02 March 2014
Finding unity and liberty in
dialogue with the Moravians
In recent months, the Church of Ireland has been involved in conversations with the Moravian Church, with discussions first in Kilkenny and then in Gracehill, near Ballymena, Co Antrim. The best ecumenical dialogues involve worshipping together, sharing meals, accepting hospitality from each other, and telling stories. In our talks, we explored what we mean by sacraments, ministry and mission, shared our stories and tradition, and dined together.
Both parties included bishops, clergy and theologians, with observers from partner churches in England and the US. In Kilkenny, we were hosted by Bishop Michael Burrows, while in Gracehill we visited one of the best-known and one of the oldest Moravian settlements on these islands.
Many of us know of the Moravians through the hymns of John Cennick, the stories of their encounters with John Wesley and their influence on early Methodism, or through our adaptation of the Christingle traditions at Christmas-time. The church emblem, seen in Moravian churches and churchyards, shows the Lamb of God with the flag of victory and surrounded by the Latin motto: Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur, “Our Lamb has conquered, let us follow him.”
A pre-Reformation tradition
The Moravian Church has 825,000 members world-wide, and an ordained ministry with bishops, priests and deacons. Moravian traditions from the 18th century include the love-feast and the Christingle. The Moravians accept the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian creeds, and in some places they accept the first 21 Articles of the Augsburg Confession, the Barmen Declaration of 1934, the Small Catechism of Martin Luther, or the Thirty-Nine Articles of Anglicanism. But they value the dictum: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”
The Moravian Church or Unitas Fratrum (the “Unity of the Brethren”) is one of the earliest Protestant traditions, with a story that dates back long before the Reformation.
The Unitas Fratrum became known as the Moravian Church after exiles who fled persecution in Moravia arrived in Saxony in 1722. Their story can be traced to the Hussite movement and Jan Hus (1366-1415), a reforming priest and theologian at Charles University in Prague who wanted the church in Bohemia and Moravia to return to early practices, including celebrating the liturgy in the language of the people, receiving Holy Communion in both kinds and ending clerical celibacy.
His teachings lead many to see the Hussites as the first Protestant church. The movement gained royal support in Bohemia – then an autonomous kingdom in the Holy Roman Empire and now a part of the Czech Republic. But Hus was summoned to the Council of Constance, was declared a heretic and was burned at the stake in 1415.
From refugees to missionaries
Within 50 years, many of his followers regrouped and in 1457 they formed the Bohemian Brethren or Unity of the Brethren in Kunvald in Bohemia. In 1467, fifty years before Martin Luther initiated his Reformation in Wittenberg, the Moravians received episcopal ordination through the Waldensians. By the mid-16th century, up to 90 per cent of the inhabitants of the Czech Crown lands were Protestant.
The Habsburgs forced the Czech Brethren underground and eventually they were dispersed across Northern Europe. Bishop John Amos Comenius (1592-1670), their last Czech-speaking bishop, tried to revive the Church in the Netherlands, Sweden, England, Hungary and Transylvania. His grandson, Daniel Ernst Jablonski (1660-1741), became a pastor in the Prussian court in Berlin, where he met Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), who would succeed Comenius as a bishop in the renewed Moravian Church.
A small group of Bohemian Brethren remained in northern Moravia for almost a century, living as an underground remnant. They arrived at the Berthelsdorf estate of Zinzendorf in present-day Saxon in 1722. They established a new village, Herrnhut (‘the Lord’s House’), which soon became the centre of a major movement for renewal and mission.
In Herrnhut, the Moravians emphasised prayer and worship, and their communal living was marked by simplicity of lifestyle and generosity, eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty. When only 300 people were living in Herrnhut, and the first Moravian mission was established on the Caribbean island of St Thomas in 1732. A year later, a Moravian mission was founded in Greenland in 1733.
Soon, Moravian missionaries were working in North America among the Mohicans in New York, forming the first native Christian congregation in the present-day US. Within a generation, Moravian missionaries had reached the Caribbean, North America, South America, Alaska, the Arctic, Africa and the Far East. They were the first lay missionaries and the first Church to minister among slaves.
When they were expelled from New York, Zinzendorf and his followers founded new communities, including Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1741), and Winston-Salem, North Carolina (1766). The largest number of Moravians today is in Tanzania. In the US, the Moravians have been in full communion with the Episcopal Church since 2010.
Arrival in Ireland
The Moravians are a tiny church in Ireland. The Moravian Church came to Ireland in the mid-18th century through the mission work of the Revd John Cennick (1718-1755). He was born in Reading into a Quaker family but was raised in the Church of England. After experiencing a religious conversion in 1737, he joined John Wesley’s early Methodists. In the Bristol area, he became the first Methodist lay preacher, and he began working as a teacher in Kingswood, near Bath.
