Edinburgh in November

Princes Street in Edinburgh must have one of the most dramatic backdrops of any shopping street in Europe. At this time of year the dour presbyterian cityscape seems to glower at the frivolity of the market below.

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‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. Poppy dedicated at Downpatrick

 

An important part of the remembrance service at Downpatrick NSP Church on Remembrance Day, Sunday, 12th November 2017 was the dedication of a new memorial to Rifleman John Hayes of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles who was a member of the congregation who was killed in the First World War at the Battle of the Somme on 31st October 1916 at the age of just 24. The memorial contains a ceramic poppy from the Tower of London. The Tower was the location for ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ an impressive special installation produced at the start of 2014 which contained 888,246 hand-made ceramic poppies, one for every man or woman from Britain and the Commonwealth who died in military service in the Great War.

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Poppies at the Tower of London, 7th November 2014 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The poppies were designed by Paul Cummins and each one was individually hand made by a large team of volunteers so that no two flowers are the same. The poppies gradually encircled the Tower, creating a spectacular visual display and a moving location for personal reflection. The scale of the installation, containing so many individual poppies, was intended to bring home the magnitude of the event commemorated and over five million people travelled from all over the world to see the display. It was an impressive creation which continues to have a profound effect. All the poppies were sold to members of the public in memory of those who died, raising millions of pounds for service charities and extending the practical effect of the memorial all over the country which is how the poppy came to Downpatrick. Thelma Lowry, church member and a niece of John Hayes, bought one of the poppies and presented it to the church on behalf of her family in memory of her uncle.

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Memorial, First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Downpatrick

The church has a war memorial from the First World War containing the names of the 32 members of the congregation who served in the First World War as well as the three members who made the supreme sacrifice – Craig Nelson, Francis McMurray and John Hayes.

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Cover of the church’s leaflet about the three members who lost their lives in the First World War. For more details see:

https://velvethummingbee.wordpress.com/2016/10/04/three-lives-remembered/

At the service Jack Steers played the Last Post on the trumpet and Laura Neill played ‘Abide with Me’ on the bagpipes following the dedication. This new memorial is a family memorial but of a church member who was killed during the Battle of the Somme over one hundred years ago. As such it ties the church into a remarkable act of remembrance that began at the Tower of London but which has travelled around the world taking poppies from the installation back to the cities, towns and villages which were once the homes of those who were killed in the Great War.

A special site now records the locations to which the poppies have travelled:

https://www.wherearethepoppiesnow.org.uk/the-poppy-map/

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Memorial plaque

Todmorden Unitarian Church

I last visited Todmorden Church decades ago and it was in a pretty sorry state then, heavily vandalised and with no electricity, it had an air of dilapidation about it. So it was good to return in the company of some colleagues to see the church now.

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Ministers: Jo James, Bob Janis-Dillon, Jim Corrigall, David Steers, Phil Waldron in front of the chancel

One of the things you can’t miss about the church is its dominance on the landscape, it is a big church, an impressive feature of the local topography. But what I had forgotten and what in some ways it is easy to miss is the attention to detail within the building – the marble inlays, the subtle little carvings, the attractive stained glass windows, even the colours of the massive marble pillars. Partly this is because it is actually quite dark inside. The Unitarian Heritage An Architectural Heritage says it has an “under-lit interior” and blames this on the stained glass by “M. Capronnier of Brussels”. An excellent new book Chapels of England Buildings of Protestant Nonconformity by Christopher Wakeling (Historic England, 2017) describes it as the “one unmissable place of worship in Todmorden” and says “despite the clerestory windows – externally unseen – and tiny openings higher in the roof, the light levels foster a sense of religious mystery, augmented by the stained and coloured glass.” I tend to agree with the Unitarian Heritage assessment, I do find the interior a bit too dark but that is a minor quibble. It is a fine building designed by John Gibson of Westminster who also built the local town hall and the Fielden family residence.

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The church tower

Since 1994 the church has been in the care of the Historic Chapels Trust and they seem to be doing a good job, with the church being looked after by local volunteers. They have a varied programme of activities in the church including regular services plus weddings and even some recent christenings. When we visited, Joanna and Richard kindly took time out to show us round.

