Signing the Times

 
 

Just on the edge of UCD’s Belfield campus, a small church has rapidly built up a particularly unique place in the hearts of passing commuters on the N11. Natalie Voorheis meets Reverend Gillian Wharton of St Thomas’ Parish Church on Foster Avenue – you may not know the name; but you’ll almost certainly know the spot…

Meet the wayside pulpit. Never heard of the concept? Perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. But you’ve almost certainly seen one.

Still unsure? Next time you’re walking, cycling, or driving down the N11, make a point of craning your neck just on the Stillorgan side of Belfield. The little church standing where Foster Avenue meets the dual carriageway is easily Ireland’s best-known – if not only – example of the roadside preaching device, with its witty, light-hearted slogans now a firm fixture of south Dublin commuting.

A parishioner had been impressed by a wayside pulpit she had seen while away on holiday and suggested the idea to the Rector at the time, Steven Ford, now Archdeacon Ford. They decided to proceed with the idea, given that St Thomas’ seemed to suit the project so perfectly because of its prime location. The sign was an instant success, with the location of the church on the junction of one of the busiest roads in Dublin fundamental to the renown that it has gained.

The sign changes in September each year, with the new slogan chosen from the material that has been sent into the church throughout the year. A committee of three people, led by Reverend Gillian Wharton – the current rector on duty – votes for their favourites and decide from these which to use.

Rev. Wharton explains that there has been a huge amount of material to choose from ever since the billboard was featured on Derek Mooney’s RTÉ radio show a few years ago, sparking a frenzy of interest and suggestions from the public. “Because it’s quite established, people actually send us in suggestions. People send me emails or drop them into the parish office. Some of them come from parishioners but also people who have nothing to do with parish would say, ‘Oh Gosh! I’ve got a suggestion for when you next change your sign.’”

Rev. Wharton explained that the St Thomas’ wayside pulpit is a source of intense pride for her parishioners. “If people say to them, ‘What church do you go to?’, and they say, ‘I go to the church at the end of Foster Avenue…’, people say, ‘Oh, is that the church with the wacky sign?!’ So it’s quite well known at this stage. People do seem to really respond to it.”

A few years ago, while the wayside pulpit read ‘Jesus the Carpenter is looking for joiners’, a local taxi man arrived on Rev. Wharton’s doorstep and simply said to her, “I’m a joiner.” In that instant, Rev. Wharton knew that the signs were having an impact. The man had been searching his faith for some time, and felt that the clever wayside pulpit was a sign from God and an answer to his prayers. He has had an ongoing active involvement in the parish ever since. “People come to see what’s there behind the sign,” Rev. Wharton explains. “People tend to come out of curiosity and some have stayed.”

In America, the fashion for wayside pulpits is pronounced, most noticeably within the Baptist and Evangelical Churches which have used signs that are extremist and political in nature. Slogans such as ‘The nation that rejects Christ seals its doom’, ‘If you don’t love God, go to Hell’, ‘Don’t let the next time you go to church be in a ten foot box’, ‘God needs your prayers, not your opinions’, ‘What is politically correct may not be Biblically correct’, ‘Remember the banana – When it left the bunch, it got skinned’ and ‘What would Jesus do? Choose babies and life’ are representative of these styles of slogan writing. Rev. Wharton is quick to note that this is not something which St Thomas’ is trying to emulate, describing it as “brimstone and hellfire stuff”. The aim of her wayside pulpit, she explains, is to bring a smile to people’s faces.

“The idea behind the signs really is to, as people are sitting in traffic or whizzing past, be something that will make them think – something that will make them feel good about themselves, and remind them that they cherished and loved. We are very much into having positive signs… I really don’t want any of that kind of negativity so we try to keep them upbeat and positive, not judgmental but maybe bringing a smile to somebody’s face.”

Examples of St Thomas’ past wayside pulpit slogans include: ‘This sign may change – God’s love remains’, ‘Global warning, the Son will return’, ‘CH__CH. What’s missing? R U?’ and ‘No God. No peace. Know God. Know peace’.

It’s refreshing to pass a billboard which isn’t visually assaulting you with promises of a better internet service or toned abs – and yet, this isn’t something you realise until you pass the sign and unexpectedly find yourself sparing a smile for some thought or clever pun. Organised religion in Ireland is so publicly under attack, and feelings of unrest and distrust in the church are dominant with believers and non-believers alike. So it’s a sign of hope that one parish at least is it trying to take themselves out of the dusty old box marked ‘out of date’ and ‘useless’ in which they have been put by so many, and placing themselves in the position of being relevant and present in the lives of countless students and members of the wider public every day.

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