Godshandiwork Puppets at Clough

On Sunday, 2nd July 2017 we were again delighted to welcome Sam and Silvana Shaw and Godshandiwork Puppets to Clough to lead our worship. This was a joint service with Ballee and Downpatrick and there was a good attendance of adults and children.

It was a lively occasion with music, songs, puppets and Sam’s pictures as he told with great enthusiasm the story of Joshua, Rahab and the spies.

At the start some children came out to wear some of Sam’s great collection of hats from all around the world, all of which have particular stories and meanings. In this case the children tried on hats from Ukraine, Cameroon, Peru, Russia and Kazakhstan.

Alfie McClelland also played the organ and during the collection Clough Sunday School member Sarah Rooney sang ‘For God so Loved the World’. It was a great occasion and was hugely enjoyed by everyone there.

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Ballymoney Remonstrant Meeting-House

 

It is not often that I find myself in Ballymoney but being there I always like to have a look at what once was the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. The building is still in use although it is now almost unrecognisable as a meeting-house. In 1949 it was sold off to be the offices of the local council and continues in this use to the present day, although the office buildings have regularly been added to and enlarged ever since. I managed to get to Ballymoney twice in one day, but this was both before the offices opened and after they had closed so I was not able to do what I once did years ago, namely get inside to take a picture of probably the only surviving evidence of the original purpose of the building. Nevertheless I was still able to get a picture of this – even if only taken through the window.

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Riada House, Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council

The history of the congregation is quite interesting. A fairly isolated Non-Subscribing church there must have been a New Light element within the original Presbyterian church in the town because they left and formed their own Remonstrant congregation in about 1829. They must have been a reasonably strong group as well because they built a large and handsome church. But this was not without difficulty. According to a story published in the Bible Christian at the time, the local landlord, a “Mr Cromie of Portstewart,” refused to allow his tenants to obtain stones from his quarry in order to build the church. The congregation, which initially met for worship in a grain store, sent a delegation to him to request the right to collect stone for the building. The result was an absolute refusal because “he could not conscientiously allow stone to Arians”. Mr Cromie was a member of the Church of Ireland but apparently did not place such a restriction on the local Roman Catholics or the Reformed Presbyterians who were both building new churches at this point. But he thoroughly disapproved of the Non-Subscribers. The Bible Christian observed that this was not just inconvenient for them but also a direct challenge to their existence by their landlord. By denying them stone Mr Cromie was giving:

a hint to those of his tenants who might be inclined to join the Remonstrants, that they cannot do without incurring his displeasure; and to those who have done so already, that they can only regain his forfeited displeasure by relinquishing their recently adopted connexion.

Nevertheless, the congregation was made of stern stuff. Denied access to the only source of stone in the locality they determined to build the meeting-house in brick instead, more expensive to use but not something that could be kept from them by the landlord.

There is a helpful sign outside the council office which includes a neat representation of the original façade:

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Detail from the Council information plaque

It must have been an impressive and pleasing building in its day but almost all the character has been drained away by the alterations and additions that have been made in the decades since its sale, not least by the porch/lean-to/conservatory that has been added across what once was the entrance. This little edifice now houses a small committee room but still visible in the wall is the original date stone which I managed to photograph through the smoked glass.

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Inside the porch

It contains two proof texts beloved of Non-Subscribers at the time:

“Search the Scriptures” (John 5: 39) and “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).

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The 1832 date stone

The congregation has continued to meet outside its original home ever since the sale of this building, but it is nice to know that there is a reminder of the building’s original purpose still to be found by those who look.

 

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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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.

The case of the Clough meeting house (1836): law reporting and pamphleteering

Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church

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Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church opened for worship in 1837

PUBLIC LECTURE

by

John F Larkin, QC

Attorney General for Northern Ireland

 

The case of the Clough meeting house (1836): law reporting and pamphleteering

The Lecture will take place in the meeting house on

Wednesday, 24th May 2017

at 7.30 pm

Followed by refreshments in the hall. Admission free. Everyone welcome.

