10 September 2023

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (105) 10 September 2023

The Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, was designed by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon and opened in 1863 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and today is the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIV, 10 September 2023).

I hope to attend the Parish Eucharist in Saint Mary and Saint Giles Church, Stony Stratford this morning. Later in the day I am taking part in the Open Day at Milton Keynes and District Reform Synagogue, as part of the European Days of European Days of Jewish Culture 2023, part of the programme includes an exhibition of a selection of my photographs.

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

This week, I have been reflecting each morning in these ways:

1, Looking at a Unitarian church I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The Unitarian Church in Dublin was built through the generosity of Thomas Wilson, a wealthy shipowner (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Unitarian Church, Dublin:

These Sundays in Ordinary Time are also counted as the Sundays after Trinity, and today is the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XIV). In contrast to this way of counting the Sundays at this time in the Church Year, my photographs in my Prayer Diary this week are from a selection of Unitarian churches,

The Unitarian Church on the west side of Saint Stephen’s Green is the only Unitarian Church in Dublin. It first opened 160 years ago, on Sunday 14 June 1863. The church was designed in the Decorative Gothic style – the style rejected by Newman for the nearby University Church, on the south side of the Green – by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon of Belfast between 1861 and 1863.

The church traces its origins to earlier Non-Subscribing Presbyterian, Dissenting and Unitarian congregations in Strand Street and Eustace Street, dating back to the 17th century Puritans.

Thomas Emlyn (1663-1741), the first English preacher to describe himself as a ‘Unitarian,’ spent some time in prison in Dublin in 1701-1702, and was visited there by Edward Wetenhall (1636-1713), Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, who was born in Lichfield.

John Abernethy became minister of the Wood Street congregation, in the Aungier Street area of Dublin, in 1730. His refusal to subscribe to the Calvinist Westminster Confession in 1726 led to the formation of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.

Joseph Priestley, the scientist and ‘discoverer’ of oxygen, was the organiser of modern Unitarianism in England, although not before the Revd Theophilus Lindsey, Vicar of Catterick, Yorkshire, left the Church of England to found the first avowed Unitarian congregation in Essex Street, near the Strand in London in 1774.

Meanwhile, the Wood Street congregation was joined in 1762 by the Dissenters of Mary’s Abbey. Together they moved to Great Strand Street, where a new meeting house opened in 1764 and where they were joined by the Cook Street congregation in 1787.

The present church on Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, owes its existence to Thomas Wilson, a wealthy shipowner and member of the Strand Street congregation. His father, Joseph Wilson, was George Washington’s aide-de-camp and later the first US consul in Dublin.

Thomas Wilson of Temple Street, Dublin, built Westbury in Stillorgan on the site of an older house. He was the senior partner in Joseph Wilson & Son, and was appointed the US Consul in Dublin in 1827. Wilson was a member of the Ouzel Galley Society, a trustee of the Royal Exchange, a director of the National Assurance Company of Ireland, a governor of Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, and a director and Governor of the Bank of Ireland.

Thomas Wilson died on 5 October 1857 at the age of 69 at Westbury. Although a member of the Strand Street congregation, he was buried at Saint Mary’s Church. His left a personal estate valued at £450,000, including £2,300 to the Strand Street congregation for building a new church in Dublin.

A site was bought on Saint Stephen’s Green and an architectural competition in 1861 for a new church was won by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon, whose other works in Dublin include Sanford Parish Church, Ranelagh (1860), and Saint Andrew’s Church (Church of Ireland), ‘an ambitious Gothic church’ also built on a cramped site (1861).

The Unitarian Church is a delightful building in the Decorated Gothic style, and one of the best examples of a modern Gothic church on a narrow street frontage.

A century before the church was built, the west side of Saint Stephen’s Green was known as French Walk, because of the many Huguenots who owned property there. The church site was previously occupied by the Synges, a prominent family who included five bishops in the Church of Ireland.

The site for the church was 60 ft wide, and none of the internal corners of the building is at right angles to the other as the existing houses on either side were at an angle to the street. The top of the spire is 97 ft from the street, while the main body of the church is 58 ft long and 46 ft wide.

The external walls are of squared granite rubble, and the decorative portions, both external and internal, are of Bath stone from the Box quarries in England.

Initially, this looks almost like an Anglo-Catholic church of the period, and – surprisingly, for a non-conformist church – the emphasis in the interior is not on the pulpit, which is to one side of the reredos and table.

On entering, the eye immediately focuses on the reredos, which is on the geographical north side rather than the east side of the church. But there are no images on the reredos – instead it is inscribed with the Beatitudes as a memorial to Sir Andrew Marshall Porter (1837-1919), Attorney-General of Ireland. There is no altar or holy table beneath it, merely a simple, low, long table that might have come from a large and drafty reception room.

‘Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ … the pulpit in the Unitarian Church, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The pulpit bears in raised, gilt letters the Johannine text: ‘Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.’

Above the table and reredos, is the impressive Wilson Memorial Window, one of the first pieces attributed to the revival of the Irish stained-glass industry in the early 20th century. The window was designed by AE Child and is the work of Sarah Purser’s An Túr Gloine or The Tower of Glass studio.

