A Labour of Love

In 2018 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the installation of The Wilson Window. The anniversary was marked with the republication of the sermon delivered by Rev.Savell Hicks at the 1918 dedication service and, in June, by a series of readings and sermons that addressed different aspects of the window. The subjects of the sermons included the design and manufacture of the window, the theology behind the design, and the somewhat blemished history of the man to whom the window is dedicated, Thomas Wilson, a former treasurer and trustee of this church. Later that year our late friend Professor Barbara Wright used the image of the scientist in the window as the basis for a fascinating sermon on Unitarian connections with scientific developments and discovery.
          Discovery is one of the five illustrated themes that rise upwards and blend together to make up the overall composition of the design of the window. The other themes are Truth, Inspiration, Love, and Work and each theme is represented by an image of an historic figure in separate panels at the bottom of the window. At the centre is ‘Inspiration’ represented by a young Jesus and he is flanked on the left by Christopher Columbus representing ‘Discovery’ and Martin Luther ‘Truth’ and on the right by Florence Nightingale representing ‘Love’ and William Caxton representing ‘Work’. It is significant that of all the people that could have represented ‘Work’ the design team chose someone associated with the print trade. The inclusion of these five historic figures and the overall design of the window provides us with a very good insight into Unitarian thinking in this part of the world 100 years ago.
          As you may be aware, the window is the third to be installed in this location, the other two having been lost to two fires first in 1892 and again in 1916. If we ever had to replace the window which of these historic figures would make it into the design? An image of Jesus would (I hope) still be central but I think there would be strong debates about which, if any, of the other four figures should be included with him. I think Caxton would be the most likely to be selected, if only because he is the least known and, to my knowledge, unlike the others, he has attracted no controversy in recent years. However, although he is the least known of the people in our window, Caxton remains a very important historical figure and there are other memorials to him apart from this one. There is a memorial tablet to Caxton in St Margaret's Church in London that was provided to the church by the Roxburge Club, a prestigious group of bibliophiles who at their annual dinner toast the memory of Caxton as ‘Father of the British press’. There is also a memorial to him close to Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey which was unveiled by the Chairman of the Press Council In November 1954 and for some reason unknown to me there is a tiled panel containing his image featured among a collection of images of historic figures who adorn the walls of the Café Royal in Edinburgh.
          Caxton is credited with bringing the printing press to Britain (and by extension to Ireland). The printing press was a huge technological advance that allowed for a much faster dissemination of information and knowledge. The right to disseminate information was a key battle ground in the reformation. Access to the written word and the knowledge that flowed from reading was limited to a Latin speaking elite. The reformers wanted the written word to be far more accessible to a far wider range of readers, and for it to be accessible to them in their own language. So, the availability of the printing press was a significant weapon in the battle for people’s minds. Although literacy and the cost of printing limited access to publications, the introduction of the printing press was still a huge step in the democratisation of knowledge and the development of civilisation. Of course, when the protestant reformers eventually became established, they too tried to put the brakes on what people could read, especially if what they were trying to read was written by protestant dissenters.

