Unitarian Church, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Unitarian Church, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin
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A short history of the Unitarian Church, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

Who are the Unitarians?

Unitarians are people of liberal religious outlook who are united by a common search for meaning and truth. Although of Christian origin and still following the teaching of Christ as a great and godly leader, Unitarianism today also seeks insight from other religions and philosophies. Individual beliefs within our religious community are quite diverse, and personal religious development is seen as a continuing process. We see religious beliefs as relevant to all aspects of life. Our services of worship can be viewed as the celebration of our deepest values.

Unitarianism has no set doctrines or dogmas. The broad beliefs of Irish Unitarians are summed up in the introductory statement in the Dublin church’s monthly calendar, under the three central Unitarian principles of freedom, reason and tolerance. This statement reads: “Love is the doctrine of this church. The quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve mankind in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the Divine – thus do we covenant with each other and with God.”

The Puritan roots

THE congregation which assembles in this church every Sunday can trace its descent back to English Puritans who arrived in Ireland at the end of the 16th and early 17th centuries. They took the view that the reformation of the Christian Church under Queen Elizabeth I – the breakaway from Roman Catholicism to form Anglicanism – was incomplete, and its hierarchies and practices remained corrupt and unscriptural. The earliest such congregation we know about was formed in Bandon, Co Cork, probably in the early 1700s.

In this way, ironically, the seeds of Unitarianism in Ireland were Puritan ones, and thus a very long way indeed from the thinking of the present day congregation. What distinguished these early Dissenters – and made them comparable to their contemporary Unitarian counterparts – was their independence of mind and their willingness to challenge religious orthodoxies.

At first, the English Puritans who came to Munster and Leinster, and the much greater number of Scottish Presbyterians who came to Ulster as part of the ‘plantation’ of the North, were generally tolerated within the established Anglican Church – although they were persecuted in the years leading up to the English Civil War. After the parliamentary side won that war, they flourished during the Cromwellian period. However all this changed following the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, the parallel restoration of the established episcopal churches and the passing of the Acts of Uniformity in England and Ireland, making the Book of Common Prayer compulsory at all places of worship.

As had happened in England, a number of Anglican Church ministers left and formed their own Dissenting or Nonconformist congregations. In Dublin, these were at Wood Street, New Row, Cook Street and Capel Street. Other breakaway congregations were formed in Tipperary town and Clonmel. Thus the passing of the Act of Uniformity led to the creation of a separate religious identity, that of Protestant Dissent, which absorbed the earlier Puritan ethos and became the main root from which Irish Unitarianism was to grow.

Many such congregations were also established in Ulster, where the first planters from the Scottish lowlands had brought their Puritan ministers with them, and the first presbytery, the non-hierarchical gathering of elders which is the organisational base of Presbyterianism, was formed in 1642. Thus was organised Presbyterianism in Ireland born, out of which, in the following two centuries, emerged the ‘Non-Subscribing’ liberal Presbyterians, the Northern cousins of today’s Dublin Unitarian congregation.

The first Protestant Dissenting congregation for which authentic records can be found was in Wood Street (near the site of the former Adelaide Hospital), where a church was opened for public worship in 1673. This new church was attended by many wealthy families and people in influential positions in government and the professions: in 1710 it was able to contribute the huge sum – for those days – of £6,750 to a fund for “the support of religion in Dublin and the South of Ireland”. It was led by pastors with international reputations, such as John Owen, Stephen Charnock and Joseph Boyse. The latter was particularly famous for his championing of those who disagreed with the restrictive religious orthodoxies of the day.

The coming of Unitarianism

During the first half of the 18th century a reluctance to accept the doctrine of the Trinity began to appear in some religious thought and writing. This was not yet called Unitarianism, but Arianism, after a Christian priest who lived in Alexandria during the 4th century and preached that Christ was not of one substance with God. Arianism was regarded, even in the Dissenting churches, as a heresy. However in 1702 Thomas Emlyn, the minister in Wood Street, was tried and imprisoned for two years for blasphemy after publishing a book defending his Arian views. Emlyn was an influential figure in religious debate at the time, and was the first minister anywhere to use the name ‘Unitarian’.

[The word Unitarianism did not come into more common usage until the 1770s, when a former Anglican minister called Theophilus Lindsey, who felt he could no longer accept the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, started an openly Unitarian chapel in central London. One of the earliest members of his congregation was the scientist Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen.]

Ulster Presbyterians were particularly alarmed by these heretical views, which were also spreading in some of the old Presbyterian congregations of Antrim and Down. Their leaders’ response was to attempt to impose a rigid conformity of belief by insisting on ‘subscription’ to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document written in the 1640s which reflected the struggle between the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of that era and described the Pope as the Antichrist.

