26.7.2022 | Moderator, Statements.
Following the death of Lord Trimble, Nobel Laureate and former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Rt Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has offered his “deepest condolences and sincere sympathy” to Lady Trimble, his family, friends and former colleagues.
Paying tribute Dr Kirkpatrick said:
“In his acceptance speech when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1998, awarded jointly with the late John Hume, Lord Trimble paid tribute to thousands of ‘heroes and heroines in Northern Ireland’ who carried out (in the words of Wordsworth) ‘little nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love’. In doing so David Trimble recognised that the work of building peace involves many people, but without a doubt he was one of the leading peacemakers of his generation.
“It is therefore right today that we remember and honour Lord Trimble’s legacy – his personal courage, his ability to see a way forward to more peaceful future, and his tenacity in laying the foundation that enabled society to move to a better place. This was not without huge cost, not only to himself but also to his family, and we may never fully know the extent of the sacrifices both he and they made. We remember a man who provided leadership and committed himself to looking to the interests of others over and above his own.
“On behalf of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, of which Lord Trimble was a member, I would like to extend our deepest condolences and sincere sympathy to his wife, Lady Trimble, his family, friends and former colleagues, and assure them of our prayers at this difficult time.”
10.7.2022 | Moderator, Church in Society, Commemorations.
New Presbyterian Moderator, Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick, has attended and participated in his first state event, the Republic of Ireland’s National Day of Commemoration. The annual event took place in Dublin this morning to remember Irishmen and Irishwomen who lost their lives in past wars, or on service with the Irish Defence Forces with the United Nations.
The act of national remembrance takes place each year on the nearest Sunday to 11 July, the day in 1921 that a truce was signed that ended the Irish War of Independence. At this year’s commemoration Dr Kirkpatrick read the closing prayer as part of a Christian act of worship.
The first National Day of Commemoration was held on 13 July 1986 and like last year, the event took place at Collins Barracks. President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, who is also the Supreme Commander of the Defence Forces, led the commemoration and laid a wreath which was followed by a minute’s silence.
Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD also took part in the event, which was watched by other senior political and civic representatives including members of the Government, members of the Oireachtas, the Council of State, the Diplomatic Corps, the Judiciary and relatives of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. The next-of-kin of those who died on service with the United Nations were also be present and a wide cross-section of the community from both sides of the border.
While the Dublin event is the main act of commemoration, several other locations across the country held regional ceremonies. It is also the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic that the main ceremony has been open to the public. Speaking after the event, which was broadcast live on RTÉ, Dr Kirkpatrick said, “It has been an honour and a privilege to be able to represent Presbyterians from across Ireland at this important act of remembrance and say the closing prayer during the Christian act of worship.
“At this significant time in the history of the State, as this year marks the centenary of the beginning of the Irish Civil War, we remember those who fought against one another, brother against brother, on this land 100 years ago and those Irishmen and Irishwomen who paid the ultimate price in the Great War and the Second Word War. We also remember the 87 service personnel who paid the same high price on the many peacekeeping tours that the Irish Defence Forces have conducted and continue to conduct in numerous countries with the United Nations,” he said.
Dr Kirkpatrick concluded by saying, “As I prayed this morning, ‘The love of fellow man that pays the greatest price. The love of liberty that fires the imagination. The love of peace that never gives up. We acknowledge above all the Love of God encountered in the Lord Jesus Christ who came not to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many. May He who has walked the darkest valley with us and for us, who for love of enemy has laid down his life, inspire and unite this and future generations under the beauty and vision of his gracious and lasting hope…’ Yesterday was a very poignant day and I was glad to have been able to take part in it on behalf of my church.”
Photos: (1) Three of the participants who took part in the Christian act of worship during the National Day of Commemoration (LtoR) Most Rev Dr Michael Jackson, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin with Most Rev Eamonn Walsh, Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Dublin, the Moderator, Rt Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick (2) Dr Kirkpatrick praying the closing prayer as seen on the screen at Collins Barracks (photo credit and (1) Patrick Hugh Lynch) (3) Dr Kirkpatrick with his wife Joan at the reception after the ceremony with An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD.
30.6.2022 | Education.
Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), Church of Ireland, and Methodist in Ireland representatives from the Transferor Representatives’ Council (TRC), along with the Controlled Schools’ Support Council, met with Education Minister Michelle McIlveen MLA yesterday, where a range of issues across the controlled education sector in Northern Ireland were discussed.
The three Churches transferred most of their schools into state control – hence the terms ‘transferor’ and ‘controlled’ – in return for assurances regarding the Christian ethos of schools and a continued role in their governance.
The Transferor Representatives’ Council represents the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church in Ireland and Methodist Church in Ireland in all matters of education in Northern Ireland. The TRC is made up of 11 representatives nominated by the three churches.
