PCI responds to new NI Covid restrictions

20.11.2020 | Moderator, Church in Society, Statements, Public Affairs, COVID-19 Emergency

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has responded to last night’s announcement of tougher restrictions in Northern Ireland, expressing concern, regret and disappointment, while recognising the need for clear steps to prevent the continued spread of Covid-19.

Speaking on behalf of the denomination, the Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce:

As we come to terms with the implications of these new regulations, we are acutely mindful of the wide-ranging impact on retail, hospitality, leisure, sports and most other areas of community life, and how this materially affects the livelihoods and well-being of many in our community, including our church members. This is a major pastoral concern for us and our congregations. The suspension of public worship in churches for two weeks, introduced as part of this package of measures, is a cause of significant regret and concern to us.

Regarding public worship, we continue to make representations to the Northern Ireland Executive in Belfast, and to the Irish Government in Dublin. We have been reminding legislators of the importance of balancing our essential liberty to worship, with the need for protection of the community and people’s livelihoods, from the devastating effects of this serious pandemic, and will continue to do so. We have made the point that face-to face-gatherings for worship are essential for the spiritual well-being of people everywhere, and for the good of society.

At a meeting with a government minister and officials held this morning, we have received assurances that the two-week period of these restrictions is all that is planned, and we have reinforced the strong view to the Executive that such measures be limited to this period only.

For the time being, while public worship may be suspended for these two weeks, the church is not closed. We will worship together using online and other media. We will pray for our people, our governments and our communities during these uncertain times. Our presence as salt and light in our communities will continue as we share the love of Christ and care for those around us.

The Advent promise that Christ is coming to live among is unchanged, even if our customary celebrations may be curtailed in some measure this year.

Remembrance Sunday concludes presbytery tour

9.11.2020 | Moderator, Church in Society, Public Affairs, Presbytery Tour, Presbytery News, Commemorations

Presbyterian Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, concluded his second presbytery tour yesterday, when he preached at the evening service of Richhill Presbyterian. In an article for this week’s Ulster Gazette, Dr Bruce reflected on his time in the Presbytery, which included Remembrance Sunday, saying that it had been “quite a week, and one I won’t forget.”

Because of the current restrictions at this particular time, we scaled back the tour considerably, but it was still busy and very worthwhile as a means of encouraging our ministers and congregations. My theme for each of my sermons,when I preached in Lurgan, Portadown, Armagh and Richhill, focused on the exile of the Hebrew people to Babylon, as I wanted to show how, then as now, our God is faithful in times of disruption, challenge and change.

“While I was able to preach in four of our congregations in the Presbytery, over a number of separate meetings over Zoom during the week, it was good to be able to speak with nearly all of our local ministers. Catching up with them, hearing first-hand what had been happening over the last eight months, how they had been supporting their congregations and how their congregations had been supporting the local community was time well spent. We were also able to spend valuable time praying together.

In many respects it wasn’t a typical presbytery visit, but I was able to spend time with some traders in Portadown, students at Killycomaine Junior High in Portadown and the Royal School Armagh. I was also able to take some time to meet Roberta Brownlee (chair) and Shane Devlin (CEO) of the Southern Health and Social Care Trust. We had a wide-ranging discussion about Covid impact, social care, and the demands of running the Trust in these times. I was also able to pass on to them the appreciation of the Church for the vital work that everyone in our remarkable NHS is doing.

At both schools it was wonderful to meet members of staff and students. I thoroughly enjoyed the Q&A with 5th and 6th formers at the Royal School who grilled me on everything from ‘does God exist’ to social changes in society and the Churches position on some of the more controversial ones. At Killycomaine Junior High, with Year 9s we talked about how do you know if something was true or not, and how the Bible shows how we can know that God exists. Their teachers in both schools can be very proud of them.

My tour came to an end on Remembrance Sunday. Having preached my first sermon of the day in First Armagh Presbyterian, I had the opportunity to lay a wreath on behalf of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland at the city cenotaph, which was exceptionally poignant. My last engagement was in Richhill Presbyterian, were the welcome was as warm as it has been across the Presbytery. Quite a week, and one I won’t forget.