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Richard Butterworth (verger) and Joanna Drake (volunteer)

The church now has kitchens and toilets sensitively added to the interior which perhaps underlies what a valued resource for local people this church building is. Its history is fascinating, coming, as it did, out of the Methodist Unitarian movement founded by Joseph Cooke and building a new chapel, which still survives, in 1824. The congregation was taken under the wing of enlightened mill owner John Fielden who extinguished their debt and whose three sons built the new church as a memorial to their father, built, it was said at the time, “for the public worship of the one God the Father, and for the instruction in the simple teachings of Jesus Christ, as opposed to such traditional doctrines as those of original sin and eternal punishment”. It opened for worship in 1869 and cost around £35,000. It is the only Unitarian church that I know that has a porte cochère where the wealthy benefactors could dismount and enter the church by a side door protected from the elements. Two of the sons are buried close to the church and matching memorials to all three of them are found on the walls of the interior.

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Porte cochère

The church has what must be one of the earliest and most elaborate church fonts of any Unitarian church, it is probably in need of restoration but it still in better condition than when I last saw it.

Detail on the font

One feature of Todmorden is the repeated motif of the pelican, I am not sure why this is such a popular image here but there is a pelican in the chancel window, and two carved in the choir stalls. There is possibly also another one carved in the end of a pew (almost all the pew ends feature flowers except for this one which houses an angel and what may be another pelican).

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Choir stall pelican (see note below)

It is heartening to see the clock working and to know that the peal of eight bells are still rung by local bell ringers. Todmorden was a really flourishing congregation for most of its existence and it is interesting that this large building and its congregation left such an imprint in the locality that even now worship continues within it and it provides the home for much activity. It’s good to see the gradual recovery of Todmorden Unitarian Church.

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The view up the carriage drive

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Pulpit eagle

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Rose Window

A 360 degree view of the interior can be seen on the church’s website:

http://360.tuc-congregation.org.uk/

Note:

A couple of people have pointed out to me that the carving in the choir stalls which I originally named as a phoenix is in fact what is known as a ‘pelican in her piety’. It is the mother pelican who – in the ancient story – feeds its own chicks (or revives them after they die) with its own blood. I had confused this story with that of the phoenix which, of course, is famous for its ability to resurrect itself. Both the phoenix and the pelican became popular within Christian iconography from early times to represent Christ, for obvious reasons. But I am happy to make that correction and rename the image in the choir stalls. The carving on the pew end looks a good deal more phoenix like, although, to be honest, the photograph I took is not as clear as it might be and I am not able to make a certain identification. It is quite plausible that there are both phoenixes and pelicans in the church, but nevertheless I have removed the references to the phoenix and given credit to the pelican. Both are actually slightly surprising images to be found in a Unitarian church of 1869. The presence of a ‘pelican in her piety’ in Todmorden is probably a unique occurrence in a Unitarian church – unless anyone else knows differently!

 

Faith and Freedom: Autumn and Winter 2017

 

Faith and Freedom

Autumn and Winter issue 2017

Volume 70 Part 2. Number 185.

In the latest issue of Faith and Freedom Professor Emily Klenin breaks new ground with an exploration of the writings of David Delta Evans, the Flintshire-born son of a miner who went on to become a Unitarian minister, printer, editor of the Christian Life, novelist and poet in English and Welsh. Emily looks in detail at his 1913 novel Daniel Evelyn, Heretic, which is both a fictionalized account of his childhood and youth and a confession of faith. She draws out the importance of this long-forgotten novel in the religious and social landscape of England and Wales at the time. It’s a fascinating account of a remarkable man who has been long neglected.

Stephen Lingwood develops ‘A Unitarian Theology of Tradition’. He asks “in what sense do we claim religious continuity in a non-creedal tradition that allows the freedom of religious evolution? In what sense is the Unitarianism of the past the same thing as the Unitarianism of the present?” These are important questions for Unitarians to grapple with and drawing on sources such as James Luther Adams, Susan B. Anthony, George Lindbeck and Alasdair MacIntyre and taking scientific method as an analogy he gives a compelling explanation of the way Unitarians can understand their own tradition.

In ‘Manchester College Oxford Old Students Association – The Early Years’ Alan Ruston uncovers the early history of the OSA and describes its birth pangs and early development, concluding with its creation of Faith and Freedom and the encouraging observation: “F&F has proved to be a successful long-lasting journal of mainly intellectual content representing the Unitarian position, which is now in its seventieth year. Its creation can be considered the single most important initiative to have been undertaken by MOSA.”