The controlled sector is the largest education sector accounting for 49% of all Northern Ireland’s schools, including 63 nursery schools, 380 primary schools and 69 post-primary schools. Controlled schools are open to children of all faiths and none, which brings a rich diversity and inclusive ethos reflecting the many different communities which they serve in today’s society.
Photo: Dr Andrew Brown, TRC Vice Chair, Mark Baker, Chief Executive of the Controlled Schools’ Support Council, with Education Minister, Michelle McIlveen MLA, Dr Peter Hamill, TRC Secretary and TRC Chair, Rosemary Rainey OBE.
25.6.2022 | Congregational Life, General Assembly, Church in Society, COVID-19 Emergency.
On the final day of the 2022 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland one of its largest Councils, the Council for Congregational Life & Witness, were encouraged by Members to embark upon a two year presbytery listening exercise.
The Council has a wide remit to support the on-going life, mission and witness of PCI’s 500-plus congregations across Ireland in their work with all age-groups. With today’s backing of the Assembly, the Council will embark upon a two-year listening exercise across all the denomination’s 19 regional presbyteries to enable it to better resource the whole church. It will also be an important opportunity to more fully understand the impact of the pandemic on congregations.
The main feature of the Council’s work this year has been to accompany congregations on their journey beyond lockdowns and pandemic. As its Report states, ‘As the council continues to walk with congregations still experiencing a wide variety of realities as they emerge from the worst effects of the pandemic and its impact on church life, it does so looking forward to God’s leading of his people out of the captivity of restrictions into the liberty of an experience of new life as the children of God. Remembering that lifts our mood, stimulates movement and creates momentum.’
Addressing the General Assembly, Rev Colin Morrison, minister of Eglinton Presbyterian Church in north Belfast, and CCLW Convenor, said that the Council’s focus would be to continue to accompany congregations who find themselves on a variety of journeys beyond the impact of the pandemic. Speaking about the forthcoming ‘listening exercise’, Mr Morrison said, that Presbyteries had always been crucial partners in the Councils’ work. “Before the pandemic the Council invited a number of presbyteries each year to identify an aspect of church life that required particular attention by congregations within their bounds. Having done so, an event tailored to exploring that area was then co-constructed and delivered.
“These events proved well attended and often enabled fresh thinking, energy and encouragement. All of this was interrupted by the pandemic. As yet, it does not feel like the right moment to try to resume this initiative.
“Instead, to help gain a wider perspective on particular challenges and opportunities in congregational life and witness across our 19 very diverse presbytery situations, the Council is bringing a proposal to this year’s Assembly to begin a presbytery listening exercise from September 2023. This will help the Council further nuance its work, tailoring it to a variety of congregational realities, starting points and capacities,” he said.
Speaking of another initiative, he said that over 500 leaders from nearly a third of congregations across Ireland had taken part in the recent ‘Coming Back: Going Forward’ events, 7 in-person and 1 online, which were “intended to encourage congregations in this moment in which they find themselves to both regather and reshape ministry for the future. Despite the challenges congregations continue to face, it has been great to see an increasing sense of hope and anticipation among so many key leaders,” he said. The final event took place just before the General Assembly in Newtownards earlier this month.
As the Council seeks to get its work back towards more regular patterns of activity, there are a number of important balances to be struck. As the Council’s report states, ‘There is a balance between gaining momentum and setting a sustainable pace which is realistic about capacity, as well as watchful concerning the wellbeing of those charged with doing the work. There is a need to restore some previous activities, but also to take time to reassess priorities and to reshape for the future, rather than impatiently revert to previous patterns of activity. Timing is crucial, as it is possible to be doing the right thing too early as well as too late.’
This theme was picked up in the speech made by CCLW Council Secretary, Rev David Thompson, “A variety of core areas of congregational life will need to be examined and addressed as we further emerge from the pandemic,” he said.
“A freshness is something the Council is committed to as it goes forward. We don’t want to simply return to what we have always done in the way that we have always done it. Experiments during the pandemic with webinars, podcasts and other new ways of engaging congregations and their leaders in-person have generally proved fruitful. We will want to build on them, in so far as they continue to line up with any new realities congregations find themselves facing as they regroup and travel on. Some things have been easier to get back on track than others,” he said.
Mr Thompson also highlighted some of the events the Council would be organising over the coming 12 months, which include six regional events for leaders in the areas of children and youth ministry designed to encourage, envision and equip for the circumstances in which they find themselves. There would also be ‘Youth Night style’ gathering for young people on the Saturday night of the October school half-term, a regional Kids’ Big Day Out for children of primary school age, and Family Big Day Out intended particularly to be something that churches can invite families on the edges of church life to come and be part of.
A major eight session Bible Study resource entitled ‘Expressions’ will be launched in September in time for new church year. A ‘Back Together Again’ booklet that captures some of the learning from the period of the pandemic around the crucial area of the community of the church will be launched in August.
