprising then that after education at London University and Manchester New College in 1866 Richard received a unanimous call to a congregation in Ireland. His stipend was £125 (including the regium donum) and he lodged with a Mrs Morrow, his kindly landlady who secretly supplemented his paltry allowance of tea. But he did not settle easily in Banbridge. Following the death of the Rev John Montgomery in 1867 he attempted to amalgamate the two congregations, even offering to resign if this would help. But a “Mr Walker”, possibly a leading member of the First Congregation, told him that “there was not the least good [in resigning], and that there was no chance of an amalgamation, as there was a difference of principle between the two congregations”.

He also became deeply embroiled in Ulster politics, being identified as “Papish Armstrong” by hard-line opponents. As sectarian tensions accelerated the windows of the manse were smashed by a mob following the publication of a letter by Armstrong in the Northern Whig in defence of the rights of Roman Catholics. A large mob also intended to attack the meeting house but this was protected by a detachment of police. He also courted theological controversy when answering lectures on the inspiration of the Bible by orthodox clergy with public lectures of his own. These were held in the Town Hall and proved rumbustious affairs. The first one was broken up by a mob with more threats being made against him. The second one took place but was a difficult night. His only supporter on the platform was the Rev John Orr of Comber and the chair was taken by a member of his congregation, Gilbert Mulligan. The opposing side was represented by nine clergy who insisted on having their own second chairman (a Mr Simms) on the platform. The meeting lasted for hours and R.A. Armstrong did not get home until 3.30 in the morning, exhausted and with a sore throat and a fever.

By this time he was also married, to Clara Wicksteed, the sister of Philip Henry Wicksteed, and their son had been born. In a letter to her mother Clara described the attack on the manse:

Baby and I were in bed when they passed our house, between ten and eleven, and they threw great stones at the bedroom window, smashing six panes. I did not feel frightened some way; my great fear was that we should catch cold with the broken window but we did not. I never thought before what a punishment it was to have one’s windows broken. First there is the danger of being hit by the stones (some people were), then of taking cold, then of being cut by the broken glass, then the expense of mending! Tuesday being a fair-day, a great riot was apprehended, so a regiment of soldiers was brought here, as well as still more police. There were attempts at fights between the Catholics and the Orangemen, but the soldiers dispersed them with bayonets.

Clara Armstrong also recorded:

Our Banbridge people were always kind and loyal. They admired your father, and were proud of him. As he says in one of his letters: “They are doing their best to spoil me there.” They did not always see why he wanted to fight and they would rather have peace, but if their parson wanted to fight, they would back him! ….He always thought of his Banbridge people with affection and gratitude, from the woman who washed for him and brought him presents of eggs, and whose brother once brought a sack of potatoes on his own back for a present, up to Mr Gilbert Mulligan, the chief supporter of the Meeting, and always a most kind friend. He was chairman of your father’s lecture on the Bible. Your father did not know what he was going in for, but Mr Mulligan did – and faced it.

Nowhere in the Memoir does it actually detail what Armstrong said or the issues at stake in Banbridge and in that context the last line quoted from Clara Armstrong’s letter above is quite telling. With this background it is perhaps not surprising that in February 1869 he accepted a Hibbert Trust reading fellowship and with his family left Banbridge. In their farewell address the congregation said:

Whilst we deeply regret the severance of the tie which for upwards of two years has bound you to our congregation and to our hearts, we cannot say that your voluntary resignation of the congregation has taken us by surprise, as you had not been long settled among us before we felt convinced that your talents, acquirements and refinement as a Christian minister would lead to your being invited to some higher and wider field of usefulness.

R.A. Armstrong was succeeded by the Rev John Miskimmin who arrived directly from the Unitarian Home Missionary Board and stayed until 1876 when he moved to Greyabbey.

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Rev John Miskimmon

He proved to be the last minister of Second Banbridge, the congregation subsequently closing and selling the meeting house to the Masons in 1893. The building has continued to be used as a Masonic Hall ever since and presumably it was the new owners who put a lion on top of the edifice. So the church closed quite a long time ago but when I was minister of All Souls’ Church in Belfast there was one member whose family had originally come from Banbridge in about 1920, and she certainly regarded her family as identifying themselves with the Second Congregation. But the actual closure of this church took place a very long time ago, although the building is still there to be seen, with a recumbent lion looking down on four polar bears.

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Rooftop lion

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Monument polar bear

Three Lives Remembered

At the annual service of harvest thanksgiving at Downpatrick on Sunday, 2nd October we also launched a colour leaflet that commemorates the sacrifice of the three members of the congregation who were killed in the First World War. This has been carefully put together by Mary Stewart, the church secretary, and includes pictures of two of the men as well photographs of the various graveyards and memorials in which they are commemorated.

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Of the three who were killed one – Captain Craig Nelson – was a professional soldier from long before the war. Craig Nelson was the grandson of the minister of the church, the Rev S.C. Nelson, and had joined the Royal Irish Rifles and served in the Boer War before transferring to the Indian Army. He was an officer of the 3rd Brahman regiment and attached to the 69th Punjabis when he was killed on the western front on 25th September 1915.

Rifleman John Hayes had joined the 1st battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles at the start of the war and was killed at the battle of the Somme on 31st October 1916. Sergeant Francis McMurray served with the 7th battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and was killed in France on 9th March 1916.

All three men are recorded on the church war memorial, however, the name only of Captain Nelson is inscribed on the town memorial and it seems very strange that the names of the other two were never added since they were both born and lived in Downpatrick before their war service.

At the harvest service two windows were decorated to commemorate those who served in the First World War with memorabilia being provided by members of the congregation and also including the commemorative certificates issued by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the three members who were killed. Most of the men who joined up in the locality would have served in the 36th (Ulster) Division, but in this case of those who died in the congregation one soldier (John Hayes) was with the Ulster Division, one (Craig Nelson) with the 7th (Meerut) Division of the Indian Expeditionary Force and one (Francis McMurray) was with the 16th (Irish) Division.

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John Hayes’s niece Thelma Lowry is a member of the church and she kindly provided the photograph of her uncle for the leaflet and loaned a ceramic poppy which had been part of the notable art installation at the Tower of London in 2014 – Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red.

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After the service with the leaflets: Rev Dr David Steers (minister), Mrs Thelma Lowry and Mrs Lorna Thompson (nieces of Private John Hayes), Miss Mary Stewart (church secretary) and Rev Dr John Nelson visiting preacher at the church harvest.

We don’t have a picture of Sergeant McMurray and would be very pleased to hear from anyone who is related to him or who has a picture of him.

The Downpatrick leaflet will also be uploaded to the Faith and Freedom Great War Project which can be seen here:

http://www.faithandfreedom.org.uk/GWindex.htm

Copies of the leaflet are available in the church.

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