It’s a December evening in Dublin. It’s almost four o’clock and it’s dark and the rain is pelting down. I’m running up the side of Stephen’s green as fast as I can. People are huddled in doorways waiting for the heavier rain to pass. I’m flying past them all, belting my way up against the wind towards the Unitarian church on Stephen’s Green where I’ve an appointment to meet the minister, Brigid Spain, at 4. I can feel a coldness on my feet as my shoes start leaking. My trousers are stuck to my legs. I reach the church, ring the bell and the huge heavy wooden doorway opens into light and heat and the welcoming smile of Reverend Briget Spain.
Dublin’s Unitarian Church has a fascinating four-hundred-year(ish) history in Ireland but this year is a significant anniversary for the church. The Gothic Revival building where the church is housed is marking its 150th anniversary.
Reverend Briget Spain is the first female minister of the church in the Republic of Ireland. She’s middle aged and is married with children and has been minister here for three years.
We walk inside and step up the stone stairs and I peel off my saturated coat and leave it by the heater in the hallway to dry. Inside the church the lights are off and we look at the stained glass windows, visible against the city-light behind the darkness.
Briget switches on the full lights and I sit in a pew as she tells me a little about what’s happening in the church these days.
The church itself is quite plain inside. Simply coloured walls. No statues or pictures. Dark-coloured pews. “There are angels but no crucifixes” Briget says as we look around the walls. (The angels are up on the roof under the rafters). There’s a Christmas tree with presents underneath.
The Unitarian church has its roots in Christianity and the Reformation but it has changed quite a lot since its inception.
“We don’t have rules that people are required to follow and we don’t have a creed that we impose or that people have to believe” Briget explains to me.
In the Unitarian Church there’s no belief in the Trinity; Jesus is believed to have been an inspired teacher, a man; Mary isn’t honoured; readings are often secular; baby welcoming ceremonies are held to celebrate the arrival of children to the world and there are female and gay ministers.
“Is there a belief in the divine?” I ask.
“There is a belief in the divine” she tells me “but it’s not imposed and the divine is not defined and some people here would be atheistic”.
“We don’t follow a liturgy” she goes on to explain. “Originally it was the Bible only but now we use whatever we find useful”.
At last week’s Sunday service, for example, there were readings of pieces by by G. K. Chesterton, Pam Ayres, Dylan Thomas, Andrew Greeley and a piece from Luke’s gospel. Briget says they read what they feel like reading and it could even be readings from Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita or talks about Buddhism or other religions. Earlier this year they had a Muslim lady speak to them.
“Most are familiar with the teachings of Jesus but would say that Jesus didn’t say anything original. Jesus said “love your neighbour”. Confucious, 500 years before Jesus, had the Golden Rule which was the same thing. And in Judaism Rabbi Hillel when asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot said “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour””.
“Is there communion?”
“We have communion rarely” she tells me. “We have it when there are five Sundays in the month and then it’s just about sharing bread and wine together”.
Remarkably, (considering the statistics relating to other churches in Ireland) the congregation is growing. “In 1996 there would have been around 20 or 25 here on a Sunday” she says. “Now we have around 120 most weeks.” Most of the congregation are Irish and are “mainly recovering Catholics and disaffected protestants”.
They have no holy days but there will be a service on Christmas Day. They do say prayers but the prayers can change over time – currently they are debating the use of the Our Father with some members believing it to be a bit “out of date”.
We’re sitting in the pews chatting and the wind suddenly picks up and the roof creaks. Then we hear the sound of water dripping inside. Rain has started coming in one of the windows. “At least it’s not the prevailing wind” says Briget happily. “It does come in that window sometimes”.
A man called Charlie comes in and explains to Briget that he’s looking for a bag of bread he thought he left earlier. It’s not there. Charlie says that if anyone finds it over the next few days they are welcome to it. Briget explains that on Wednesdays they have a lunchtime meditation.
As well as Sunday service and Wednesday meditation the church is open for baptisms and weddings and same-sex blessings too. For the baptisms Briget explains that they do use water “but we’re not washing away sin”.
“This year we had around 75 baptisms for children of parents who weren’t members of the church. They want a service to mark the birth of a child – a service of thanksgiving and welcome. It’s getting more popular”.
Briget also says that this year she was hearing new things from people who were phoning up looking for the baby welcoming ceremonies. “I had never heard it before. People were phoning up saying that they were brought up Catholic but wanted nothing more to do with the church anymore. I’ve also had grandmothers coming up to me after the baptisms saying “my child had no sin either””. She senses changes in the attitudes of many people towards Catholicism.
I’m anxious to get to the heart of the belief system of the Unitarian Church. I probe Briget for answers to questions on dogma and truths and practice. I ask her if she could sum up the teachings of the church in one sentence (a bit like Rabbi Hillel on his one foot).
“I could sum it up for myself but not on behalf of the members” she replies.
“We are searchers. We don’t claim to know all the truth. Most churches have their truth that is set is stone, that they are imparting and want people to believe. We say our ideas of truth change all the time and they change with knowledge”.
She reads me some lines which she says are recited at Sunday services: “Love is the doctrine of this church, the question of 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. This do we covenant with each other and with god”.
The rain has eased when we finish chatting and I make a promise that I’ll return for a service. “If I had a penny for every time someone has said that to me” she laughs.
Out in the foyer my coat has dried by the heater. Briget opens the big black door and I’m out into the storm again but the rain has eased enough for me to take a few photographs from the far side of the Luas line.
On the way home I’m thinking of all the people I know who would like to have baby welcoming ceremonies here…