Abstract

The case of Dill v Watson (1836) determined which of two parties in Irish Presbyterianism was entitled to the ownership of the Meeting House in Clough, County Down. It was the first Irish battle in a campaign in which litigation was the adjunct of theological controversy, and in the Clough case there is almost a fusion of legal and theological debate. What is striking (and fascinating) about the Clough case is that both parties published reports of the decision. Law reporting was for the parties to the Clough litigation no abstract record of a judicial decision but a further way for historical, legal, political and theological debate to be carried on. The two reports of the Clough case opened a distinct front in a pamphlet campaign that lasted until the Dissenters Chapels Act 1844 – if not beyond. This lecture explores this litigation and its background through the prism of the two partisan reports of the Clough case and the later law report by Thomas Jones. It examines the significance of the Clough case as a turning point in wider legal and theological controversy.

For further information contact: Rev Dr David Steers, nspresb@hotmail.com

Clough Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, Castlewellan Road, Clough, BT30 8RD

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The interior of the meeting house. The venue for the lecture

Ballee’s Carnegie Organ

In 2012 Ballee Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church celebrated the centenary of their two manual pipe organ with a twelve hour ‘Hymnathon’ from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm, finishing the day with a special service at 7.00 pm. The organ was officially opened on Sunday, 23rd June 1912 and its centenary was marked by a very effective and widely supported cross-community celebration with clergy, choirs, musicians and visitors from all local churches taking part.

 

But back in 1912 the organ was installed as part of an extensive renovation of the church that significantly modernised what previously must have been a largely untouched early eighteenth-century meeting house and which gives the church its essential appearance to this day. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian magazine for August 1912 reported that:

 

On Sunday, 23rd June, successful services were conducted by Rev. H. McLachlan, MA, BD, of the Unitarian Home Missionary college, and sermons appropriate to the re-opening of the renovated church were preached to large and appreciative congregations…An outstanding feature of the day was the fact that two neighbouring rectors of the Episcopal Church held no services, thus leaving their people free to attend…a gracious compliment to minister and people

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Rev Dr Herbert McLachlan c. 1912

The report went on that the new manse, which was nearing completion, was much admired by the numerous visitors and nearly one hundred pounds was raised on the day. In addition considerable work had been done to the church:

 

The building has been thoroughly overhauled, new high-pressure heating apparatus set up…The old graveyard has been mapped and numbered and gravelled paths laid out. The tinted glass windows set in Castlewellan granite jambs are especially noticeable for their reposeful simplicity and strength. The grand old timbered roof, which was raised at the first renovation of the church in 1773, is unique, and showed out beautifully in the favourable light of the summer day. The old rough hewn flagged floor has been replaced by a patterned maple wood block floor, which still adds to the quiet neatness aimed at by the promoters of the scheme…The work which, which gives universal satisfaction, was wholly carried out by members of families belonging to Ballee Non-Subscribing Church.

 

All this was done under the direction of the Rev J.H. Bibby, himself a considerable benefactor to the Ballee congregation. However, a centrepiece of the day was the opening of the new organ, itself the result of a charitable donation of a very different sort:

 

…a fine organ, built in solid oak by Dalladay of Hastings, has been erected…The musical part of the service was rendered  in a devotional spirit by the Choir, augmented by voluntary helpers. The beautiful instrument was ably handled by Mr R. McCullen, CE, who is honorary organist of the church.

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Rev J.H. Bibby

 

The report doesn’t mention it but the new organ was paid for by a donation from the Carnegie Fund.

 

The organ came to Ballee just over 100 years after protestant dissenting churches in Ireland, mainly those of a liberal or non-subscribing outlook, first began to use organs in their worship. The first organ seems to have been opened in Cork in about 1801. In 1806 Belfast’s Second Congregation and the Presbyterian church in Dundalk both installed organs. In some places this remained an incredibly controversial topic throughout the nineteenth century. Almost certainly Ballee will have used a harmonium without any controversy for some time before but in 1912 it moved into a different league with the installation of their Dalladay organ.