Yesterday the Council presented ‘The Turning of the tide’, this year’s General Assembly alternative presentation, which allow PCI’s Councils, to focus on a particular aspects of their work, mission and ministry, or specific issues relating to them. During CCLW’s presentation, Assembly Members hear how congregations were emerging from the pandemic, with stories focusing on pastoral care, discipleship and leadership for this season. Moving forward, it also looked at opportunities and challenges for youth, children’s and women’s ministry and new resources to help and support congregations.
Photo: Rev David Thompson, Secretary to the Council for Congregatinal Life & Witness.
The 2022 General Assembly opened on Wednesday, 22 June and closed today, Saturday, 25 June. You can find an overview of its proceedings here.
24.6.2022 | Mission News, General Assembly, Global Mission, Moderator’s Special Appeal.
Five months after launching a Moderator’s Emergency Appeal for Ukraine, Members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly heard today that the Appeal had raised £1.1million, one of the largest amounts in living memory.
Launched by the Moderator at the time, Dr David Bruce, it came in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the exodus of people from the country. At the time PCI immediately released £60,000 to be distributed equally between its relief and development partners Christian Aid and Tearfund, and also to one of its partner churches, the Reformed Church in Hungary and its relief and development wing, Hungarian Reformed Church Aid, one of the first organisations to mobilise its staff and volunteers to provide immediate assistance. Members of Assembly heard first-hand from the Church on the current situation during its ‘Listening to the Global Church’ presentation.
Speaking to the General Assembly during the Council for Global Mission Repot, Rev Uel Marrs, Secretary to the Council, said that the Council “deeply appreciates congregations for their faithfulness and generosity.” He also said that in recent years the world had been grappling with a number of global crises, what he called the four ‘C’s’. “The first ‘C’ that came into focus was Climate, the shocks that it brings, and the need for Climate justice; yet we were not long into 2020 until a second ‘C’ appeared, Covid, a pandemic from which we are hopefully surfacing, though many still suffer.”
Mr Marrs continued, “This year two more ‘C’s have emerged, the Conflict in Ukraine with all its knock-on effects and which together with the first two ‘C’s, has led to 276 million, a doubling in two years, of the number of people in the world who are food insecure, with 49 million on the brink of famine. And now there is a fourth ‘C’ a cost of living crisis, meaning the World Food Programme faces a shortfall of some $10 billion if it is to feed all who go to bed hungry, but as we speak it is faced with halving its rations to many of the hungry in order to feed the starving.”
Mr Marrs reported that the 2021 World Development Appeal, entitled ‘Weathering the Storm’ had raised £446,879 to date. He also said that the Moderator’s Emergency Appeal for Ukraine had to his knowledge “raised the largest sum of any such appeal.”
Proposing the Council for Global Mission’s report, retiring Council Convener, Rev Dr Liz Hughes said that she was doing so for the last time, and that it had been “a joy to serve” the Council these last seven years. She also said that it had been privilege to meet with so many of PCI’s partners from various parts of the world.
“Meeting with our partners through the years has been both humbling and inspiring. And it does take a huge amount of careful prayerful listening and endeavouring to see how we can most effectively partner together in the gospel,” Dr Hughes said.
“We were challenged about our Western, or northern hemisphere approach, to partnership at a Global Connections conference during lockdown by a number of speakers but especially a Malawian theologian Harvey Kwiyani, now their CEO who told us that Africans, for example, are tired of asking for a seat at the table and tired of us in the West appearing to listen but not making any changes in our way of going. Our lingering colonial tendencies make us expect our partner churches to become like us rather than being prepared to change as we learn from them.”
Dr Hughes continued, “Our learning through partnership is clearly still an ongoing process and our partnership panel on behalf of the Council is presently working on what the future for partnership needs to be. Our commitment to partnership is also demonstrated in the people that we send from here – our Global Mission workers.”
Dr Hughes said that at present PCI has 25 adults serving in Portugal, Spain, Romania, and in England with East African communities, on the African continent in Malawi, Kenya and Zambia, with global mission workers serving in Nepal, Brazil and Russia. She had that all being well, the Church’s latest Mission workers will head out to Hungary. “We are privileged to have so many folks of such a high calibre hearing the call of God to overseas service,” she said.
The General Assembly also heard from two of its overseas delegates, Percy Patrick from the Church of North India, Gujurat Diocese and Amon Chanika, Director of Scripture Union in Malawi.
Mr Marrs concluded his speech by talking about key areas of work which is planned for the next three years in relation to climate justice, by building on COP26 and PCI’s commitment to fossil fuel divestment and to find new ways to stand in solidarity with the Christian Community in the Middle East. He also said that the Council would “to listen to black and minority ethnic people on issues of racism and colonialism as experienced on this island; and to reflect on the plight of asylum seekers and refugees here with a view to developing a culture of welcome and hospitality for all, especially given concerns over government policy in this area, not least most recent UK government policy on relocation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.”
