Support for S Sudan on International Day of Peace

21.9.2020 | Global Mission, Church in Society, Statements, Public Affairs

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has marked today’s United Nation’s International Day of Peace, by adding its name to a statement that draws attention to the urgent need for peace in South Sudan.

Published today, the statement, which has been produced by a range of churches and agencies affiliated to the Ecumenical Network on South Sudan (ENSS), also draws attention for the inclusion of local peacebuilders so that all the voices of ordinary South Sudanese people, including those of young people and women, may feel engaged in the process.

The statement also calls upon PCI and other church partners to stand with the world’s newest nation and points out that the conflict has led to a ‘dire humanitarian situation’ with 7.5 million people requiring humanitarian assistance and more that 2.26 million having been forced to flee the country. South Sudan is also ranked third in terms of countries most vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19.

Highlighting the reasons for PCI’s support, Rev Dr Liz Hughes, convener of denomination’s Council for Global Mission explained that peace and reconciliation is one of the Council’s priority areas, which it is committed to through working with its global mission partners, like the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan (PCOSS).

Dr Hughes said, “Our hearts are heavy for the people of South Sudan and for those who are endeavouring to build peace at every level of society. This includes the leaders and members of our partner Presbyterian church. On this International day of Peace, we once again reiterate our commitment to join with them in prayerful solidarity.

“For many years we have prayed for and provided practical support for the work of our partner church in South Sudan in relation to the humanitarian situation there, and in East Africa in general. For example, in 2014 our Council’s Secretary saw first-hand efforts on the ground when he visited the country.

“That same year our Moderator’s Special Appeal raised £340,000 for South Sudan and in 2017 a further £693,000 was raised for East Africa to support the humanitarian crisis there. Since that time we have also encouraged ongoing support through grants to our partner church and through our development partners Tearfund and Christian Aid Ireland,” Dr Hughes continued.

In 2013, PCI endorsed an appeal to leaders in South Sudan to lay down their weapons and cooperate in seeking peace and in 2018, members of PCI’s General Assembly had the opportunity to hear directly about the situation, when the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan and Sudan addressed them for the second time in four years.

Rt Rev Peter Gai Lual Marrow told the 2018 Assembly, “The situation is horrible. The people have suffered greatly because of the war. Many are starving, many have tried to leave the country, but due to closed borders in neighbouring countries, now find themselves internally displaced….”

Last week the Standing Committee of the Council for Global mission received its latest update from the Church, which said that the government was ‘trying its level best’ to complete the formation of the Revitalize Peace Agreement Government.

In a communique from PCOSS General Treasurer, Rev Peter Shabak Gatluak, reported, “South Sudan is in the midst of starvation driven by over four years of brutal civil war. Half of the population are facing extreme hunger and need urgent aid. The country continues to see a rise in the number of confirmed cases of Covid 19.” He also said that the situation had been worsened by the onset of the rainy season, which has led to the displacement of many people.

“While we have added our name to this particular statement on this year’s International Day of Peace,” Dr Hughes said, “let us not forget the many peoples and many nations around the world who are crying out for peace. As we pray for them, in the name of the Prince of Peace, we also remember our brother and sisters in Christ around the world who crave that same peace for themselves and their lands.”

Moderator’s Belfast Telegraph opinion peice

18.9.2020 | Moderator, Church in Society, Public Affairs, COVID-19 Emergency.

In March, life in these islands changed as a result of Covid-19, a pandemic the like of which hadn’t been here seen here in a century. In today’s Belfast Telegraph, under the title ‘Health crisis has demonstrated our capacity for good’, Presbyterian Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, reflects on the last half year, and shares his hopes for the future.

It is six months since our lives were turned upside down and new language – ‘lockdown’, ‘R number’, ‘social-distancing’, and ‘bubbling’ entered our collective vocabulary. Undoubtedly, the benefit of hindsight will help us evaluate the decisions that have been made by government and others, but let’s not forget that ‘unprecedented’ has perhaps been the only suitable word to describe what we are living through.