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Our review section is extensive and wide-ranging. Graham Murphy reviews Diarmaid MacCulloch’s All Things Made, New Writings on the Reformation (Allen Lane/Penguin). It’s an excellent review of a timely and important book, Graham writes: “MacCulloch guides us around rooms of the past, noting progress, noting dystopia, and here and there a glimmer of light: ‘a Declaration in the parish church of a town called Torda, a place which should be more of a centre of pilgrimage than it is’ – Toleration.”

Stephen Lingwood’s incisive review of Frederic Muir’s edited collection Turning Point: essays on a new Unitarian Universalism (Skinner House) draws out the ‘trinity of errors’ identified there, including exceptionalism, an aversion to authority and, especially, individualism. This latter tendency is the root of the philosophy of Samuel Smiles and in his fascinating review of John Hunter’s The Spirit of Self-Help. A Life of Samuel Smiles (Shepheard-Walwyn) Bob Janis-Dillon shows how the sometime attender at Mill Hill Chapel, Leeds adapted Emersonian individualism to his ‘Self-Help’ idea, “a mode of thinking we need to challenge if we are to advance as a species”.

Rev Dr Marcus Braybrooke, joint president of the World Congress of Faiths, looks at three books that inform on the place of Islam in modern Britain (James Ferguson, Al-Britainnia, My Country: A Journey Through Muslim Britain, Bantam Press; Richard Sudworth, Encountering Islam: Christian Muslim Relations in the Public Square, SCM Press; Rahim Snow, Remember Who You Are, 28 Spiritual Verses from the Holy Quran, Remembrance Studio), an essential starting point for those who wish to open up dialogue and debate in this area. Marcus also provides two reviews of works that deal with Jewish–Christian relations and pluralism – Tony Bayfield (ed.), Deep Calls to Deep: Transforming Conversations between Jews and Christians (SCM Press) and Hans Ucko (ed.), Thanking Together: On Pluralism, Violence, and the Other (Journal of Ecumenical Studies).

In his review of what may be Don Cupitt’s “last and most important book” (Ethics in the Last Days of Humanity, Polebridge Press) Frank Walker lifts about fifteen random insights from the book. These all bear careful reflection. One takes up the theme of Muslim relations (“Western scholars should publish fully critical studies of the origins and the developing theology of the Qur’an and of the hadith”). In another Don Cupitt asserts: “Ordinary people will need a religious discipline like that of the Buddhist sangha to help people to calm their violent passions and to think rationally about how best to live.” It’s difficult not reflect on the plight of Muslims in Myanmar on reading this. But it is an important book concerned, as Frank says, “in the most down-to-earth way” with the end-times.

Faith, hope and healing are the themes of three reviews. Pat Frankish reviews The Enduring Melody (Darton, Longman Todd) by Michael Mayne about one man’s struggle with cancer, “a powerful and painful book, with a thread of reality and hope”. Christian Wiman’s book My bright abyss: meditations of a modern believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is similarly a tale of a struggle with cancer, in this case that of a poet who tries to make sense of religion and God through his suffering. It is reviewed by Barrie Needham who draws out many profound insights from it. Barrie writes: “Faith which is self-centred does not, according to Wiman, recognise God impinging on this world through love. ‘The only way to ascertain the truth of religious experience: it propels you back towards the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself’.” Andrew Hill also reviews a new book of hymns: Hymns of Hope and Healing: words and music to refresh the church’s ministry of healing (Stainer & Bell), a modern, progressive collection of hymns which covers a subject index of more than 250 topics. Andrew mentions some of them but those listed alphabetically from A to D give an idea of the books radical emphases: “ageing, balance, birth, carers, dementia, DNA, drugs…”

So many of the reviews are about finding and connecting with the divine in one way or another and Jim Corrigall reviews Lorraine Cavanagh’s new book Waiting on the Word: Preaching Sermons that connect people with God (Darton, Longman and Todd). Jim quotes the author “Sermon preparation is a matter of waiting in the pain of others, rather than worrying what we are going to say.” Finally Peter Godfrey reviews Crocodiles do not swim here (Avian House) by John Smith Wilkinson who looks at doctrine, Biblical interpretation and religious understanding from fresh angles.

If you would like to take out an annual subscription to Faith and Freedom you can do so online at http://www.faithandfreedom.org.uk/subs.htm or by sending a cheque for £15 to the Business Manager, Nigel Clarke., 16 Fairfields, Kirton in Lindsey, Gainsborough, Lincs, DN21 4GA.