Photos: The Moderator’s tour of the Armagh Presbytery began on the previous Sunday when Dr Bruce preached in First Lurgan Presbyterian, where he worshiped with his family as a boy. Here, Dr Bruce is pictured with (1) Shane Devlin, CEO of the Southern Health and Social Care Trust and the Trust’s chairperson Roberta Brownlee. During their meeting he was able to pass on PCI’s appreciation for the vital work that everyone in the NHS is doing (2) with 5th and 6th formers at the Royal School Armagh and (3) laying a wreath on behalf of the General Assembly at Cenotaph on the The Mall, Armagh, on Remembrance Sunday.

‘Homecoming’ for Moderator

2.11.2020 | Moderator, Church Life, Presbytery Tour, Presbytery News.

The Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, made a nostalgic return visit to his home congregation yesterday, when he preached in First Lurgan Presbyterian. The church holds special memories for Dr Bruce as he worshipped there with his family until he left for university. It was also the church where, nearly 40 years ago, that he was licensed to preach the Gospel and ordained as a minister.

His return visit to First Lurgan was the opening service to mark the start of a weeklong pastoral tour of the church’s Presbytery of Armagh, one of the denomination’s 19 regional presbyteries. The tour is one of four such visits each Moderator makes during their year in office. That evening, Dr Bruce went on to preach in First Portadown Presbyterian Church and this Remembrance Sunday, he will preach in First Armagh in the morning, before laying a wreath at the city’s cenotaph. In the evening, he will preach in Richhill Presbyterian.

Presbytery tours are primarily about encouraging the local church and for the Moderator to get ‘out and about’, seeing first-hand the work that congregations are doing in the community. They would normally involve around 30 engagements over the course of the week and are an opportunity for moderators to meet and thank those who contribute to community life in a wider context. Usually involving visits to hospitals, the police service, local schools, elected representatives, voluntary groups and other organisations, due to the current situation, however, the Presbytery has scaled back the tour significantly.

“For me it will be like a home coming, as we moved to Lurgan from Banbridge when I was six where I attended King’s Park Primary School, before going to Cabin Hill in Belfast. As a family we worshipped at First Lurgan, whose minister, Dr Jim Matthews, coincidently, went on to become Moderator a few years after I was ordained,” Dr Bruce said.

“Congregations do an incredible amount of work reaching out and serving their local communities quietly and compassionately in the name of Jesus, often behind the scenes. I was really looking forward to discovering for myself what that looks like on the ground, across the Presbytery of Armagh, especially in these Covid times, but I will be able to get a good feel for it in other ways,” he said.

The Presbytery encompasses much of the historic county. Its 29 congregations stretch from the southern shore of Lough Neagh to the border near Keady, and from Waringstown into the south-east corner of Tyrone. These urban and rural congregations range in size from those with 17 families to more than 550, making a Presbyterian family of around 10,500.

During the week the Presbytery itself – ministers, an elder from each congregation, retired ministers and others under its care – will meet for its monthly meeting. The Moderator will lead its opening devotions. He will also have the opportunity of ‘meeting’ most of the presbytery’s ministers for a virtual coffee, chat and time of prayer, in four separate Zoom calls throughout the week. Dr Bruce will also have the opportunity of visiting Craigavon Food Bank and take questions from Year 12-14 students at the Royal School Armagh. He will also see Year 8 and 9 classes at Killycomaine High School in Portadown.

“In light of the current restrictions to ensure people’s safety at this particular time, we took the collective decision to scale back the tour. While the main focus will be preaching in local congregations, I will also have an opportunity to convey my thanks and appreciation, on behalf of the Church, to senior members of the Southern Health and Social Care Trust, for what their teams have done and continue to do, during these difficult times,” Dr Bruce continued.

“It will also be an honour to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday in memory of those who sacrificed their lives for us in both World Wars, and the terrible conflict that we endured here at home, from which so many are still suffering the loss of loved ones.”

Rev Peter Gamble, Clerk of the Presbytery of Armagh, and minister of The Mall Presbyterian Church, said that he was looking forward to the visit, especially at this time. “A visit by the Moderator to your presbytery, so that they can see the work and witness of the Church for themselves, is always a tremendous encouragement to ministers and their congregations. While this will be a very different kind of tour, we are delighted to be able to welcome Dr Bruce to Armagh, as you could say, and I am sure that he won’t mind me saying so, that we are welcoming home a presbytery ‘old boy’”.