It will do us good to pause and reflect on all that has happened. This pandemic has exposed our utter helplessness, and reminded us that even our best-laid plans can be turned on their head in the blink of an eye.

I hear stories of genuine fear, loneliness, and even desperation from people in congregations – thankfully being supported by their ministers and others. With the untimely loss of loved ones, this has also been a moment of tragedy and heartache. Yet these months have also unveiled our capacity for generosity, putting others first and looking out for our neighbour. This has been uplifting to watch.

Many have adapted to working from home, juggling childcare, schooling, and other caring responsibilities. It has been humbling to witness thousands of people in churches, community and voluntary organisations working alongside each other, sometimes crossing traditional boundaries, to look out for people who were shielding and those living alone.

While the majority of us ‘locked down’, many more kept going. I salute our healthcare workers and everyone who continued to ensure that our supermarkets were well stocked. Care home workers have gone the extra mile to ensure our loved ones remained as safe as possible – and we clapped them, and the others on the frontline, each Thursday evening. This was a good thing to do.

Our media have taken seriously their responsibility to provide clear and concise information, whilst taking time to acknowledge the lives of those who sadly succumbed to the virus. They have also brightened our days with stories of neighbourliness, while holding those in authority to account – and while it hasn’t all been plain sailing, the simple fact that we have an Executive to make local decisions in response to this crisis, should not be taken for granted. Many challenges remain, and more difficult decisions lie ahead for all of us.

For those planning for their futures together, and who have had to reschedule weddings, one of the most familiar Bible passages used is 1 Corinthians chapter 13. It says that while many things will pass away, these three – faith, hope and love – will remain. This simple message is, I believe, relevant to all of us.

It is a reminder that loving each other requires us to do things that might be inconvenient – like wearing a mask. Hope reminds us that work is ongoing to find a vaccine, while faith calls us to recognise that in our utter helplessness, there is One who is not shaken by pandemics, or world events, in whom we can place our trust.

Let this be the backdrop for strong civic and political leadership, and for courageous decision-making; for seeking the best in our schools and in our workplaces; for taking the opportunity to consider new ways of living and being, and as we all do our best to stay safe, for looking to the needs of others, over and above our own.

Photo: The Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce.

Moving forward – youth and children’s ministry

3.9.2020 | Congregational Life, Church Life, Youth & Children, Resources, COVID-19 Emergency.

With the summer gone, the start of September marks the beginning of the new church year for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. At this particular time, its 500-plus congregations across the island would normally be restarting their mid-week meetings and Sunday school activities after the summer break, along with youth ministry and outreach programmes. But it’s not a normal year. Looking ahead to the forthcoming church year, PCI has issued guidance to its ministers regarding youth work and children’s ministry in a new resource it calls ‘Blended’.

The impact of the Covid pandemic has affected every area of life, and church life with it. Sunday gatherings for worship effectively ceased at the end of March, resuming tentatively in July, with many congregations only now returning within strict government guidelines. Much of church activity – including children and youth activities – went online where possible, requiring a new way of doing things and learning new digital skills.

Talking about the new resource and moving forward, Rev David Thompson, Secretary to the denomination’s Council for Congregational Life & Witness, which is responsible for supporting and resourcing youth and children’s ministry, highlighted the reasons for the guidance and the joint phased and blended approach that it recommends over the coming autumn and winter months.

“As life edges back to greater normality, an important part of this process has been the enabling of a safe and successful return to school, which began for many families this week. If this can be managed successfully, it will be a significant step towards a return to regular routines in many areas of life, including church activity, which is why we have recommended a blended and phased return to youth and children’s activities.”

David Thompson explained that this approach would allow children and young people to settle into school during the first half of the new term, enable congregations to prioritise their patterns of Sunday worship, take stock of overall activities and reduce the pressure on youth and children’s leaders.

