NSP Lives of the First World War 04: The Harrison family of Newtownards

 

One of the features of the new Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Roll of Honour is how often we see groups of brothers join after the outbreak of war. In many churches there are sets of brothers, sometimes two, sometimes three, sometimes four who respond to the appeal for volunteers. From contemporary newspaper reports we can imagine the effect this had on the families and friends who were left at home.

Newtownards 1909

The First Presbyterian Church, Newtownards in 1909

At the start of the First World War the secretary of the Newtownards congregation was Samuel Harrison, a man widely respected in the town and in the church. Three of the sons of Samuel and Grace Harrison (all members of Newtownards) joined up after war broke out, as well as two of their grandsons. In the July 1916 issue of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian it was announced that his younger son, Thomas James Harrison, had been awarded the Military Medal for bravery. In the Newtownards news of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian it was reported that “What the special act of bravery was that earned him this distinction has not been officially disclosed as yet, but we understand it was connected with acts of great bravery in rescuing wounded comrades. As a Church, we are proud of the fact that one of our number has earned this coveted distinction, and also that he is the first one in the town to receive this medal.”

In fact, as will be seen from the Roll of Honour, Thomas Harrison was himself killed before he could be presented with this medal. He died, along with so many others, on 1st July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme.

I am grateful to Jeffrey Martin and Nigel Henderson for providing me with this picture of him which appeared in the Newtownards Chronicle at the time:

Rifleman Thomas James Harrison

From the ‘Newtownards Chronicle’

Credit: Nigel Henderson (Great War Belfast Clippings)

The extent of the casualties on the first day of the Somme must have had a devastating effect back home. At the time of Thomas’ death Samuel was nearly 72 years old and himself died little over a year later. It was perhaps a measure of how highly he was thought of that quite an unusually full obituary of him appeared on the pages of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian. It detailed his education at the National School at Ballycullen, an education cut short by the need to go out to work as a farm boy, but supplemented by a return to night class “after a hard days’ work begun at daylight”.

He was a man of fine, high principle, and greatly valued by his employer the obituary said. When promoted to the post of land steward he was the youngest man in that capacity in the county, eventually becoming the foreman of the road labourers for the local council. The obituary speaks highly of his ability to get on with all classes of people. The Newtownards Chronicle itself said “there is no individual in this county who is more highly respected by all classes and creeds than everybody’s good friend, Sam Harrison.” The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian detailed the local respect shown to him at his funeral:

Had he been one of the leading citizens or a wealthy manufacturer, the tribute would not have been so very remarkable; but as he died as he had lived – a plain working man – this tribute was the more noteworthy.

He had been a member of the church committee since 1875 and the secretary since 1898, the obituary emphasised his faith commitment:

A staunch Non-Subscriber and liberal Christian, his attachment to his Church was shown in the unselfish devotion of his mind and energies to its welfare.

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Picture from the ‘Non-Subscribing Presbyterian’

All this is part of the background to the experience of those who served in the trenches. In the words of his obituary Samuel Harrison left behind a fine record of faithfulness and a memory that should be an inspiration to those that follow him. For those left at home life continued as normal, at least outwardly. But it must have been hard to express in words the shared sense of loss felt by so many after 1st July 1916.

 

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NSPCI Roll of Honour: Awards and Decorations

 

One of the things that people sometimes ask me is: Were any members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland awarded the Victoria Cross during the war? The highest award for gallantry since its inception in 1856 by Queen Victoria it is synonymous with bravery. However, having compiled this new Roll of Honour it seems clear that none of the recipients in the First World War were Non-Subscribers. This is not surprising since it is quite a rare award, only 615 Victoria Crosses were awarded throughout the whole of the Great War. But it is also clear, when looking at the Roll, that a number of members of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian churches were given various awards for bravery or conspicuous service in battle.

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

This was instituted by Queen Victoria in 1886 as an award for officers, usually at the rank of major. In the First World War it could be awarded for “an act of meritorious or distinguished service”, usually when under fire or in the presence of the enemy. Three members of the denomination in Ireland were awarded the DSO.

Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM)

Like the Victoria Cross this was a medal that dated back to the time of the Crimean War, in this case it was the first medal to be awarded to a member of the armed forces who was not an officer for gallantry in the field in the face of the enemy. There are three people awarded the DCM on the Roll of Honour.

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Distinguished Conduct Medal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Military Cross (MC)

The Military Cross was instituted by Royal Warrant on 28th December 1914, after the start of the First World War. It was awarded to officers up to the rank of Captain for gallantry during active operations in the presence of the enemy. In the NSPCI Roll there are a total of 19 individuals awarded the Military Cross, including one recipient who was awarded a Bar to his MC.