 

The choice of organ builder was an interesting one. It is not known whether Dalladay built any other organs in Ireland, it certainly was a long way for the firm to travel to fulfil the contract. In Organs of Hastings and St. Leonards Julian Rhodes writes of him:

 

Samuel Frederick Dalladay (1865-1955) built or rebuilt some ten organs in the town [Hastings]. A Londoner, Dalladay was a skilled performer who gave recitals at the Royal Albert Hall and the Crystal Palace in his youth. In 1886 he moved to Folkestone and opened an Academy of Music; he became organist at St. John’s Church, Folkestone. His organ-building activities are known to date from as early as 1903, though it was not until just before World War I that he moved to Hastings and opened the Sussex Organ Works, which remained in business until about 1939. From time to time he built instruments for churches throughout England, though most of his work was in the southern counties. His two largest jobs appear to have been a 4-manual 26-stop instrument for St. Bartholomew, Reading in 1910, and a 3-manual 36-stop rebuild at Holy Trinity, Aldershot in 1925.

 

The organ underwent extensive repairs in 1954 and was rededicated at a service on 12th September 1954 by the Rt Rev John Radcliffe, the then moderator. In 1972 an electric blower was installed. Prior to this date it had to be pumped by hand and it was not unknown for the man employed to do the pumping to nod off during the sermon and need a gentle reminder to return to his labours for the final hymn! However, its genesis as an organ paid for by the Carnegie Fund gives it a unique provenance, at least in relation to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.

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Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland on 25th November 1835. The son of a poor domestic hand-loom weaver his early life was not easy and at the age of 12, along with his parents and younger brother, he emigrated to Pittsburg. Here begins a story that encapsulates the American Dream. His first job was as a ‘bobbin boy’ in a cotton mill at $1.25 per week but was soon ‘promoted’ to work as an operative for $2 per week, doing work that was physically hard and dangerous and which daily induced nausea in the 13 year old. But through hard work, ingenuity, resourcefulness, drive and some luck, by the age of 30 he was earning $50,000 per year. Most of his income came from investments he had made during the Civil War and by the time he came to retire at the age of 65 his personal fortune was estimated to be the largest in America. He sold his family holdings in his steel and other companies for $480 million in 1901 and turned his attention, full-time, to philanthropy.

 

Carnegie draw up a set of priorities as to where he would help. They were in order:

 

  1. Universities
  2. Free libraries
  3. Hospitals
  4. Parks
  5. Halls suitable for meetings and concerts
  6. Swimming baths
  7. Churches, but only the buildings and accoutrements and not to support religious activities other than music making.

 

Churches were right at the bottom of his list. Although Carnegie was a Scots Presbyterian by birth and was a member of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York his religious views were not conventional and he had little time for church preachers. But he did like church music and thought that churches had an important cultural role in this area. As a result he offered grants for church organs, buying a total of 7,689, including, for instance, 219 in Ireland and 1,005 in Scotland, 4,092 in the United States and one each in India and British Guinea, all to a total cost of over $6,000,000.

 

Early on funds were provided for half the cost of an organ on the basis that the congregation would find the rest, although later on the Carnegie Fund appears to have supplied the full cost. However, stringent rules existed for the supply of an organ from the fund. Applications for organs alone ran as high as about 3,000 in one year. In the first 20 years there were approximately 40,000 applications, showing that the successful award of a grant was far from a foregone conclusion. All applicants had to provide a detailed financial statement and explain how a new instrument would contribute to their congregational life.

 

A report commissioned by Andrew Carnegie into the effectiveness of these grants found that the introduction of a new organ had a wholly beneficial effect in business terms as well as every other way:

 

The pastors of the churches visited were questioned closely as to the effect produced upon the contributions of the members by a gift as large as that made by the Corporation. The unanimous declaration was made that it had been a stimulus to individual giving and in many instances illustrative figures were presented to show that the benefactions of the church had been doubled since the installation of the organ. A part of such increase was usually ascribed to the larger congregations attracted by the better music.

 

So this is the background to the grant of the Carnegie organ to Ballee Church, one of the 219 in Ireland. None of the correspondence relating to the acquisition of the organ has survived but the organ has remained an integral part of regular worship ever since.