“For the church to play our part in this effort we have strongly recommended that the kind of regular, through the week programming of physical meetings for children and young people should not begin until next month at the earliest and that planning should be for a gradual phased return during the autumn as circumstances allow,” he said.

Rev Thompson was keen to point out that all of this need not mean that children’s and youth ministry should be put on hold, but acknowledged that while challenging, there were also opportunities. “Every congregation will be different in terms of its routines and activities and the new reality that we find ourselves in will require a different approach.

“Many teams will already have had the experience of having moved from regular face-to-face meetings, to digital contact with children in the early days of the pandemic and over the summer months, when restrictions prevented the usual holiday Bible clubs and other activities,” he said.

For example, in June, Maze and Ballinderry Presbyterian Churches’ youth and children’s worker, Rachel Haffey, was part of the organising team who put together this year’s Holiday Bible Club. It was called ‘Down on the Farm’ where local farm animals where used as a backdrop to talk about the gospel message.

“It was pre-recorded and went out on the Maze Facebook page, website and YouTube channel every Friday night, finishing with a special online service on Sunday, 28 June. Each week there were challenges and activities and worksheets for the children to take part it and send in. It was a great time for the children to feel a part of something in these difficult days, and most importantly, to hear God speak into their lives,” she said.

Bushvale Presbyterian’s young people’s week was called the ‘Late Late Breakfast Club’ using the Zoom conferencing platform. Mark Adams explained that each night they looked at ‘Lockdown Legends of the Bible’. “Noah and his family; Silas and Paul in the Philippi jail; Anna in the temple; and the worst ever lockdown being broken with the victory of the Lord Jesus over death.”

“There are many restrictions in using Zoom, but one benefit was that we could have people join us through the evening with little hassle on their part. While it wasn’t like being in the same room, it did open up opportunity to teach and connect,” he explained.

Meanwhile Knock Presbyterian Church in Belfast has been running socially distant games with young people in the church grounds since the end of June. Paul Brown, director of youth ministries, said that it had provided vital connections for young people, respite for families and opportunities to hear the gospel.

Looking ahead to the autumn and winter, David Thompson said, “Moving forward, we have recommended a blend of ministry activity – predominantly through digital contact, supported by a limited number of physical gatherings, which maximise opportunities for being together and keeping in touch, while respecting the necessary restrictions that keep everyone safe. Hopefully as the threat of coronavirus subsides, we will be able to build children’s and youth ministry activity back to more frequent and regular patterns of church life.”

To help and support congregations, the Blended resource offers both advice on crafting this blended approach to programming, along with video clips showing what some congregations have already done in developing digital ministry and safe, socially distanced gatherings. While stressing the need to stay safe in the ‘real’ world, guidance is also provided on safeguarding in the virtual world, as the need to stay safe online is just as important.

“The next season of children’s and youth ministry will be different. As we plan and prepare for it, I would like to pay tribute to everyone who has continued to find ways to bring the gospel and fellowship to young people and children over the last six very challenging months and encourage those who are just about to start to plan.”

Rev Thompson continued, “In all that we do and plan, it is important that we remember that God goes with us and ahead of us as we set out on this ongoing journey. He was with us and the children, young people and families under our care in the confinement of lockdown. He will be with us in the refinement of our programming over the next few months, and He will be with us when Coronavirus is a thing of the past.”

In this video, which is part of the Blended resource, Suzi Taylor, Waringstown Presbyterian’s children’s and family worker, shares advice on engaging children in online kids ministry. She is joined by five-year-old Lucy, who tells us, “You can still learn about Jesus at your home.” In another video Andrew Kelly, Gransha Presbyterian’s youth and children’s worker offers some practical advice of how to setup and run a kids club meeting on Zoom. He also talks about safeguarding.

The video is available by clicking on the following link:

Photos: (1) some of the children at Maze Presbyterian help with the actions to the theme song ‘All through history’ from home (2) Rachel Haffey of Maze & Ballinderry Presbyterian Church (3) distance volley ball at Knock Presbyterian Church (4) Sunday Morning children’s ministry at Carnmoney Presbyterian Church.