Photos: (1) Listening to the debate on global mission are (left to right) Percy Patrick from the Church of North India, Gujurat Diocese, Rev Dr Liz Hughes, Convener of the Council for Global Mission and Council Secretary, Rev Uel Marrs and (2) Amon Chanika, Director of Scripture Union in Malawi.
24.6.2022 | General Assembly, Church in Society.
As the Covid-19 continues to cast a long shadow the pandemic was at the heart of some substantial pieces of business that came before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) today.Members of Assembly received reports submitted by two of its General Council Task Groups that were established by last October’s General Assembly – the Pandemic Response (Governance) Task Group and the Pandemic Response (Theological, Moral & Spiritual) Task Group.
The reports looked at what was done in the light of experience, examining in detail the interim governance processes that were put in place at the time, reflected on their strengths and weaknesses, areas where improvements could, or should, be made and key lessons for the future.
A number of recommendations that sought to put in place governance structures and mechanisms, should a similar situation arise in the future, were put before the General Assembly this afternoon and agreed. For example, the recommendations looked at how the General Assembly and PCI’s Councils are convened if they can’t meet in person, and their membership. They also included advice on the way forward if presbyteries, or local Kirk Sessions, are not able to meet in person.
Speaking to the General Assembly as Convener of the Pandemic Response (Governance) Task Group, the Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev Trevor Gribben described the work of the second group as ‘a mammoth task’ which was why its report being presented was interim. A final report will come before the 2023 General Assembly.
“The Task Group dealing with governance have produced a final report as almost everything in it has already gone down to presbyteries and been talked about between the first year of the pandemic and the second,” Mr Gribben said.
“This is basically putting before the Church formal agreement of what we should do if something like this should every happen again…codifying what our processes will be. In a way we are adopting these as our emergency provisions for the future.”
The second is a wide-ranging report seeks to review PCI’s response to the pandemic setting out theological, moral and spiritual principles to guide the Church in any similar situation in the future. It came following a debate at the October General Assembly and an amendment that was put and carried. Speaking to the General Assembly the Convener of the Pandemic Response Theological, Moral & Spiritual Task Group, Miss Karen Jardine, said that it was “rare…for a whole society, the global community, to be faced with the same challenge at the same time – in this instance the covid-19 pandemic. The phrase ‘same storm, different boat’ is now well-worn but the thing about a cliché is that it generally contains a kernel of truth.”
Miss Jardine reminded the General Assembly of what was asked of the General Council through last year’s amendment, ‘that the General Council be asked, in light of the last period, to undertake a review of the Church’s response and to set out theological, moral and spiritual principles to guide the Church in any similar situation which could arise and report to the General Assembly 2022’.
Miss Jardine continued, “In bringing forward their licensed amendment the proposer and seconder asked some big questions about the nature of the relationship between the Church and the State, the definition of Church, the kind of society we want to see, how we understand the sovereignty of God, our theology of risk, and the Church’s prophetic voice.
“This interim report is offered to you as a means of providing some background and context to the work of the Task Group, share some initial learning and outline its proposed direction of travel…Specifically we considered it important to understand the context of PCI within which the pandemic has been experienced, and also what the world was like at the start of 2020.
“Our beliefs and understanding of who we are as Christian people, and specifically Presbyterian Christian people, influence how we have responded and reacted to the pandemic and the challenges it has presented. Similarly the economic, political, social and cultural dynamics of the world around us have an impact on the decisions that were made by governments and others,” she said.
In considering the interim report and the work of the Task Group to date, Miss Jardine asked members to be mindful of a number of things including the complexity of PCI’s response to the pandemic, which she categorised as, “a constantly changing and developing situation, dare I say it ‘unprecedented’, a requirement to respond to decisions taken in two different jurisdictions – often with very different approaches to consultation and decision-making and little to no understanding of how long the pandemic would continue.”
At the same time Miss Jardine said that the Task Group understood the requirement of its remit “to draw out ‘theological, moral and spiritual’ principles as an encouragement to be thorough in our work, rather than as prescriptive categories. It also approached its work with the benefit of hindsight, as we all do when we consider and reflect on all that has happened over the past couple of years.”
Miss Jardine concluded by saying, “This work will be ongoing in the weeks and months to come – it is important that when we come to you with the final report next year that we can demonstrate we have listened as broadly as we could, so that when we come to reflect and draw our conclusions we can present an authentic understanding of how PCI responded to the pandemic, theologically, morally and spiritually, and what principles might be derived for the future.”
Following the session the Moderator, Rt Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick, thanked the Clerk for his leadership during the pandemic, “We want to say ‘thank you’ for the leadership that you gave the whole church during this pandemic time. Whatever your view was, wherever you were in the church, we were all where we were in a place we’d never been before. It was a very difficult time and we deeply appreciate how you led us through it,” he said.