 

Andrew Carnegie’s report into the effectiveness of his organ bequests concluded three things:

 

  1. Churches are contributing instrumentalities in the social and cultural advancement of a community – the aggregate of communities make the Nation.
  2. The efficiency of the services of a church is augmented by the use of a pipe organ, hence, through the church, the organ indirectly contributes to the social and cultural advancement of the community, and
  3. Directly, the organ when used in recitals and by students of music, renders an important cultural service.

 

Although written in a slightly strange jargon no one could argue against these observations as being true in Ballee. The pipe organ has contributed much to congregational life and consequently to the life of the wider community. The congregation are glad to have it and value it as part of both their witness and their heritage from over one hundred years.

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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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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

Telling Tales by Sheila McMillan

Sheila McMillan’s new book Telling Tales was officially launched at a reception in Waterstone’s, Lisburn on 30th June. It is good to see a large retailer like that supporting local authors and it was encouraging to see such a lot of people there for the occasion.

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As the wife, daughter, granddaughter and great niece of ministers Sheila is well placed to write about life inside the manse. But this is no pious collection of platitudes and improving tales as one suspects that many ministerial or ministerial family memoirs must be. Sheila writes well and entertainingly. As one of the speakers said at the launch she can handle humour which is a rare skill and the book is full of good stories told with great humour. What makes them funnier is that they are all true (although in some cases the names have been changed to protect the guilty) and they have an honesty and directness which appeals.

 

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Some of the people Sheila has known are truly remarkable. Her pen portrait of Elizabeth Law Barbour Andrews (who considered her names unsuitable and preferred to be known as Elba), the orphaned daughter of Thomas Andrews who designed the Titanic, and who bustled into Sheila’s life with some force is one that stays in the mind.

Some of the tales told will make you laugh out loud but Sheila also has some very moving stories. If you want to know what it felt like to be a mother anxious about a son who had disappeared for 24 hours in Belfast at the height of the Troubles then her story ‘A Nightmare in the Northern Ireland Eighties’ does that.

The benefits of coming from a clerical household are enormous. Having to ascertain from an elderly patient with a neurological complaint whether he was unable or unwilling to speak the answer comes when he remembers her clergyman grandfather who shut down the only pub in his village. In ‘A “Religious Experience”’ Sheila recounts a trip to Japan to take part in an IARF inter-faith conference and to experience the Shinto religion first hand. This is insightful and witty and tells you more about such encounters in a few pages than most earnest official reports of such gatherings ever do.

But it is a good read and one that can be recommended. All proceeds go to the Northern Ireland Branch of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

 

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Edgar Innes Fripp and William Shakespeare

The current celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare prompt me to think about the Rev Edgar Innes Fripp. His is not a name widely remembered today but I was very aware of him when I was minister of All Souls’ Church in Belfast as a very distinguished predecessor in that pulpit, indeed the minister under whose leadership that church was built in 1896.

 

E.I. Fripp didn’t really get the attention he deserved in the congregation, although I wrote and spoke about him on a number of occasions. If the congregation looked to anyone as an historical exemplar it was A.L. Agnew whose own particular heroic story in the course of a 54 year ministry was partly based on an undoing of the achievements of his predecessor Fripp. He did away with the ‘Fripperies’ that remained from early in the century even to the extent – or so I was told – of having a bonfire of old service books along with assorted hassocks, communion table cloths and pulpit hangings. Fripp had introduced an edited version of the prayer book to the church, a robed choir and a much more devotional style of worship than had been the case before. More than that he had built the church, a little medieval English parish church in suburban Belfast. It was his vision in achieving this that had enabled the church to survive. Without this move it would have been unlikely to have lasted in Rosemary Street, and although there may have been a falling off in attendances between the wars it suited the narrative of the later arrival of Dr Agnew and the York Street congregation following the blitz of 1941, to write off everything that had gone before. In fact the destruction of the York Street building made an eventual union of the two congregations inevitable but without the intervention of the German Luftwaffe even that probably would not have taken place.

