By David Steers
In the previous paper we had reached somewhere around the year 1870. The denomination had gone from a strong looking position immediately after 1844 with their property secure and giving evidence of determined growth. Within a few years all this had changed. The three Non-Subscribing bodies had split into four and with that was a legacy of disagreement and controversy.
But things would get worse before they got better. By the end of the nineteenth century the four bodies had split again into five.
The Synod of Munster represented the small number of churches in the south of Ireland but in the north furious theological disagreements within the churches had developed into open division. We saw in the previous paper how the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster, which had been forced out of the orthodox Synod in 1829 over their refusal to accept the Westminster Confession, itself became embroiled in controversy when some of the younger ministers revolted against what they saw as attempts to circumscribe their liberty, and some ministers and congregations left the Remonstrant Synod and applied to join the Presbytery of Antrim in 1862. The new applicants were accepted but as a consequence five of the original congregations withdrew to form the Northern Presbytery of Antrim which sought to emphasise (in Alexander Gordon’s words) “a recognition of the authority of Christ and of divine revelation”. Just to complicate matters further another group of five congregations also seceded from the Presbytery of Antrim in 1871 but this time as a protest against Presbyterian organisation and formed the Free Congregational Union. This split is sometimes explained as the result of the ministers not understanding or respecting the Presbyterian system but in fact it had behind it just as much theological meaning. Those who adopted much more radical theology did not sit easily in an environment where others could exercise authority over them.
But by the start of the twentieth century we see the first tentative movements towards unity between these groups. One of the first things that was done was the establishment of a new magazine, the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian. Priced at one penny the first issue of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian appeared in July 1907.
The magazine did not just drop out of the sky but was one arm of the movement for unity which had emerged within the disparate elements of Non-Subscription in the previous years.
Issue 2 of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian declared:
it is certain that the 19th of June, 1907, was a great day for the Irish Non-Subscribing Church, and deserves to be marked with a red letter in its calendar, for on that day the divisions and distrusts which so long exercised a baleful influence over its heretofore peaceful and harmonious existence were adjusted, and its lost unity restored.
Just how bad the feelings had been within the denomination is illustrated by the next paragraph:
Half a century has elapsed since the apple of discord was thrown in which has wrought us so much harm, provoking bitter controversies, raising personal animosities, separating friends, and so paralysing all efforts to promote the prosperity of our Church. For years this internecine warfare, forming the darkest page in the history of the Non-Subscribing Body, proceeded without a check, alienating friends, giving the luke-warm an excuse for secession, and creating joy in the camp of our opponents.
So what happened on 19 June 1907?
On that date the annual meetings of the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians were held and the proposals for re-organisation and union originally put forward by Dr John Campbell the year before were opened for discussion.
Dr John Campbell was far and away the most prominent lay person in the denomination at the time. Acknowledged at the time of his death as one of the most famous and distinguished surgeons in Ireland he was the Senior Surgeon to the Samaritan Hospital for Women in Belfast and Consulting Surgeon to the Belfast Maternity Hospital. The author of an important textbook on obstetrics and gynaecology his standing in his own profession was one of great eminence. In later life he went on to represent Queen’s University in the Stormont Parliament and was to be knighted in 1925. Fiercely proud of his origins in a Plantation family that had come over from Ayrshire he was a keen amateur historian and a few years later published the first history of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.
It was John Campbell who had first promoted the idea of union and many were to pay tribute to his vision when this was finally achieved. A report was drawn up which in its original draft recommended the adoption of the name the “Free Presbyterian Church of Ireland” but this had eventually been dropped. It is curious to note how the subsequent history of Northern Ireland might have been affected if we, and not someone else, had been called the Free Presbyterian Church.
But nevertheless the name, the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, which while not being terribly catchy was nevertheless entirely accurate, became the working title.
At the meeting on 19 June 1907 the proposed Constitution, which had been drawn up by the sub-committee, was unanimously adopted by the churches as they agreed also to work towards a new Code of Discipline and the various financial and legal steps. At the Association dinner held that night in the Old Castle Restaurant the Rev Alexander Gordon pointed out that “for the first time we are entitled to speak, not of ‘Our Churches,’ but of ‘Our Church.’”
In February 1908 the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian reported on the ongoing work of reunification noting that the sub-committee set up in June 1907 had met several times and had compiled a set of rules for the new denomination based on the rules of procedure of the Presbytery of Antrim, the Remonstrant Synod and the usage of the Free Congregations. This would actually be no simple thing but the magazine could confidently predict a unanimous approval from all sections of the Church. Once compiled the rules were to be sent to all the individual churches for congregational approval to be given. Once the rules had been drawn up and agreed the process of collecting money for the Sustentation Fund could begin.
Although there seemed to be no major hitches to this process of unification it was not rapid. At the annual meetings in June 1908 careful consideration was still being given to the new Code of Discipline although it was expected to be ready to be laid before the congregations in the autumn. But it was a time of confidence, at least for the leaders of the new denomination. The Rev W.H. Drummond gave the opinion that:
my conviction is that in Belfast there is a growing opening for liberal religious thinkers. There are numbers of men who never come into contact with organised religious life at all, and who are groping their way for some faith by which they can live. Every year sees an increase in the number of men who find themselves unable to interpret the Christian religion and the meaning of life in the traditional terms.