After his ordination in the Moravian Church, Cennick was sent to Dublin in 1746. At first, he preached in the open. He then moved to a hall in Skinner’s Alley, off the Coombe in the Liberties, and eventually, as numbers grew, a Moravian Church was built where Kevin Street meets Bishop Street. His best-known hymn, Lo! he comes with clouds descending, was first sung by Moravians in Dublin 1750. The present version is a mixture of verses by John Cennick and Charles Wesley.
In 1764, the Dublin Moravians opened a burial ground at Whitechurch. There are over 700 stones in the graveyard, each measuring about 12 by 18 inches, with men buried on one side and women on the other. The family names there include Alley, Binns, Black, Carey, Clarke, Cooney, Dezouche, Egan, Elliott, Gordon, Jones, Keville, Lemmon, Linfoot, Mann, Moller, Osborne, Price, Smith, Taylor, Warren and Williams.
The Moravian Church in Dublin, first built in 1754-1760, was rebuilt in 1905 to designs by O’Callaghan and Webb. On the front, the pediment has a carving of the Moravian emblem of the Lamb of God. The church closed in 1959 and was turned into offices, but it remains a protected structure. The interior has suffered from some unsympathetic subdivisions, but most of the main features, including the original timber staircase, remain untouched.
Greek independence fighter
Cennick also founded religious centres throughout Ulster, and his preaching and evangelism resulted in the formation of Moravian societies in Antrim, Down, Derry, Armagh, Tyrone and Donegal.
The church Cennick founded in Kilwarlin, near Hillsborough, Co Down, in 1755, was in ruins by 1834, with only six remaining members. But renewal came with the arrival of a new minister, the Revd Basil Patras Zula (1796-1844), a Greek leader who had fought in the War of Independence. He spent some time in hiding in Italy but returned to Greece to take part in the first Siege of Missolonghi in 1822.
Shocked by the slaughter, Zula fled to Smyrna. There he met Sir William Eden, who brought him to England in 1828 and then to Ireland. In Dublin, a Moravian teacher, Ann Linfoot, invited Zula to attend services in the Moravian Church in Bishop Street. Zula eventually offered himself for ministry in the Moravian Church. In 1829 he married Ann Linfoot, and in 1834 they moved to Kilwarlin.
A year later, a new church opened in Kilwarlin, and 26 new members joined the congregation the same day. The church continued to grow and in 1837 Zula was ordained by Bishop Hans Peter Hallbeck, a Moravian bishop from South Africa. At his own expense, Zula landscaped the grounds of Kilwarlin to represent the terrain of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in which the Spartan army saved Athens from attack by the Persians. Zula died in Dublin in 1844 and was buried in Kilwarlin, where most of his landscaping still remains.
Heritage and future
Gracehill village is a Moravian settlement founded in 1759, and is the first designated Conservation Area in Northern Ireland. The church opened in 1765 and remains the central focus of the village. The church, the Old School and the oldest houses in Gracehill are built around a square with tall lime trees and the famous “Montgomery Oak.”
The cupola with its bell and clock was erected on the church in 1798. That year, Gracehill was a refuge for people of all backgrounds during the conflict, and Anglicans, Moravians, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians are said to have knelt together in prayer.
The best-known Moravian hymn writer, James Montgomery (1771-1854), spent part of his childhood in Gracehill, where his father was Moravian minister. He was born in Scotland and was raised in Fulbeck near Leeds. His hymns include Spirit of the Living God and Hail to the Lord’s Anointed.
The other surviving Moravian churches in Ireland are in Ballinderry, near Lisburn, Co Antrim; Cliftonville in Belfast, which has worked in the Oldpark and Cliftonville areas for over 100 years; and University Road, Belfast, which was originally on Sandy Row.
Over the years, many Moravians became integrated into the other churches in Ireland. John Charles Reichel, a Moravian minister from a Herrnhut family with many bishops, was the father of Charles Parsons Reichel (1816-1894), who had a distinguished career in the Church of Ireland, as Archdeacon of Meath, Dean of Clonmacnoise, Professor of Latin in Queen’s College Belfast, Professor of Church History in Trinity College Dublin, and Select Preacher in both Oxford and Cambridge before becoming Bishop of Meath in 1885.
Bishop Reichel married a grand-daughter of the 1798 leader, Henry Joy McCracken, and is buried in the Church of Ireland churchyard in Whitechurch, close to the original Moravian cemetery or ‘God’s Acre,’ beside Whitechurch Vicarage.
In Gracehill, we held our talks for two days in January in the Cennick Hall, behind the church. Behind the hall, a secluded walk leads to “God’s Acre,” not just the burial ground but a haven of peace and quiet too.
In places like Gracehill and Whitechurch, Moravians are buried in a traditional “God’s Acre,” a graveyard with flat gravestones, where men and women are separated even in death, waiting to be reunited in the Kingdom of God. Hopefully the talks in Kilkenny and Gracehill will lead sooner to closer unity between Anglicans and Moravians in Ireland.
Canon Patrick Comerford is a Lecturer in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay and these photographs were first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) in March 2014.
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