Many ministers and elders with more liberal and open-minded views were deeply unhappy with this doctrine and its enforcement. In 1726 John Abernethy, leader of the so-called ‘New Light’ movement, along with 16 other ministers, refused to sign, or ‘subscribe’ as it was called, and they and their congregations were expelled from the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster. This was the birth of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.

Some years later Abernethy was invited to become minister of Dublin’s Wood Street congregation. His influence was to consolidate that of his predecessor Thomas Emlyn’s, so that according to one historian of Unitarianism, the congregation would soon become “Arian in tone, and steadily gravitate towards ultimate Unitarianism.”

If for much of the late 18th century religious life in Ireland for those of Dissenting views was relatively tranquil, this was to change dramatically in the wake of the French Revolution. These changes were political, economic and religious. Many Dissenting ministers sympathised with the 1798 Rebellion, and in the North two were executed and 18 imprisoned for their active involvement in it (one leading member of the present congregation is descended from a liberal army officer who fought with the United Irishmen in Leinster). Another factor was the decline of those industries which had brought the early Puritans to the country: the Bandon congregation, for example, disintegrated following the end of the woollen industry in that town.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the conservative Northern Presbyterian leader, Rev Henry Cooke, took it upon himself to rescue Irish Presbyterianism from the “bog of indifference and moral laxity” into which he was convinced it was sinking under the influence of Arian views. Cooke’s energies did not confine themselves to Ulster. Unitarian congregations in Munster were largely restored to mainstream evangelical Presbyterianism. The only Unitarian congregation to survive outside Dublin was in Cork.

However Dublin remained a stronghold of liberal Dissenting ideas with two thriving congregations in Strand Street and Eustace Street. In the middle of the 18th century the Wood Street congregation had moved across the River Liffey to Strand Street, where a new meeting house opened in 1764. Shortly before this the Dissenters of Mary’s Abbey had joined the Wood Street congregation. Over the next century there was a clear move in Strand Street towards more Unitarian opinions. By 1843 the congregation regarded itself as distinctively Unitarian, as indicated by its communion plates inscribed in that year.

In the late 1820s the internationally-known theologian and philosopher Rev James Martineau – an early advocate of ecumenism between the churches – served as minister at Eustace Street (which had absorbed the New Row congregation). His six-month-old daughter died during his short time in Dublin, and is buried in the Huguenot cemetery on St Stephen’s Green beside the Shelbourne Hotel. In later life Dr Martineau would fall out of sympathy with the militant Unitarianism of the mid-19th century, which he found “critical, cold and untrusting” and would plead for a warmer, more emotional kind of religion.

Rev W.H.Drummond, whose portrait hangs in the St Stephens Green vestry, presided over Strand Street for 40 years until 1859. He was a dedicated and devoted Unitarian, not afraid to enter into public debate against its detractors. Irish Unitarianism was also strengthened by the influence of the great American Unitarian William Ellery Channing, who as a preacher and writer in Boston, Massachusetts, had a great impact on the thinking of the Harvard Divinity School and other leading US Protestant seminaries.

The St Stephens Green Church

In the 1850s, before the retirement of Dr Drummond, a wealthy shipowner and member of the Strand Street congregation, Thomas Wilson, bequeathed £2,330 towards building a new church. His father had been George Washington’s aide-de-camp in the American War of Independence, and later the USA’s first consul in Dublin.

In 1857 a site was purchased on the west side of St Stephen’s Green, which a hundred years earlier had been known as the "French walk", because many French Huguenots owned property there. The site had once been occupied by the Synges, a remarkable ecclesiastical family which over three generations gave five bishops to the Church of Ireland (and, in the 20th century, was to give Ireland and the world one of the most celebrated playwrights of rural life, J.M.Synge.

In 1861 an architectural competition was held to find a design for the new church. It was won by Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon of Belfast. Sir Charles Lanyon, an English-born civil engineer, who had been county surveyor for Kildare before moving north, supervised the construction of the great coast road from Larne to Portrush in County Antrim and erected the Queen’s and Ormeau bridges over the Lagan in Belfast. He later became Lord Mayor of that city.

William Henry Lynn, the architect of the partnership, designed the Church of Ireland
church in Andrew Street. In Belfast, one of his major works was Queen’s University. He was described by one architectural journal as “one of the best architects of the Gothic Revival” in Ireland.

His obituary in the Irish Builder and Engineer in 1915 said:"Mr Lynn’s works are numerous but they are amongst the best of our modern structures. The Unitarian Church in St Stephen’s Green, a delightful building of Gothic style, has been justly described as the best example extant of a modern Gothic church on a narrow street frontage, the treatment being quite original and altogether admirable".

The new church was built at a cost of £5,000, and opened for public worship on Sunday 14 June 1863. Four years later Dublin’s other Unitarian congregation at Eustace Street merged with St Stephen’s Green to form one church. (The old Eustace Street church is now the home of The Ark Children’s Centre.)