This was all part of the prevailing atmosphere of an optimistic future for liberal leaning theology that existed before the First World War. The world was experiencing a time of tremendous progress. Even in its own small way the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian was indicative of the potential that seemed to be about – a regular, cheaply produced, attractive magazine linking the churches and able to reflect the needs of an individual congregation – this was the equivalent of a successful website today. New technology was being harnessed to support a new theology. While printing wasn’t new it had become relatively inexpensive at this time and made ideas, news and information readily available. The theology that Non-Subscribers espoused reflected what was then cutting edge and most exciting. It was intellectually rooted in the latest thinking and the writings of the most powerful theologians. Ironically in view of the forthcoming world war, most of the newest thinking had come from Germany and, as a result, many of the leading Non-Subscribing ministers had been partly trained in Germany where they had learnt the latest ideas about the ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible and the most modern interpretations of the person and work of Christ.
So amongst many of the most prominent Non-Subscribing ministers the Rev Alexander Gordon had been awarded a Hibbert Scholarship whilst a student and was able to travel to Germany to study at Munich University under the ecclesiastical historian and future rector Ignaz von Dollinger between 1860 and 1863. The Rev Edgar Innes Fripp, although not directly involved in the scheme for unity, had built All Souls’ Church and returned to ministry there a few years later, was partly educated in Germany and wrote a well received book on the book of Genesis. The Rev W.H. Drummond, his successor, had also studied in Germany, as a Hibbert Scholar at the University of Jena. Dr S.H. Mellone had studied in Germany and went on to produce important works of philosophy and church history. The Rev H.J. Rossington studied in Germany and wrote about his experiences there in early issues of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian. Indeed after his installation in First Church H.J. Rossington was also a keen participant and publicist for an organisation that arranged family holiday exchanges between British and German families. I am not trying to suggest that any of these men were solely defined by their relationship with Germany, but their knowledge of German and their time spent studying there was indicative of both their abilities and their theological outlook. These men – and others like them – were considerable scholars who had imbibed the spirit of their age and had a vision of a new church that put aside past differences and presented a face to the world that spoke to the human condition in a time of success, achievement and enquiry.
By January 1909 their scheme for union, while progressing only slowly, was still on track. The final draft of the new Code was ready for approval from the churches, it had already been submitted to the Presbyteries and a special meeting of the Remonstrant Synod for approval. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian took time to remind congregations of “the immense importance of their decision, and of the spirit of unselfish loyalty to the common good which should animate the discussion of the whole subject.”
At the annual meeting of the Association in June 1909 the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland came into being. On 16 June 1909 the amended Code of Discipline was approved by a unanimous vote. Two years’ worth of discussion, debate and consultation had come to fruition. At the meeting the Rev Dr S.H. Mellone stood down as President, he had already announced his imminent removal to Edinburgh, and the Rev J.J. Magill of Rademon was elected as the new President. The new Code was presented to the meeting and after discussion and some amendment was approved by the meeting on the proposal of the Rev Alexander Gordon, seconded by the Rev R.M. King of Newtownards.
Rev Alexander Gordon
The inauguration of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church took place in Rosemary Street at an event held on Thursday, 24 February 1910. Five main addresses were delivered during the day. The first was by the senior minister of the denomination, and soon to be appointed first moderator, the Rev William Napier. He was born at Ballybranagh in county Down and was minister at Clough and had been in the active ministry for 55 years having served as assistant to the Rev David Watson, one of the original Remonstrant ministers. In his address he commended the work of Dr John Campbell in bringing the new venture to fruition and noted that “not the least pleasing feature in the case is the fact that quite half of our ministers from across the Channel coming amongst us imbued with congregational feeling and more or less biased against our Presbyterian forms, should have heartily joined in this movement.”
With William Napier as moderator the Rev J.A. Kelly, minister of Dunmurry and born in Ballee, was appointed clerk and John Rogers treasurer.
After a communion service, in the evening, the Rev Alexander Gordon delivered an address. Minister of First Church from 1877 to 1889 Gordon had left to become Principal of the Unitarian Home Missionary College, Manchester. Despite his removal from Belfast Gordon retained not only a strong affection but an active involvement with the Irish churches. In his speech he was reported as saying that:
The congregations in Ireland had roots old and deeply struck. He was a great believer in the hereditary principle. In this country they could look back to an ancestry and not ignoble past. Families here were rooted in the soil for generations. Presbyterians as they were taking it to-day bound congregations together into a body…Linked together, they were not only stronger as a body but really freer in the highest sense of their own individualities.
The new Church did not have a Sustentation Fund. This took some years to develop and an appeal was launched in 1911 and by 1914 it was up and running.
In the process of consolidation the churches which had gone out into the Free Congregational Union were re-absorbed into various presbyteries and the presbyteries of Bangor and Armagh were amalgamated in 1913. The process was completed when the Synod of Munster, which had been a member of the Association throughout, eventually joined the General Synod in 1935.
But a new denomination had been created. One that brought together three long established institutions which, while they had all the legal status of individual denominations were weakened by their lack of an over-arching structure.
In 1928 the General Synod, as a denomination in its own right, became part of the newly formed General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. It has been part of the International Association for Religious Freedom throughout its history and is a full member of the Irish Council of Churches (which body has no creedal basis). In a similar way it has always contributed to the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, which brought the Protestant and Catholic churches together for theological discussion. The General Synod is also one of the sponsoring churches for Christian Aid.
The new Synod of 1910 brought unity to all the predecessor groups and an efficiency and an energy that they had previously lacked. In creating the new structure they depended upon their own historical identity and deepened and copper fastened their own Presbyterian identity. Through this structure the denomination continues to witness to the world in the words of St Paul that “where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”.