The clerk continued, “Presbytery tours are primarily pastoral visits and this visit is timely. As a community of God’s people, and as a community living together in a more general sense, in these days, we probably don’t realise the stress and anxiety that we have all been under for so long now. To have the Moderator come, with all the social distancing and other safety measures in place, to bring God’s word, and to encourage us as Presbyterians, is something we welcome and give thanks for, particular at this time.”

Photo: First Lurgan Presbyterian Church.

PCI’s latest deaconess commissioned

29.10.2020 | Mission News, Presbyterian Women, Mission in Ireland, Mission, Presbytery News, Congregational News.

The latest in a long line of deaconesses in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), has been commissioned to serve in West Church, Bangor in a socially distanced service held in the County Down church. Originally from Portavogie, Louise Davidson is one of fifteen deaconesses currently serving in local congregations across PCI, alongside hospital, and prison chaplains and other specialist ministries.

As an auxiliary nurse working in the Ulster Hospital and a community healthcare worker for 25 years, Louise said that she had always felt God’s call on her life. “I have always had that desire to help and support people and that has been accompanied by real sense of God’s call on my life, while not exactly knowing where it might lead.

“I always had an interest in what a deaconess did, so to follow in the footsteps of so many faithful women is a privilege. I am so thankful to be able to join them and I’m really looking forward to working with the team at West, walking alongside people and watching God work in their lives. It is a privilege to be able to serve the Lord in this way, something that I couldn’t have done without the support and encouragement of my family,” she said.

As part of her journey in becoming a deaconess, the married mother of two twenty-something’s, who lives in Greyabbey, took a Pastoral Care course at Belfast Bible College, which was followed by a three year full-time degree in theology at the University of Cumbria. A year after graduating, she applied to become a deaconess, by which time she was volunteering as a pastoral care worker at First Bangor Presbyterian Church. Having been accepted for the Diaconate, three years of training at Union Theological College in Belfast followed.

The first deaconesses in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland began their training in 1908, when the office of deaconess was established by the General Assembly. This followed an earlier 1904 General Assembly report that looked at the work of the Church in industrial areas.

One of its recommendations was that minsters in urban congregations be provided with trained support staff to assist them in the carrying out of their duties. This included the training of women for full-time church work.

Since then, hundreds of women have been called by congregations, and to other areas of specialist ministry, as deaconesses within the Church. The overall responsibility for them lies with PCI’s Council for Mission in Ireland in partnership with Presbyterian Women (PW) and the Council for Training in Ministry.

Each of the denomination’s 19 regional presbyteries have certain responsibilities for deaconesses, including the commissioning of them to the office of deaconess. This takes place after they have been called to serve in a congregation, which is responsible for deploying them to meet specific local pastoral and community needs. The Moderator of the Presbytery of Ards, Rev Graeme Kennedy of Ballygrainey Presbyterian, led the service of commissioning for Louise.

Mission in Ireland Secretary, and PCI’s current Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, took part in Louise’s commissioning service. “Deaconesses have played an important role in the life of our Church for well over a century now, seeking to serve God, the Church and the community. Taking up lead roles in missional and evangelistic activities, they support the warp and weft of ordinary congregational life in so many important ways,” Dr Bruce said.

“I am hugely supportive of the work that our deaconesses do, a group of women deeply committed to the service of Christ in the community, which is such a powerful social witness to the gospel. They are much valued and I am pleased to say that we have another commissioning service in a few weeks’ time, a new intake of three trainees who will start their training in September 2021 and another who has still to complete her training.”

Talking about the commissioning service and the role that Louise will fill, West Church’s minister, Very Rev Dr Charles McMullen, said that it had been a very special evening. “Under normal circumstances West Church would have been full to overflowing, but there was an intimacy and an overwhelming sense of God’s presence as Louise was commissioned and inducted as our new deaconess. I am pleased to say that many others were able to join us via the live streaming of the service.

Dr McMullen continued, “We are a large congregation of around 1,100 families and have a long history of team ministry. Louise, who did her student placement with us, was a breath of fresh air. With a big heart for Jesus and a tremendous capacity for people, she will be responsible for developing our ministry among women, mentoring our youth interns, and being an important part of the pastoral care team – and that work has already started.”