Military Medal (MM)

The Military Medal was essentially the same as the Military Cross except it was awarded to ‘other ranks’. Instituted on 25th March 1916 its award was backdated to 1914. There are eight recipients of the MM on the Roll, including one person who was awarded a Bar to his first award.

Meritorious Service Medal (MSM)

This was awarded to Non-Commissioned Officers for meritorious service and was often awarded for service in the field during the First World War. Its award was extended to those NCOs below the rank of Sergeant and to private soldiers for acts of gallantry in the performance of military duties or in saving or attempting to save the life of another soldier. There are four instances of the MSM being awarded on the Roll.

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Meritorious Service Medal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Roll of Honour, when published, will also include all known occasions when a soldier was mentioned in despatches, occasions when a serviceman received a foreign award, and awards and decorations given to those serving with the Red Cross.

 

Downpatrick Harvest 2018

 

Dpk Harvest entrance

The First Presbyterian (Non-Subscribing) Church, Stream Street, Downpatrick held their annual Service of Harvest Thanksgiving on Sunday, 7th October. The Church was beautifully decorated for the occasion at which the congregation welcomed the visiting preacher, Rev Roger McKee from Newtownards and Greyabbey NSP Churches, and the visiting choir, the Lindsay Chorale.

During the service Sunday School member Laura Neill presented a cheque for £450 which was raised by the children and young people of the congregation over the year for Air Ambulance NI. The cheque was received by Colleen Milligan the local Air Ambulance representative who spoke of the important work the charity is doing.

The theme of the decorations was ‘Traditional Harvest’ and the images here show some of the features included.

Dpk Harvest Pulpit

Pulpit and communion table

Dpk Harvest fruit

Dpk Harvest marrow

Dpk Harvest Communion Table

Dpk Harvest cabinet

Dpk Harvest knitted

Crocheted vegetables

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Some of the window displays

Dpk Harvest Air Ambulance Cheque

Laura Neill makes the presentation to Colleen Milligan of Air Ambulance NI. (Photo: Mary Stewart)

Dpk Harvest Lindsay Chorale

The Lindsay Chorale at Downpatrick, including John Dallas, conductor (extreme left), Sheelagh Greer, accompanist (second left), Rev David Steers, minister (extreme right), Rev Roger McKee, visiting preacher (second right). (Photo: Mary Stewart)

 

NSP Lives of the First World War: 03 William Crymble

When the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine published its second collection of names of men and women who had joined up after the start of the First World War in March 1915 the entry for Ballee congregation contained one name:

Captain Wm. Crymble, RAMC. Interned at Magdeburg since Mons.

William Crymble was a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. His father was the principal of the school at Ballee and the whole family belonged to the congregation. He had trained to be a doctor in Belfast and Dublin, following his studies with positions at the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast, Down District Asylum and Beckett Street Infirmary Leeds. Before the war he had joined the reserve of the RAMC and had been promoted to Captain on 13th July 1914. His skills were very necessary once war broke out and in August 1914 he went with the British Expeditionary Force to France.

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Captain William Crymble RAMC

Attached to the 14th Field Ambulance he was amongst those taken prisoner at Le Cateau on 26th August 1914. The story of his initial capture makes for grim reading with accusations of brutality against the enemy. The medical officers were said to be prevented from attending to the wounds of the injured, they were transported in cattle trucks to the internment centre at Torgau in Germany, with little ventilation and frequently no water.

He was interned not just in Magdeburg but in a total of four camps. Magdeburg was the first and reportedly the worst with officers being thrown in prison for failing to salute a German officer, property being confiscated and the keeping of diaries forbidden. All this was reported in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian and based on With French in France and Flanders by Rev O. S. Watkins, an army chaplain. Sanitation was poor, facilities for exercise limited and rigid discipline enforced. At one camp prisoners from different nations were split up and separated out of national groups in an effort to break down their resistance to camp discipline. Remarkably though, over the summer of 1915, William Crymble was able to return home in an exchange of prisoners. He was returned to Holywood Barracks where he declared he felt like a “fish out of water” until he could get back to the front.

He soon got his wish and was sent to Egypt to be part of the war effort with the Mediterranean Force. But here tragedy struck. On 12th October 1916 he died of enteric fever in Alexandria. One of his colleagues and a former fellow student at Queen’s said:

“On the day on which the sad news of his death was made known to the patients he had attended, the medical officer on duty was sharing the distress which was visible among the patients and could not always trust himself to speak. But the sorrow that could not find adequate personal expression was manifested on Sunday the 22nd.”

The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian reported that “Rev J.H. Bibby made touching reference to his death on the Sunday succeeding the receipt of the sad news in Ballee.”