It is interesting to note that in 1856, John Henry Newman’s Catholic University Church was completed just around the corner on the south side of St Stephen’s Green in a very different style, that of an ancient Italian basilica. Both Gothic Revival and Greek Revival styles were popular among architects in this period, when there was a spiritual revival in both Catholicism and Protestantism and a reaction to 300 years of obeying a set book of classicial rules. George McCaw, an architect and member of the Dublin Unitarian congregation, has written that Darwinism played a large part in the swing to this Gothic style. Churches had to meet the challenge of science and this led to a desire to return to a style that was seen as uncorrupted by modern civilisation. Gothic art and architecture were seen as the expression of the Church, not as it had been secularised, "but having the true faith with its emotional appeal and air of mystery."

The site for the church was 60 feet wide. None of the internal corners of the building are at right angles to each other as the existing houses on either side were at an angle to the street.

The top of the spire is 97 feet from the street, with the main body of the church being 58 feet long by 46 feet wide. The design brilliantly fulfils the requirement that in a non-conformist church the emphasis should be on the pulpit, unlike in established denominations where the focus is on the communion table or altar. Everyone in the St Stephen’s Green church can hear and see the preacher, emphasising the importance of the spoken word to the Unitarian congregation.

The church has a wealth of French, Flemish and English stained glass. It also has a notable example of one of the first pieces executed following the revival of the Irish stained glass industry in the early 20th century. This window, which features the themes of Discovery, Truth, Inspiration, Love and Work, was constructed in 1918. The work was carried out by Sarah Purser’s celebrated Tower of Glass studio in Dublin to a design by A.E.Child. The window is a particularly fine example of the Irish school of stained glass. Other, more recent stained glass windows are by Michael Healy and Catherine O’Brien.

Other points of note are the decorative work to the capitals of the main pillars supporting the four internal arches. These represent different types of leaves on some of which there are birds. There are also decorative angels below the corbelled bases of the main roof trusses which are thought to represent the "whole armour of God" as described in chapter six of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The organ by J.W. Walker and Sons was constructed in 1911.

On the east wall of the church there is a sculpture by the distinguished artist, Paddy McElroy, a member of the congregation. It is executed in forged steel, cast bronze, copper and hot fused glass, illustrating many aspects of Unitarian thought. The major religions of the world are represented by their distinctive symbols. A centre-piece by the glass artist Killian Schurman represents the embryo of life and all beginnings.

The exterior fabric of the church has taken a battering over the years from the weather and pollution caused by traffic and smoke, and it can be difficult with the deterioration to see the varying textures and colours of the rock-faced granite, ash-layered Irish limestone and moulded and decorated Bath stone. After this exterior view, many visitors are surprised at the beauty and simple elegance of the recently re-decorated interior. The church has now launched a multi-phase restoration project at an estimated total cost of 1.5 million euros to clean and restore the external stonework, re-slate the roof , clean and weatherproof the stained glass windows, re-wire the church and provide disabled access.

The Unitarian Church in modern Ireland

For over 50 years, from 1910 to 1962, the minister at St Stephen’s Green was Rev E. Savell Hicks, who was widely acclaimed by people of all religious persuasions throughout the city as an outstanding preacher. He played a largely unrecognised behind-the-scenes role in moves to bring the British government and the old IRA together for talks to end the war of independence in the early 1920s. A man of wide religious, philosophical and literary interests, he did much to encourage religious co-operation in the first half of the century when there was still considerable prejudice and even outright bigotry in the new Irish state.

In the mid-20th century the large room under the church, the Damer Hall – which had once been a school – became famous for another reason, as a theatre. From the mid 1950s to the late 1970s it was the centre of both professional and amateur Irish language theatre in Dublin as the home of Amharclann an Damer. The world premier of Brendan Behan’s An Giall (The Hostage) took place here in1957.

Savell Hicks was succeeded by Rev Kenneth Wright, another fine preacher with a bent for philosophy, who presided over a small but loyal congregation into the 1990s.

In 1996, a new minister arrived from Yorkshire. Under Rev Bill Darlison the church experienced something of a revival, with attendances at Sunday morning services rising from 15-20 to 60-80, many of them younger people from a Catholic or non-religious background searching for a new kind of spirituality in the Ireland of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. Many were attracted by the new minister’s powerful sermons on the need for a new form of Unitarian mysticism to provide guidance on how to live a fully aware life in the contemporary world.

A Sunday school, a lay preachers course and midweek meditation services were started. Wedding services became an almost weekly occurrence. Several members were active in the peace process in Northern Ireland, and an annual Good Friday service was initiated at which the names of all those who had died in the 30 years of the Northern Ireland conflict were read out. A new energy is now being felt in the old church, together with the feeling that Unitarianism is once again a living part of the complex religious and cultural tapestry that is Ireland in the early years of the 21st century.

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