At the commissioning service, PCI’s Women’s Ministry and PW Development Officer, Pauline Kennedy, presented Louise to the Presbytery for her commissioning as a deaconess. During the service, she also presented her with a badge of office, a silver broach bearing PCI’s emblem, the burning bush from the Bible, Latin motto and the word ‘DEACONESS’. “It was a very special service and a real privilege for me to present Louise, on behalf of PW, the Council for Mission in Ireland and Council for Training in Ministry, to the Presbytery for her commissioning,” she said.

“Over the last three years I have been able to be side-by-side with Louise as she underwent her training. As I walked with her, I had the opportunity to see the depth of her love for God and His very real sense of call upon her life. It has also been so evident that her many gifts and talents, not least her servant heart, will be a real blessing to West Church, and we wish her God’s richest blessing as she commences this new chapter in her life and her life of service.”

Photos: (1) PCI’s latest deaconess, Louise Davidson (2) Louise with (left) West Church’s minister, Very Rev Dr Charles McMullen and (right) Moderator of Ards Presbytery, Rev Graeme Kennedy (3) members of the Presbytery of Ards and speakers at the live streamed commissioning service (4) the deaconesses badge of office that bears a representation of the burning bush in the Bible and Latin moto ‘Ardens sed Virens’ ardens -‘burning but flourishing’

100th outing for ‘Good News’ column

26.10.2020 | Mission News, Moderator, Mission in Ireland, Mission, Farming and Rural Life.

A unique column in Saturday’s Farming Life marked a significant milestone for its writers and readers alike, when ‘Good News for the Countryside’ marked its 100th outing. Presbyterian Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce called it ‘a significant achievement’ and offered his ‘heartfelt congratulations’.

The fortnightly column is written by a cohort of 10 ministers, former ministers, and churchgoing Presbyterians, all of whom have a heart for the countryside, or a farming background. Together, they offer personal reflections on faith and rural life, with a strong gospel message.

An initiative of Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s Council for Mission in Ireland, Dr Bruce is also Secretary to the Council and thanked everyone involved in getting the column to the printed page every two weeks for nearly four years. “For generations, farms and farming families have been the backbone of Ulster and life on the island of Ireland. They have also been the mainstay of so many of our congregations up and down the land,” he said.

“At the mercy of the weather, the changing of our seasons and prices at the Mart, it has never been an easy way of life. This why, at this special time of Harvest, we give thanks for the Lord’s provision, what has been gathered in and for the farmers and their families.”

Dr Bruce continued, “While the seasons change, God’s Word, His love for us and His message of salvation remain constant. For readers to be reminded of this each fortnight, or to hear it for the very first time, is a wonderful opportunity for which we are so very thankful. To everyone who makes this special column possible, especially Farming Life’s editor, Ruth Rodgers, and the contributors who prayerfully bring each message to life, ‘thank you’. This is a significant achievement and I offer my heartfelt congratulations on reaching this milestone.”

The column made its first appearance on 7 January 2017. The rhythm of the farming year, the beauty of the countryside, and farming life in general, have been brought together by the columnists in nearly 60,000 words over the last 46 months; together with 340 individual verses from 38 of the Bible’s 66 books. Each column also has a simple message for Farming Life’s 50,000 readers to reflect on, principally that they can have an eternal relationship with a loving God, through His Son, Jesus Christ. Verses that were most quoted came from John 14:1-6.

Books of the Bible most used in the column
 1 John = 6 Jeremiah & Hebrews
 2 Psalms 7 Proverbs
 3 Matthew = 8 Genesis / Acts / 1 Corinthians
 = 4 Luke & Romans = 9 1 Peter & 2 Corinthians
 5 Isaiah 10 Colossians

Rev Kenny Hanna, whose family still farm in the foothills of the Mountains of Mourne, first had the idea for the column following the 2015 Balmoral Show and approached Farming Life’s editor. “First and foremost I would like to add my thanks to everyone involved especially the contributors, our editor Mark Smith, Dr Bruce who acts as our executive editor and Ruth, for her enthusiasm and for giving us the green light,” he said.

“On the very first day it was published I have felt that to have the opportunity of sharing the good news of Jesus with fellow farming families in this way was a wonderful privilege. From a neighbour to our farm, the phone calls, emails and letters that I have received, to what our contributors tell me from their own experiences, I know that it is being read by folk from a great variety of backgrounds, the length and breadth of the country and for that I give God all the glory.”

Launched in 1963 Farming Life has a unique position within Northern Ireland’s farming community as it reaches many people each weekend providing farmers with the information they need to make daily decisions in the running of their farming business.