He is buried at the Suez War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt.

NSP Lives of the Great War: 02 Thomas Cooke

Researching the names of those who will appear on the Roll of Honour is a poignant and often melancholy experience. Many of the stories of those who served are stories of loss – loss of young life, loss of a son, a husband, a father. When I was working through the list of names on the Larne War Memorial (see above) and comparing the list of those who gave their lives with the Roll of Honour published in the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian between December 1914 and January 1916 and with the written Roll of Honour maintained by the Larne congregation I noticed a discrepancy. In the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian one name featured throughout, that of Thomas Cooke (actually spelt Cook) who was listed as ‘missing’. The Larne written Roll (which must date from 1918) also named him but included him as someone who had served rather than having lost his life.

I didn’t see his name on the Larne Memorial at first, it wasn’t where I expected it to be. In fact it clearly is there but also quite clearly was added to the list at the end. The Rev Dr John Nelson tells me that the order of service for the Larne unveiling has a picture of the memorial but Thomas Cooke’s name has been added by hand. This is confirmed by the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian for November 1921 which lists the names on the memorial but does not include that of Thomas Cooke. I don’t know when Thomas Cooke’s name was added.

Thomas Cooke was born in Larne, c.1891, the son of Thomas and Martha Cooke of Browndodd, Larne. He was married to Agnes. His exact date of birth is not known. The census shows that his father was 44 in 1911 and his mother 38, they had been married for 20 years. It also reveals that they had had 14 children, of whom eight were still alive. Seven daughters were listed as living at home with them in that year.

At the outbreak of war he was on the reserve and so was called up almost immediately, consequently he arrived in France on 19th September 1914 serving with the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, just a few weeks after the outbreak of the war. He was killed in action just over a month later on 27th October 1914. Nearly a month after that, on 21st November, he was officially listed as ‘missing’ and it is not clear when exactly he was officially declared to have been killed.

First World War researcher Jeffrey Martin of Dromore has been of considerable help to me and has helped confirm the identity of Thomas Cooke. He has also provided a photograph of Thomas Cooke from the Ballymena Weekly Times in 1915 which he was given from Nigel Henderson’s extensive archive.

Cooke, Thomas, Private, Royal Irish Rifles, Browndodd

Credit: Nigel Henderson (Great War Belfast Clippings)

We can imagine the anxiety felt by his family and it may be that this anxiety continued for some years after the war. Perhaps definite confirmation of his death did not come until after the Larne Church War Memorial had been erected? Perhaps even by 1921 they still hoped he might one day return? But he died on 27th October 1914 and has no known grave. He is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial, Pas de Calais, France.

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War Memorial, Old Presbyterian Church of Larne and Kilwaughter

NSP Lives of the Great War: 01 Alfred Turner

 

I am currently working towards the production of a Roll of Honour for the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland in the First World War. All being well we should be on course for the publication of as complete a Roll of Honour as possible of all the men and women of the denomination in Ireland who served in the Great War including all those who gave their lives. This will be published at a service in Downpatrick on Sunday, 18th November at 3.00 pm.

The Roll will comprise two parts –  a list, by congregation, of all the men and women whose name is known who served in any capacity in the war, and a list, with brief biographical details, of all those who were killed during the conflict or died as a direct result of their service.

It is a melancholy task to trawl through the records trying to identify the service of the hundreds of names (often no more than names to start with) and to place them in the context of a regiment or ship or other area of service. The first part of the book will consist – because of its nature – of a list of names, the second will contain a bit more detail. But all the names dealt with are human stories and there is in the case of everyone behind the name a detailed account of a life, a family, service, sacrifice, bravery and suffering.

Alongside the production of the book I thought I would add here some more detailed stories of some of the people who appear in the book. I begin, with this post, with the Rev Alfred Turner.

Alfred Turner 10 1916

Rev Alfred Turner in the uniform of the YMCA

Alfred Turner was the highly respected minister of Templepatrick for a number of years and alongside his ministry held the position of the first editor of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine. Under his guidance the magazine began to maintain a Roll of Honour as the Great War commenced although this stopped at the start of 1916 and kept no record of the last two years of the war. One of the reasons for this is that Alfred Turner himself was heavily involved in war work. He served with the YMCA at the front as a uniformed non-combatant bringing support to the troops and working essentially as a chaplain. As such he was one of about five Non-Subscribing Presbyterian ministers who took on this role, although his contribution was the most extensive. As YMCA workers they conducted worship for the soldiers, distributed tea and cocoa and sold biscuits, cake, chocolate, cigarettes and candles to the troops. Alfred Turner gives full accounts of his work in the NSP and writes of feeding up to 3,000 soldiers in one go and of leading worship in packed huts where:

A great quiet pervades the place whilst the minister says prayer, and you can feel the communion of Spirit when, in the course of prayer, he commends to our Father’s guidance and keeping the loved ones in the homelands. It is a prayer in which all hearts and desires are joined, and then all unite in saying the Lord’s Prayer.