Photos: (1) Convener of the Pandemic Response (Governance) Task Group, the Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev Trevor Gribben addressing the Assembly and (2) Karen Jardine, convener of the Pandemic Response (Theological, Moral & Spiritual) Task Group and PCI’s Public Affairs Officer.
23.6.2022 | Moderator, Church in Society, Union Theological College, Church Life, Commemorations.
On the first full day’s business of the General Assembly the newly elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick, was presented with a Bible by the Bible Society in Northern Ireland, a tradition that goes back many years. The presentation also came on the same day that the General Assembly heard that a major international conference on the Bible would take place in the city this autumn.
Organised by the Church’s Union Theological College, the conference, is entitled, ‘Martin Luther: Bible Translator, Illustrator & Publisher’ and celebrates the 500th anniversary of Luther’s translation of the New Testament, known around the world as his ‘September Testament’. The conference will bring together an international team of scholars and will reflect on the legacy of the September Testament and many of the ramifications that are felt to this day.
Speaking to the General Assembly, Professor Gordon Campbell, Principal of Union Theological College, said that its publication in 1522 was part of the Reformation, a pivotal moment in European history, whose impact, legacy and enduring importance continues today.
“Our last major Conference in 2017, spotlighted Luther 500, referencing Luther’s gesture, in October 1517, of publicly nailing a set of reformist statements to a Wittenberg Church door that sparked the Reformation of the Western Church. However, five years later, in September 1522, Luther did something arguably far more significant by putting on sale, at the Leipzig Autumn Fair, a New Testament in sparkling everyday German…” Professor Campbell said.
“To commemorate its first publication and explore ramifications of that event, a team of international contributors will gather at the College on 12 and 13 September. The Conference will focus not only on what Luther did, but also on significant consequences right down to our day, for example, did you know that by the 1550s, Luther’s Bible had spawned an exciting study Bible in English by and for Presbyterians?!” he continued.
The conference, which will also be accompanied by physical and digital exhibitions in the College’s Gamble Library, the largest theological library in Northern Ireland, is supported by Biblica, Bible Society for Northern Ireland and Wycliffe Bible Translators. Encouraging Members of Assembly to consider attending, Professor Campbell said, “Those who join us – ministers, elders, everyone – will discover, in each session, research that is relevant for us today.”
Professor Campbell was speaking during the Report of the Council for Training in Ministry, which has responsibility of looking after all aspects of selection, training and ongoing development of ministers and is also responsible for the management of Union Theological College.
For more detail on the conference and to register, visit www.union.ac.uk
Photo: Catherine Little, General Secretary of the Bible Society in Northern Ireland presents a Bible to PCI’s new Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Rt Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick, at today’s General Assembly.
22.6.2022 | General Assembly, Moderator.
The newly elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick, used his address to the Opening Night of the all-Ireland denomination’s General Assembly in Belfast this evening to remind the Church to reflect on one of the basic tenets of the Christian faith – that Grace works, his theme for the year.
The 65-year-old minister of Portrush Presbyterian Church in County Antrim, was addressing 800 church members, overseas guests and civic dignitaries during the opening service ahead of three days and two evenings of debate by ministers and elders from the Church’s 500-plus congregations across Ireland. Meeting together in General Assembly they will discuss a diverse range of church-related matters and public issues.
Having previously explained that Grace is “described variously as ‘amazing’ in the words of the famous hymn, but essentially Grace is God’s favour towards the underserving, something that changes everything for those who understand it…” Dr Kirkpatrick recounted in his address how one wet summer’s day at New Horizon, the annual Christian festival on Antrim’s north coast, the American pastor John Piper was speaking and he put it like this: “It is not grace to bar what is not bliss nor flight from all distress but this: The grace that orders our trouble and pain, And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.”
Dr Kirkpatrick continued, “If God’s grace works in the hard places then it is seen to stand a real test. The message that I will try to share this year is neither new nor is it complicated – it is the story of Grace not Works.
“This is the story of every Christian and we need often to be reminded about it, to reflect and meditate on it. It is a story that anchors our lives in troubled times, that fills our hearts with courage to face the hard time, moves us to forgive and love our opponent, produces a generous spirit [and] has sent people to the ends of the earth,” the Moderator said.
Using the first two chapters of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians as his text, Dr Kirkpatrick looked at Grace at work in the past, Grace at work in the present and how Grace shapes our future. In terms of that future, Dr Kirkpatrick said, it was a “plan we are fully included in for the grace of God enables us to fulfil the work “…we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10.)” he said.
The Moderator, who is the 177th person to hold the office since the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland 182 years ago, concluded by saying, “His spirit, the Holy Spirit…is the guarantee, and who unites us to Jesus forever, as we place our faith in Him. This truly is our story, this is our message, this is big enough to carry the weight of human need, to both change and unite everyone on this island who embraces Jesus.”