 

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All Souls’ in 1900

 

By the time I was minister at All Souls’ a large majority of the congregation had belonged to York Street or were descendants of that congregation. The Second Congregation families, the original All Souls’ people, were a minority yet there were a few who remembered Edgar Innes Fripp. This wasn’t because they were extraordinarily old, because although he had built the church in 1896 and left in 1900 he had returned at the start of the 1920s for a few years. In the 1990s there were some people who had childhood memories of Fripp and what they remembered in particular was his interest in Shakespeare. He was much given to quoting him and increasingly found inspiration in his writings for his sermons.

 

ShakespearesStratford

The title page of Shakespeare’s Stratford

 

In Belfast he had been innovative, imaginative and creative. He was a genuine scholar, he had been a Hibbert Scholar in Germany before entering the ministry, and was a caring and effective pastor. All this can be seen in his Kalendar, the first monthly magazine to be distributed within a church of the Non-Subscribing tradition in Ireland. Before he had arrived the Second Congregation had left the presbyterian structures to pursue their own course although they were rooted in the Free Christian theological traditions exemplified by James Martineau.

 

Early in his ministry he had produced an account of the composition of the book of Genesis, by the end of his ministry he was completely absorbed in Shakespearean studies. He published a number of works on Shakespeare, and his life and times, and became a trustee of Shakespeare’s birthplace. Indeed it is interesting to see that today the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a short video examining E.I. Fripp’s analysis of Iago:

http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/shakespeares-villains-iago

 

At the end of his life Fripp’s funeral took place in Shakespeare’s church and he was buried in Stratford on Avon. But he produced a large amount of work on Shakespeare and I have often been tempted to seek out a contemporary Shakespearean scholar to give an assessment of how these works are regarded today for Faith and Freedom. There is and has long been a vast industry around Shakespeare and each age finds a different set of interpretations that reflect its own circumstances. It would be nice to know from the point of view of an English literature specialist what endures from Fripp’s writings. But if nothing else he had an enduring impact on the topography of South Belfast, something that continues to this day.

 

AllSouls02

The view of All Souls’ today from the Belfast City Hospital

Blue Plaque for the Rev Henry Montgomery

A good number of people braved winter weather, heavy traffic and seasonal busy-ness to attend the unveiling of the Ulster History Circle Blue Plaque commemorating the Rev Henry Montgomery (1788-1865) on the walls of his old meeting house in Dunmurry on 18th December 2015. Appropriately enough the unveiling was done by the Very Rev William McMillan, Henry Montgomery’s successor for 45 years and undoubtedly the person most knowledgeable about his life and career.

 

People gather outside the meeting house in anticipation of the unveiling of the blue plaque
People gather outside the meeting house in anticipation of the unveiling of the blue plaque

 

The premises and grounds of Dunmurry have always been immaculately kept and the meeting house provided a very suitable space for the speeches immediately after the unveiling. This has been a year of commemoration marking the 150th anniversary of Henry Montgomery’s death and, as Ian Crozier observed in his speech, the Ulster Scots Agency had assisted in the republication of Bill McMillan’s booklet on Montgomery, A Profile in Courage, first published fifty years ago and still the most useful introduction to his life and work.

 

As was also pointed out in the speeches this is not the first blue plaque to a Rev Henry Montgomery (the other one being the founder of the Shankill Road Mission), and it is certainly not the first blue plaque for a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian, but I think it is the first blue plaque for a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister (although at least two sons of the manse have already made it onto a blue plaque).

 

Rev Mac unveils the plaque
Rev Mac unveils the plaque

 

In his speech the Rev Bill McMillan quoted comments made by the Banner of Ulster, a newspaper not sympathetic to Montgomery’s religious position. At the time of his death it said:

 

Never did his powers of eloquence shine out more conspicuously than when he was denouncing tyranny, in other lands or his own; or pleading for the rights of humanity. He contended that a man’s religion should never subject him to penalty or inconvenience and he claimed liberty alike for Protestant and Catholic, for Christian, Jew and Deist.

 

Very much a pioneer and champion of what today would be called human rights it seems fitting that he should be remembered. Henry Cooke, his old opponent, after all has a prominent statue, Henry Montgomery certainly deserves his plaque.

 

Rev Henry Montgomery (1788-1865) . Minister, teacher, reformer
Rev Henry Montgomery (1788-1865) . Minister, teacher, reformer