You can also find practical guidelines and simple advice for kirk sessions as they prepare to set up and meet again here in Stay Safe at Church.

Hate Crime Review – Striking the right balance

28.8.2020 | Church in Society, Public Affairs

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) was one of over 1,000 contributors to the recent public consultation on hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland. The Review’s recommendations will be presented to the Department of Justice later on this year. In today’s edition of the News Letter, PCI’s public affairs officer, Karen Jardine, writes about the Church’s response to the consultation saying that ‘finding a way forward on hate crime should not become a precursor to curtailing genuine debate…’ Karen concludes by emphasising the importance of getting any legislation as right as possible, ‘achieving a balance which both protects the vulnerable and facilitates respectful debate.’

During the height of attempts across the UK to control the Covid-19 pandemic, the Scottish Government introduced the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, designed to modernise and extend hate crime legislation there. Organisations as varied as the Law Society of Scotland and the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Scotland have expressed concern that the new Bill could restrict freedom of expression.

Locally, Judge Desmond Marrinan has been leading an independent review of hate crime legislation here, with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland one of over 1,000 contributors to the recent public consultation. That such a review is even necessary is a sad reminder that unlawful activity which seeks to bully and intimidate individuals remains part of our culture. The reported exponential rise of abuse on social media, often experienced more so by women, and the recording of around 2,300 hate motivated incidents and crimes by the PSNI from April 2019 – March 2020, provide further evidence of the scale of this problem in society today.

The task faced by the review team therefore is vast, as is the complexity of taking forward its recommendations due to emerge towards the end of the year. Justice Minister Naomi Long has indicated that any subsequent legislation will not be brought to the Assembly before the end of its current mandate in spring 2022. Scotland’s experience reminds us that the balance between protecting the vulnerable, whilst maintaining opportunities to explore differences of opinion in a constructive way, can be hard to strike.

One aim of the Review team is to officially define the term ‘hate’ and what might constitute a ‘hate crime’. However, creating a definition in itself is not a panacea. The blunt instrument of the law, even as a last resort, is no substitute for the hard, and often challenging, work of transforming hearts and minds.

In its response PCI has cautioned that finding a way forward on hate crime should not become a precursor to curtailing genuine debate. This, for instance, is why PCI has sought clarity that the legitimate use and exposition of scripture is protected and not constituted as a hate crime – something the Catholic Church feels is not guaranteed in the Scottish proposals.

In a world increasingly defined through the lens of individual identity, and choices which we are often told are fluid and non-binary, we risk being left with a binary option which boils down to this – if you are not for me then you are against me, and if you are against me (while of course you have a the right to hold your personal beliefs) there is no place for you to articulate those beliefs in the public square. The place of public debate risks becoming a zero-sum game where if you win, I lose and vice versa.

The public square is changing rapidly, not only becoming more diverse with the rejection of old norms and the promotion of new philosophies and ideas, but conversely getting smaller through this rise of ‘cancel culture’. It is also getting louder with a cacophony of voices readily available at all times through social media and the 24-hour news cycle – all competing to be heard and therefore using more and more extreme and intolerant language. Against this background the challenge to create space for considerate discourse, respectful listening, and agreeing to disagree well is one which we all have a responsibility to grasp.

For many Christians grounding their public conduct in the truth-claims of their faith forms a key element of their religious commitment. Recognising this is a vital part of what it means for a society to genuinely value religious freedom.  There must be space within society to express views with which others may disagree, recognising that this works both ways and allows people to express views about religious belief with which we may disagree. After all, the freedom to only express ideas that are popular is no freedom at all.

In a perfect world this type of legislation would be unnecessary. In our imperfect and fallen world let’s make sure we get such legislation as right as possible, achieving a balance which both protects the vulnerable and facilitates respectful debate.

Photo: Karen Jardine, PCI’s public affairs officer.