During the evening worship was led by New Irish Arts’ string quartet, directed by its creative director Jonathan Rea. Rev Mark Spratt, minister of Kilmore Presbyterian in County Down, played the organ during the procession of former Moderators into the historic Assembly Hall. This evening was the first time since 2019 that Members of the General Assembly have been able to gather together in person alongside invited guests from civic society and PCI’s overseas partner churches and organisations, for the opening night due to the outworking of Covid pandemic since 2020. The challenging times that the Church and society had been through formed part of the address given by the outgoing Moderator, Dr David Bruce.
Having completed two terms as Moderator, the first person to do so since 1894, Dr Bruce based his address on 1 Peter 1:6, which says, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”
He began by saying that one of his predecessors had said that “Presbyterian Moderators eat their way around Ireland, so I stand before you as one, overfull with tea and tray bakes who is (frankly) relieved that it is coming to an end, for the sake of a stretched cassock…”
However, his “…overwhelming emotion in stepping down is of gratitude to God and his people for these two years – albeit in a deeply turbulent period of our history. Much of my second year in office has been a time of readjustment for the church as we have gradually emerged from the pandemic…” Dr Bruce went on to talk about the seven tours of PCI’s 19 regional presbyteries that he had undertaken, some heavily restricted due to Covid and conducted virtually, others more full on, “Zoë and I survived, thrilled to see the robust and strong work being done on the ground across the country in our churches. There is much to be thankful for,” he said.
Looking back Dr Bruce continued, “On this occasion last October, I listed some of the major local and world events in the period of my first term in office. These included Brexit, Covid, centenaries, legacy of the past and much more besides. Of course we now add international outrage at the inexcusable invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, Assembly elections here in Northern Ireland, the imposition of ever more radical social policies in both jurisdictions, Partygate, Beergate, Wordle and the gradual leaching of respect for people whose leadership ambitions are not matched by their depth of character.”
“Commending the teachings of Jesus Christ in face of such a conflicted public square has always been the Church’s story. As the Apostle Peter put it, we are “strangers in the world”. And really, our story is no more complicated, except in detail, than his was – and the promise that he offered those early believers in Jesus – that their inheritance could never perish, spoil or fade – is what will keep us going in the teeth of overt criticism. Peter writes to them, ‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials’… ” he said.
“We have found ourselves in recent times under harsh scrutiny as a people. Some have struggled to understand what we mean when we say we are a confessional church, with standards to which we physically subscribe as elders at the moment of our ordination. Our critics, alighting on a number of social policy issues such as the provision of abortion, end of life care, the redefinition of marriage, a changed understanding of human identity, among others consider our views to be incomprehensible, or even dangerous….”
Dr Bruce continued, “We do of course need to listen carefully to those who criticise us. Like any human organisation which has been around for a while, we have our blind spots, prejudices and deficiencies – of course we do…But similarly, we need to be confident in the calling we have received to be the church of God, and especially when to do so means swimming against the tide. In particular, and for us with confessed standards which define us, we need to state with loving clarity to the world around us, that we are not minded to re-define our relationship with the Bible, which as our supreme standard we consider to be the word of God. We will not re-write it, re-edit it or re-frame it…The Bible is not toxic, but the word of life.”
Concluding his remarks, the two-term Moderator said, “…Similarly, we are not minded to adjust our relationship with our subordinate standards which this church has held since its formation. It is under this generous canopy of truth where we as a community of grace confidently gather. There is room here, and we include all who wish to come, embraced by the forgiveness bought by Christ on our behalf – the ultimate act of generous inclusion before the human race.”
Photos: (1) Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for 2022/2023 (2) with his predecessor Dr David Bruce just after his election and (3) outside Assembly Buildings.
17.6.2022 | General Assembly, Moderator, Church in Society, Church Life, COVID-19 Emergency.
The Moderator’s office is a small room found near the end of a corridor on the second floor of Assembly Buildings. It overlooks Howard Street and the dirty dark-red brick of the little remembered former Presbyterian War Memorial Buildings opposite. While the view is unremarkable, the view that PCI’s two-term Moderator has had of the church since June 2020 has been anything but unremarkable, describing this time as ‘a great honour and a fascinating season’ in his life – as Mark Smith, the denomination’s press officer, discovered.
During the hour that we had, it was difficult to remember how normal his selection as Moderator-Designate had been on that first Tuesday in February 2020. Presbyteries gathered across Ireland to choose from four names as something called ‘Covid’ continued to impact large parts of a Chinese province and wouldn’t be front page news in Ireland, or the UK, for another four or five weeks.
Little did Dr Bruce, or any of us appreciate, that the life that we had come to know, and all the things that we took for granted, would soon change beyond recognition, with its impact still felt in both the church and society as a whole, as Dr Bruce touched on.