The window, dedicated on 23 June 1918, features the themes of Discovery, Truth, Inspiration, Love and Work. Christ is the main figure in the window, and the lower parts include images of Christopher Columbus (Discovery), Martin Luther (Truth), the young Christ in the Temple (Inspiration), Florence Nightingale (Love) and William Caxton (Work).

The church has a wealth of French, Flemish and English stained glass. The earliest windows were designed by the Lobin studio of Tours and date from 1865-1868.

Biblical themes in the windows include Palm Sunday (Lobin), ‘Suffer the Little Children to come unto me’ (Lobin), ‘Blessed are the Pure in Heart for they shall see God’ (1891, no signature) and the ‘Good Samaritan’ (Ethel Rhind).

More recent stained glass windows are by Michael Healy and Catherine O’Brien of An Túr Gloine.

An angel holding the ‘sword of the Spirit’ in one hand, and ‘the word of God,’ represented by the Bible, in the other (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The decorative work on the capitals of the main pillars supporting the four internal arches represents different types of leaves. The decorative, carved angels below the corbelled bases of the main roof trusses and at the top of each pillar represent the ‘whole armour of God’:

‘Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6: 14-17).

The angel on the south-east corner is putting on a girdle, the ‘girdle of truth.’

The angel on the south-west corner is putting on a helmet representing the ‘helmet of salvation.’

The angel on the north-west corner is holding the ‘shield of faith’ on which ‘all the flaming arrows of the evil one’ can be seen breaking up in pieces.

Finally, the angel on the north-east corner holds the ‘sword of the Spirit’ in one hand, and ‘the word of God,’ represented by the Bible in the other.

The original organ was installed in the gallery, but after a fire in 1910 the Walker Organ was bought in 1911 and installed against the south wall where it is today.

On the east wall of the church, beneath the gallery that housed the original organ, is a sculpture by the sculptor Paddy McElroy, a member of the congregation. This work in forged steel, cast bronze, copper and hot-fused glass, illustrates many aspects of Unitarian thinking, with symbols representing the major world religions. A centrepiece by the glass artist Killian Schurman represents the embryo of life or all beginnings.

Paddy McElroy’s other commissions included work for the basilicas in Knock and on Lough Derg. He died in 2007.

The church basement housed the Damer School which provided education for Unitarian families and also for many Jewish children. It closed in June 1954. The Damer Hall, as it became known, hosted a professional and amateur Irish-language theatre from 1955 until the late 1970s. The world premiere of Brendan Behan’s An Giall (The Hostage) was staged there in 1957.

In 2003, the church launched a multi-phase restoration project at an estimated total cost of €1.5 million to clean and restore the external stonework, re-slate the roof, clean and weather-proof the stained glass windows and rewire the building. This project was extended to provide disabled access and renovate the pipe organ, built against the south wall by JW Walker and Sons in 1911.

The Unitarian Church on the west side of Saint Stephen’s Green was described in Lynn’s obituary as ‘the best example extant of a modern Gothic church on a narrow street frontage.’

In the past, I have been involved in memorial services in church for deceased members of the staff of The Irish Times, and was invited to preach there in 2013.

Every time I have visited this church, I have admired the this delightful Decorated Gothic building. But, reflecting on the Christian and Biblical imagery in the windows, carvings, pulpit, pews, memorials and organ, it is hard to grasp how this congregation has moved so far from the Christian roots of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians and the Puritans before them to whom they owe their origins.

The Dublin Unitarian Church has links with the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in the UK and with the Unitarian Universalist Church in the US, as well as the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The present minister is the Revd Bridget Spain.

The reredos and the Wilson Memorial Window in the Unitarian Church, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 18: 15-20 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 15 ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

Gothic decoration on the façade of the Unitarian Church, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Holy Cross Day Reflection.’ This theme is introduced today:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3: 16).

Holy Cross Day confronts us squarely with one of the most important symbols of the Christian faith – the cross. For it is on the cross where Jesus died for our sins to give us life eternal.

As Christians we see the cross so often in our lives – they are in our churches, on books, we may have the image of one in our home, we may wear a crucifix around our necks. In the words we speak on a regular basis, we talk about the cross, in our liturgies and in our prayers. Very simply so many things point to the cross. How often do we walk past a cross and not fully acknowledge its significance? Holy Cross Day is a time for us to reflect on what the cross really means.

For the cross represents the most important truth in the world: that God loves the world so much that he sent his only Son to save the world from itself and everyone – anyone at all – who simply trusts in him will be saved. What an important, life-giving message of hope that is for us all.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (10 September 2023) invites us to reflect on these words:

‘O Lord, You have searched for me and known me
you know when I sit down and when I rise up.’
May we listen to God and follow the path
He leads us along for he has a plan for us.

Gospel scenes in the stained glass windows in the Unitarian Church, Dublun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God, the source of truth and love,
keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Paddy McElroy’s sculpture in the Unitarian Church, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Unitarian Church notice board on Saint Stephen’s Green (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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