St George's Church still going strong after surviving Belfast Blitz and Troubles
St George's, one of Belfast's most distinctive places of worship, is 200 this year. Brian M Walker, author of a new history of the church, charts two tumultuous centuries
This year, St George's Church in Belfast celebrates the bicentenary of its opening. Since its establishment in 1816, the church has played a very significant role in the spiritual and cultural life of Belfast. Fortunately, the church has retained a unique parish archive, which has allowed its story to be fully told.
Of course, the church's location in High Street has been a site for Christian worship which goes back many centuries. In the 14th century, the Chapel of the Ford was situated here at the crossing of the Lagan. The church was then rebuilt in the early-17th century by Sir Arthur Chichester to become the Corporation Church.
This church eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished in the 1770s, when the new St Anne's Church was opened in Donegall Street. Some material from the Corporation Church has survived. A chair used by King William, when he visited Belfast in 1690, can be seen in St George's. The pulpit was given to the new St Mary's Chapel, where it is still used today.
By the early-19th century, however, St Anne's was not sufficient for a growing Church of Ireland population and a number of citizens subscribed to the building of a chapel of ease on the site in High Street. Designed by John Bowden and called St George's Church, it opened in June 1816.
The portico came from the demolished Ballyscullion House, Bellaghy, a former home of the Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey. This stonework was brought by barge to Belfast.
A contemporary observer remarked: "The front exhibits a very pure specimen of Corinthian architecture and perhaps the most beautiful to be met with in Ireland." Another feature of the new church was its concern with music, as seen in the appointment of Edward Bunting as its first organist (1817-20).
After the short incumbency of two clergymen, the Rev William MacIlwaine took charge of St George's in 1836. He began his ministry as a strong evangelical, an enthusiastic "anti-Romanist" and decidedly low church. Over his time in St George's, which lasted until 1880, he changed his mind on all three matters.
He was very critical of the 1859 revival in Belfast, believing it was not based on the scriptures and it relied too much on hysteria. In 1857, the Belfast resident magistrate wrote to Dublin Castle: "Mr MacIlwaine is a very zealous minister, but he wants judgment and has made himself so unpopular with the Roman Catholic party by his eternal controversies."
Later in his career, however, MacIlwaine wrote that, rather than religious controversy, a better approach would be that of "discovery and demonstrating the points in which the two Churches of Ireland and Rome agree, rather than those in which they differ." He urged: "the cultivation and exercise of mutual peace and goodwill, as commanded by the Divine Founder of our common faith."
He introduced changes to the services at St George's, which some saw as high church, such as weekly communion, a full choral service and the wearing of surplices. His successor, Rev Hugh Murphy (1880-1926), continued these practices.
When the Rev Aldwell was instituted as rector of St George's in 1927, Bishop Grierson acknowledged: "St George's had taught them many things in the Church life of Belfast. It had emphasised the beauty and reverence of worship on the spiritual side of the Church's life."
Not everyone took this positive attitude. The Rev Henry O'Connor, in November 1929, wrote to the Press: "St George's seems to depend on extravagances, such as 'Sung Eucharist', 'Altar' cloths of many colours, eastward position, &c, with regular whist drives and dances on week nights. Could anyone in their wildest flight of imagination think of the Holy Apostles organising whist drives, or dances, to advance the Gospel?"
This brought a spirited response from parishioners. May McTear wrote: "With regard to his allusion to the 'altar cloths' I refer him to Ezra, vii, 27." She then alluded to his "cheap sneer" about the Apostles and whist drives and dances: "I don't imagine 'whist' was invented in their time, but dancing is much older. He will gain useful knowledge in Psalm, 150, 4 and Eccles, 3,4."
During the Blitz, the church narrowly avoided destruction. The schoolhouse behind the church was burnt down and buildings opposite were gutted. Seven years after the war, however, the church again faced destruction in the form of proposals at the diocesan synod to close the church because of low numbers of resident parishioners.
Members of the congregation organised strong opposition to these plans. Their cause was supported at the diocesan synod by a newly elected MP, Captain Terence O'Neill, who declared: "St George's is a bright star in the industrial city of Belfast." Their efforts were successful.
In 1958, Rev Edgar Turner became rector. The outbreak of the Troubles brought new challenges to St George's. The church was not a direct target, but the building was damaged on more than 20 occasions due to IRA explosions in downtown Belfast.
At the general vestry meeting in April 1973, the rector referred to the previous year: "The 'coffin bomb' on Easter Eve devastated the south side, the Ann Street bomb on Trinity Sunday shattered the chancel window, on Trinity vi the second Skipper Street bomb seriously damaged the west front, on St James's Day the Oxfam bomb seriously damaged the west front, on Trinity xv, light, heat, power, organ and drainage were all put out of action."
In spite of these great difficulties, services at St George's were maintained due to the dedication of clergy and parishioners. At the same time, numbers attending the church fell, as people were reluctant to venture into the city centre, except when essential.
The danger of closure was averted, however, largely because, from the mid-1980s, St George's revived its musical tradition.
Choir members had bravely continued to turn up for services during the worst of the Troubles, but their numbers had declined.
In 1984, Jonathan Gregory was appointed organist and choirmaster at St George's. He rebuilt the choir, in particular recruiting additional choirboys.
St George's became the venue for musical concerts and recitals. The church and church hall were used by various organisations.
These increased activities brought new members to St George's and helped to ensure its survival.
Today, St George's is a very active church, which is open daily for prayer and services.
Not long ago, Alf McCreary reported in the Belfast Telegraph on Easter worship at St George's: "There was a high Anglican liturgy, deeply thoughtful preaching and magnificent music. It is good to see God so alive in the heart of the city."
Brian M Walker's A History of St George's Church, Belfast: Two Centuries of Faith, Worship and Music is published by the Ulster Historical Foundation, priced £19.99