Having been ordained in 1984, Dr Bruce said that along with most Presbyterians, he could remember Moderators who had fulfilled the role in a way that had personally impacted him. “What I have discovered is that everyone is different, and every circumstance is different, and each year presents a different narrative, so a Moderator needs to adapt to the circumstances before them, which is certainly what I have found and my successors will find too.”
A time to adapt
It is perhaps an understatement that the last two years have seen considerable ‘adaptation’, especially during his first term of office. Most of his predecessors would have preached their first Sunday sermon having been invited by a congregation soon after their election by the General Assembly. With congregations across Ireland closed from mid-March 2020, Dr Bruce had to wait until the end of September and a socially distanced gathering in Christ Church Presbyterian in Dundonald for his first face-to-face gathering for worship.
During the first four months of his moderatorial year, Dr Bruce combined the role while continuing his day job, as Secretary to the Council for Mission in Ireland. “In fact in the first phase we were in a deep lockdown from March 2020, right the way through, so in continuity with my predecessor, William Henry, I continued the series of pre-recorded services for congregations that didn’t have the facilities to livestream, or record their own. I chose to preach through Ephesians for the next 22 weeks…it was demanding for many different reasons, but I enjoyed that,” he recalled.
Like most people he said that he’d got used to working from home and using Zoom and Microsoft Teams. A myriad of virtual internal meetings, to online discussions with the NIO and Taoiseach’s office with his fellow Church Leaders – the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Catholic Church, Methodist Church in Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches. In a normal year they would meet two or three times together. After March 2020 they met online on a monthly basis, if not more.
Reflecting on his first half of this first year in office, Dr Bruce said, “I think the Church was reeling with the uncertainty of it all and fearful. There were little pin-pricks of hope and light as people responded creatively, wisely, and well, to the circumstances, and we shouldn’t lose sight of how people came together in the face of such testing times and those on the frontline who went far beyond that extra mile. But for many this was a time of controlled concern, or even panic in some quarters. We certainly knew we were facing a crisis.
Presbytery Tours – meeting people
Dr Bruce undertook more presbytery tours than any of his predecessors, seven in total. These were adapted to suit the prevailing restrictions at the time. “Some were in that deep season of lockdown and were undertaken online with very few face-to-face meetings. The tour of Ballymena Presbytery was largely conducted remotely, with livestream preaching and pre-recorded sermons, virtual coffee mornings and prayer meetings with ministers. Contrast that to my last tour, Coleraine and Limavady Presbytery, which was full-on with 30-plus engagements in eight days,” Dr Bruce explained.
The real value for Moderators of these tours, he suggested, was not just seeing the church first-hand and at work in their local communities, but making face-to-face connections with ministers and their families, with some engagement with civic society through visits to schools, Police Service, hospitals and other organisations.
The Moderator also saw the tours at this particular time as an extension of PCI’s ‘Refresh’ initiative that was designed to allow ministers to pause in their work because of their radically changed circumstances due to the pandemic. In each of the 19 regional presbyteries ‘Refresh Groups’ of 6 to 8 ministers were set up for prayer and fellowship, alongside a one day multi-site livestreamed (and socially distanced) conference that took place last June.
While many things changed during that time, Dr Bruce said that we haven’t really begun to see its long-term effects, “The deep seated pastoral pain of people in our churches who have not been able to grieve properly, is a story not yet written. Grieving is a mysterious thing, it is a leave taking, a loosening of bonds that have in many cases taken decades to forge. If it is not handled well, or enabled to happen healthily, deep-seated harm can result.
“I am sure we will see evidence of this in the years to come, as families feel that they couldn’t say goodbye properly to their loved ones.” There was a feeling too, he said, that society had lost its confidence, as if the pandemic had taken the wind out of its sails.
There is of course a positive side to these events. Dr Bruce continued, “When a crisis occurs, it can be like hitting the reset button on a computer. Everything shuts down, then reboots cleanly forcing us to re-examine the basics…This enforced reset could in fact, under God, be a real blessing to us.”
Reflecting on this the Moderator said that on some visits to churches there was a focus on the ‘ABC’ of church life – ‘Attendance’, ‘Buildings’, and ‘Cash’. While understandable (and not typical of all congregations), Dr Bruce said that there was an opportunity for local churches to refocus on the ‘DEF’ of church life – ‘Discipleship’, ‘Evangelism’, and ‘Fellowship’.
Such a reset isn’t just confined to the Church. “Much that is good will emerge from the serious disruption, challenges and pain that we have been through, but it may take some time to recognise and respond to it,” he said.
Major social changes
As the public face of Irish Presbyterianism, Dr Bruce said that he also felt that there had been another kind of change. For example, major social and policy issues across Ireland have come to challenge the Judeo-Christian world view, like they have never done before – including end of life issues, abortion, human identity, marriage and its definition. Positions that had been shared since the creation of the General Assembly 182 years ago, are now divergent.