The better-known historical publications connected with this congregation of dissenters are records of disputes with the authorities, state and religious. Indeed, one publication was the source of a dispute that has defined our history for over 300 years. I refer of course to the publication of An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ, written by Rev.Thomas Emlyn, a minister at the Wood Street Meeting House from which this congregation descends. The Unitarian views expressed by Emlyn caused a scandal and resulted in him being hauled before the courts and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. His views would eventually lead to a split between Trinitarian and Unitarian Presbyterians Other records available include an account of the Trial of Emlyn’s trial; the sermons and verse of Rev.Joseph Boyse; a history of Dublin Presbyterianism by Rev.James Armstrong that was appended to a record of James Martineau’s ordination at the Eustace Street Meeting House; the proceedings in the courts and in the House of Lords regarding 1844 Eustace Street Case that resulted in the Dissenters Chapels Act. All of these publications relate to major events and involve people who were prominent in church affairs. But what of the ordinary day to day events and the ordinary members of the church? Some information can be gleaned from minute books and registers but one of the best sources of information is ‘The Calendar’, the monthly four-page church newsletter of which there is a collection of late 19th and early 20th century editions stored in the vestry. The contents of single editions of ‘The Calendar’ appear to be unimportant but when read collectively they provide an interesting insight into the ordinary life of the early 20th Century congregation.
          The congregation hasn’t been central to any events of national importance for a very long time so any history of the congregation of recent years will have to rely on the records of ordinary day to day events. However, while recent history might not involve much drama, there is still an interesting story to be told. So, where will a future student begin his or her research for their thesis? let’s call it. ‘St Stephen’s Green Unitarians in the early 21st Century’. Well, there is an invaluable resource available. The last edition of The Calendar was published December 2004 and was replaced by Oscailt in January 2005. Any of you extremely quick with figures may by now have calculated that the edition that was issued today, 1st August 2021, is the 200th edition of Oscailt. With the exception of 2 or three editions I have collected and kept a copy of every edition of the magazine since it made its first appearance. A recent requirement to search through my collection stirred up many congregational and quite a few family memories for me and made me realise how important the publication is for us as a community and how useful it could be to others in years to come.
          The first edition of Oscailt arrived with a cover photo of a section of the far-off expanse of open space dotted with the light of a fraction of the planets and stars that are beyond our earth. On the inside page there was a welcome to the first edition of the magazine by Rev.Bill Darlison followed by a note from Diarmuid Harte to explain the meaning of the Irish word Oscailt. Diarmuid also provided an example of the word being used in an Irish Language Bible at St.Mark Chapter 7 Verses 33 -36. The eclectic mix of contents included two book reviews by Paul Murray and a report by Nuala Kelly on her trip to Venice to receive an award for a short film that she had acted in; The Carpenter and His Clumsy Wife. There were printed versions of two recent addresses: one by Gavin Harte under the title An Earth Ethic and the other by Andy Pollak under the title A Little Bit of Hope. There was an interview with our man in the west, Joe McDermott and a poem, Churchgoing, by our dear departed friend John Ward. Finally, there was an opinion piece by Keith Troughton under the title Badge of Faith in which he set out the elements he would like to include in a Unitarian badge design.
          The second edition also included an opinion piece under the title Badge of Faith, this time by Jennifer Flegg who was responding to Keith’s January article. The February front cover was adorned by a photo that included yours truly (with just a hint of a few grey hairs) joining the celebrants, organisers and participants in our very first Coming of Age Ceremony and I am pleased that one of those participants is with us here today. A study of these two editions and the 198 editions that have followed should provide our future student with ample research materiel. He or she will be well equipped to report that our early 21st congregation was a lively one and; That we had opinions that we were encouraged to share in the pulpit and in print.
          That we socialised together and got to know each other through book clubs and meditation groups and choir practice and over coffee and during cake sales and flower sales and during walks around the city and walks through the hills.
          That we considered the bigger questions of life and that we didn’t always agree but that we could disagree without being disagreeable. That we not only had two fine much loved and respected ministers but that we ordained ministers who went on to provide sterling service in other cities.
          That the ruling body of the church was the Annual General Meeting of members and that each member had a voice and a vote. That we welcomed new members every October, some of them stayed with us for just a short while but others became pillars of our community.
          That each November we remembered the young men of the congregation who lost their lives in the First World War and that at Good Friday we remembered all those who died as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
          That we suffered grief at the loss of those familiar faces that once occupied some favourite seat around the church.
          That we took care of the building that was put into our trust by a previous generation; That through huge collective efforts we rose to the challenges and brought successful conclusions to the major restoration of the roof and walls followed by the restoration of the organ, then the installation of the lift and most recently the restoration of the Hutton window.
          That the baptisms and marriages of our children were great celebrations but that they had to compete very hard with the enthusiastic build up and celebrations that accompanied the coming-of-age ceremonies.
          That there was an openness about our church that made the marginalised feel welcome.
          I’d like to think that our student will also say that we had a sense of humour and that we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. That the 2nd edition of Oscailt included an item headed, On Unitarians. The name of the person who submitted the item isn’t identified but the wording of the tongue in cheek send-up of our UU cousins across the Atlantic is attributed to Garrison Keillor of Lake Woebegone Days fame.
          Finally, our future student should be able to report on the developments in opinions and changes in personnel that made up the tapestry of the life of our congregation. In the period under study the church had two ministers, three Chairmen, five treasurers, five secretaries, two caretakers and two organists. A really diligent student though will notice and include commentary on something very important, and it won’t be the developments or the changes noticed while studying our 200 Oscailts. Rather, it will be the things that remained constant.
          Three features of the Oscailt remained constant and consistent in the 200 editions published from January 2005 to August 2021. The logo at the top of the front page never changed and the following words always appeared on the bottom of the front page -
Our Bond of Union is religious sympathy not the declaration of a creed bound faith. In the love of truth and the spirit of Christ we unite for the worship of God and the service of our fellows.
          The third feature that remained constant during all 200 issues was the name of the editor; Paul Spain. And Paul was not just an editor. He contributed some excellent articles and many beautiful photographs to the pages of the magazine. What our history student won’t know is that he also brought the content to the printers, collected the printed magazines, brought them to the church and posted off copies to subscribers near and far.
          When speaking of the panel containing William Caxton in his 1918 sermon Rev. Hicks said;

The invention of the printing press and the consequent rapid dissemination of human knowledge seemed to be a worthy example of the power and value of work. It is the craftsman who has, since his day, carried and who does daily carry, the thinker’ s thoughts to a thousand or a million other minds. It is the worker who makes possible and carries out in practical and lasting form much of the thinker’s vision and the seer’s dream. Not only the diffusion of knowledge and the carrying out of tremendous undertakings; not only the bridging of great gulfs, and the rearing of vast temples, but the carrying out of our dearest desires for a heaven on earth must depend on the will to work as well as to pray.
          Paul has freely given to this congregation an enormous amount of consistently good work that he has never sought credit or praise for. So today, on the occasion of the 200th edition of the Oscailt, on behalf of everybody I wish to say, thanks Paul for all your work, it has truly been a ‘Labour of Love’

Rory Delany                                       1st August 2021
St Stephen’s Green Unitarian Church