His accounts (and those of some of the others working with the YMCA) are valuable descriptions of the privations of the troops as well as their morale and attitudes which I will probably return to at some point.

The Irish Census for 1901 and 1911 record Alfred Turner’s growing family on the point of the cataclysm of the First World War. In 1901 with his wife Mary they record two sons and a daughter, his sister in law and a visiting relative plus two live-in servants. By 1911 they have two more children (a boy and a girl) another visiting relative but no live-in servants, instead there is a German governess for the growing family. In 1911 Alfred Turner misread the instructions for recording place of birth in the census and before adding ‘England’ here had written and subsequently deleted Bradford, Yorks.

His eldest son (Hugh Nelson Turner) was 14 in 1911, his next eldest son (Alfred Clough Turner) just 10. Shortly after the outbreak of war Alfred joined the Queen’s University Veteran’s Corps and patrolled the Docks with that Corps. He later also worked as a munitions worker in Belfast. His eldest son had been studying for the ministry but joined up and is listed first of all in the NSP Roll of Honour as part of the Queen’s University Officer Training Corps. By March 1915 he is listed as being with the 14th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, later still being commissioned into the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment with which regiment he was wounded at Ypres in October 1917. His younger brother Arthur Clough Nelson is recorded on the War Memorial in Templepatrick Church as himself having become a Cadet before the end of the war. He would have been about 17 by then.

Templepatrickmemorial04

Old Presbyterian Church Templepatrick War Memorial

The Rev Alfred Turner was 53 in the year the Great War broke out and he managed to pack a lot into his war service as well as see his eldest son join up and face all the horrors of the Western Front, with his next son not far behind. He made a number of extended journeys to France to work with the YMCA. While he was away somebody deputised for him as editor of the NSP. I have his personal bound set of the first ten years of the magazine. It is a poignant memento and contains a copy of the October 1916 issue sent out to him at the front. That issue contains his portrait (as shown above). In my copy a line runs through the photograph where it was folded to post and on the back page is written the military postal destination where Alfred Turner was based at the time (picture above).

 

Downpatrick visit to Streamvale Open Farm

 

Streamvale arrival

On Tuesday, 21st August a party of over 50 adults and children enjoyed the Downpatrick Sunday School visit to Streamvale Open Dairy Farm. The weather was kind and the large party were able to enjoy the various attractions on offer including feeding all manner of animals (deer, Highland cattle, sheep), tractor rides, sheep racing and a whole lot more. It was a hugely enjoyable day out for everyone and a big thank you to Annabel for arranging the coach.

Streamvale Highland Catte 02

 

Streamvale dog display

Dog display

Streamvale sheep racing

Sheep (and goat) racing

Streamvale waiting for tractor

Waiting for the tractor

Streamvale tractor turning

Streamvale tractor drive 01

Streamvale tractor drive 02

Tractor drive

Streamvale deer

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Feeding the deer

Streamvale Swiss sheep 03

Streamvale feeding Valois sheep

Valois Blacknose sheep

Streamvale feeding cattle

Streamvale Highland Catte 03

Highland cattle

 

Downpatrick Treasure Hunt 2018

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Sending the cars out from the Lakeside Inn at the start of the Treasure Hunt

The Downpatrick congregation held a very successful and well-supported Treasure Hunt on Saturday, 4th August. With a new route taking us in part through the town and up to Struell Wells with thirty-eight fiendish questions devised by Marion and Anna the journey took approximately one hour and back at the Lakeside there was a very welcome hog roast for participants. A large team made sure everything went smoothly with cars being timed out and back in again and everyone enjoyed a really excellent evening. Renie entertained everyone with her playing and we were again very fortunate with the weather. Thanks goes to everyone who helped in any way including those who donated prizes and to Margaret and Geoffrey for making the Lakeside Inn available to us. We also raised, at the time of writing, around £850 for church funds. A very successful evening.

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Ballydugan Lake

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Struell Wells, where St Patrick sang Psalms and prepared to Christianize Ireland

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Greeting the cars on their return

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Recording the returning cars’ times

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Queuing for the hog roast

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Making the draw for the ballot

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Inside the marquee

 

Swans and cygnets (Photos: Jack Steers)

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.

 

 

 

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.

Ordination of Elders

‘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.