A History of St George’s Church, Belfast: Two centuries of faith, worship and music
Brian M. Walker
Ulster Historical Association £19.99*
*available from www.booksireland.org.uk
VISITORS to Belfast might be forgiven for thinking they had discovered a country mansion in the heart of the city. They would not be far wrong. The Corinthian portico of St George’s Church was originally the entrance to the home of Frederick Harvey, 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry — one snippet of information in this history of St George’s, written to make the bicentenary of the present building.
In this handsomely illustrated book, Brian Walker has drawn on an extensive parish archive to tell the story. St George’s has played a significant part in the spiritual and cultural development of Belfast. We learn of numerous threats to the survival of the parish, from the Blitz during the Second World War, thirty years of “The Troubles” (in 1972 alone, St George’s survived no fewer than nine adjacent explosions), and the financial luminaries of the diocese, concerned about the small resident population. But the church has survived to tell the tale, and is still actively engaged in the life of the city.
Four incumbents have served, between them, for 124 years. William McIlwaine (1835-80) emerges as particularly interesting: strongly Evangelical, “anti-Romanist”, and low-church, he revised his opinions to become an influential ecumenist, declaring the importance of discovering the points on which the Church of Ireland and Rome agreed rather than those on which they differed. Earlier, in 1812, the Roman Catholic Parish Priest of Belfast said that he had never seen “such benevolence and liberality” as among the people of St George’s.
The book is relentless in its detail: lists of curates, organists, preachers, fund-raising events, and the like will chiefly be of interest to local readers; but there is much to engage others with an interest in Irish church history, and the development of urban mission in that complex and, for much of its history, bitterly divided city.
St George’s has been, and remains, a bastion of Anglican Catholicism in the more usually Protestant Church of Ireland. This has produced some splendid anecdotes, some of which are very amusing, including arguments from scripture for and against Catholic “extravagances”, dances, and even whist drives.
St George’s is revealed as a lively church, active in the business community and among homeless people, offering fine liturgy and excellence in music (which is particularly well described). We are told that “other events are planned to mark the bicentenary year.” If this book is anything to go by, the parish should set up a tercentenary committee without delay.
The Very Revd Nicholas Frayling is Dean Emeritus of Chichester. His book Pardon and Peace: A reflection on the making of peace in Ireland was published in 1995 by SPCK.