“I am finding the Church having to recalibrate how it is heard in the public square. We are having to re-state the importance of our belief in the revealed Word of God in the Bible. Many people have a radically different understanding of how society ought to determine what is right and wrong, and therefore, where social policy should emerge from. It has made some folk nervous, because the changes which result are radical.”
Dr Bruce continued, “My response to that is that our confidence doesn’t rest in government legislation, it rests with God, and in particular with Christ and the Gospel, which we have received from Him. Even if we find ourselves out of step with public opinion on certain important matters, this is not unusual for the world church. Nor has it been unusual over history, as we unpack the story of God’s people through the centuries.”
Two years in post; some special events
While much was different, including the fact that Dr Bruce was the first Moderator to serve two terms of office since 1894 – a semblance of normality returned during his second year. He was able to visit PCI’s Global Mission Workers in Portugal, speaking in congregations most Sundays, representing Irish Presbyterians at state occasions in Dublin and London, while moderating a General Assembly, albeit a smaller gathering, that took place in October – a far cry from the previous year.
His term of office also coincided with the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland, which PCI marked with a special event in September 2021 called ‘On these steps’, at Union Theological College, the home of Northern Ireland’s first parliament. Dr Bruce gave the main address at the event that had a broader aim beyond the commemorative, as it sought to create space to hear different perspectives as people reflected on the island’s past, while looking in hope to a shared future.
Dr Bruce also spoke of the Church Leaders’ centenary ‘Service of Reflection and Hope’ in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh a month later. “We chose our language with great care as we were formulating the purpose of the service…We recognised that within the Church Leaders Group itself, the polarities and perceptions about the very existence of Northern Ireland were well represented – and these differences were evident between us.”
Dr Bruce continued, “We wanted to model how we could differ well, and in that sense demonstrate how reconciliation across differing political and ecclesial views was possible. Similarly we wanted not to celebrate, but mark what was an historical reality, whether we lamented it, celebrated it, or rejoiced in it…
But is the service to be remembered for the fact that the Queen, for reasons of ill-health, and the President of Ireland, for reasons of his own, were unable to attend? “Possibly,” Dr Bruce says thoughtfully, “But I think history will still view it as a significant moment ecclesially, where we had church leaders from different traditions demonstrating that it was possible to collaborate creatively and graciously together, and to do so well.”
Passing on the baton
It has been two years in the spotlight, with countless media appearances, but following this month’s General Assembly he will spend a well-deserved break with Zoë, his wife of 37 years. He will then return to his day job as Secretary to the Council for Mission in Ireland, until he retires at the end of October.
While at times he hasn’t found his two terms easy, especially at “a time of great flux and fluidity” as he puts it, Dr Bruce said that “I have hugely enjoyed it and it has been a great honour.” But will he miss anything?
“Not really,” he replies. “I believe the calling to do this came from God and the calling to relinquish it, and pass it on to someone else, also comes from God. It has been a huge honour and a fascinating season in my life, and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.”
Photos (1) Dr David Bruce giving is address to the Church across Ireland, and further afield, in an empty Assembly Hall via Zoom at his installation by the 2020 Standing Commission of the General Assembly in June of that year (2) the Moderator’s first face-to-face gathering for worship, a socially distanced service in Christ Church Presbyterian, Dundonald in September ’20 (3) Dr Bruce recording the first of 22 online Sunday services, June ’20 (4) another recorded sermon for the online thanksgiving service for 10th anniversary of PCI’s youngest congregation, Donabate Presbyterian in Co. Dublin (5) Presbytery tours (LtoR) (i) visiting Glengormley High School, November ’21 (ii) with the multi-denominational chaplaincy team at Causeway Hospital (iii) on a Co. Armagh farm, March ’22, one of many visits to farmers (iv) with the RNLI crew at its Newcastle Station, March ’22
(6) Moderator speaking at the service of worship and morning conference, as part of the Church’s ‘Refresh Week’ initiative, June ’21 (7) visiting the residents of PCI’s River House in Newcastle March ’22 (8) at Terrace Row Foodbank (9) one of many plaques unveiled to commemorate the opening of new church halls, Bloomfield Presbyterian May ’21 (10) with participants at PCI’s special event ‘One these steps’ at Union College to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland September ’21 (11) Church Leaders Service of Reflection & Hope October ’21 (LtoR) (i) Church Leaders outside St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral greet the UK Prime Minister Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP (ii) P7 children from local schools carry the Lantern of Hope (iii) Moderator shares his personal reflection at the service (iv) First Minister Paul Givan MLA and Ireland’s Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney greet one another (12) over London in a RAF Puma Mk2 while on a PCI visit its tri-service chaplains in England, May ’22 and (12) with his with Zoë in their Lisburn garden.