Offering her congratulations on the 100th column, Farming Life editor, Ruth Rodgers, said, “2020 has proven to be an exceptionally difficult year, but one in which the farming community has shown its resilience and ability to get on with the job at hand. While the daily work on the farm has largely continued as normal, many may be suffering due to the reduced opportunities to socialise and meet up with friends or family. Older people in particular may be feeling more vulnerable and lonely at this time and are worried about what the rest of 2020 and early 2021 will bring.”

Ruth continued, “It’s amazing that the column has reached its 100th’ message. I hope that during these difficult months people have turned to it each fortnight and found it a blessing and a message of hope and assurance that despite the current turmoil in the world, God is still in the business of changing lives.”

Each Saturday the column appears as a blog on the PCI website. You can read them here.

Former GP and Minister Emeritus of Castledawson and Curran, Rev Dr Kenneth Patterson, has written the 100th column, and you can read it here.

Photo: Dr Bruce is pictured at home reading Saturday’s Farming Life, as his four month old grandson, Malik, looks on.

Brexit & reconciliation: Moderator reflects

23.10.2020 | Moderator, Church in Society, Public Affairs.

In a recent Four Nations Church Leaders Meeting on Brexit, facilitated by the Irish Council of Churches (ICC) and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), as part of the conversation, Presbyterian Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, was asked to reflect on the Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol. Dr Bruce did so through the lens of reconciliation.

As face-to-face negotiations with the UK government and European Union Commission continued this week, in the run up to December’s deadline for a UK/EU trade deal, Dr Bruce thought that it would be timely to put his reflection into the public domain.

The invitation to the Four Nations Church Leaders to meet was issued by the Church Leaders’ Group (Ireland), which involves the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Methodist, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian Churches in Ireland and the President of the ICC. The meeting, took place on 14 October. It was facilitated by CTBI, of which the ICC is an associate member. It was felt that the meeting would be useful for two reasons:

  • Firstly, there was a recognition that Northern Ireland has unique vulnerabilities in the context of Brexit, which are not always well understood in the rest of the United Kingdom, and
  • Secondly, it created a space for better understanding through sharing concerns and different perspectives on some of these issues around Brexit with Church leaders from different jurisdictions.

The meeting was held using the Zoom video conferencing platform, with upwards of 20 church leaders present. The Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, Most Rev John McDowell, focussed on the UK’s Internal Market Bill, and the Moderator focused on Ireland / Northern Ireland Protocol.

Moderator’s reflection to the Four Nations Church Leaders’ meeting

I have been asked to give a brief introduction to this item – the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol, focussing specifically on the implications for reconciliation. The Apostle Paul’s vision of the church is of a new humanity, reconciled with God in Christ, and reconciled with each other across all arbiters of division. “His purpose was to create in himself, one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15-16.)

Brexit is not all about Trade…The proposed existence of an effective border in the Irish Sea regulating goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a deeply troubling issue for us, and for the business community here. That said, the alternative, which is a hard land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is, for reasons I will comment upon in a moment, equally troubling for us.

Brexit presents us as Christian leaders, with a job of work to do, bearing in mind the ‘terrible beauty’ of our land and history on this side of the Irish Sea. For those of you who know anything about Irish poetry, you may have caught the words of William Bulter Yeats in that last sentence – this ‘terrible beauty’ has been the story of Ireland ever since he wrote these words in his famous poem to mark the Easter Rising of 1916.

It would be easy to characterise our story as a sectarian conflict which led to partition 100 years ago next May, and the violent deaths of thousands of people since – and that is true of course – but Ireland’s terrible beauty is multi-faceted, and the shocking glints of it have been exposed again by Brexit.

Much has been said about the 1998 Good Friday Agreement as the well-negotiated outcome of statecraft, which has given us relative peace and stability for over two decades. It has become a poster-child of good practice in conflict resolution across the world. We act today in support of that Agreement, but note with deep concern some developments around Brexit, which make the delivery of its excellent aspirations much more challenging. There are multiple polarisations here:

  • A widening gap between the very rich and the very poor
  • A deep-seated suspicion of the other – whoever they may be
  • A growing distrust of the historic institutions on this island, whether of government, education, finance, the professions or the church.

Alongside these polarisations, there is the old leg wound of the border, which has given us a cultural and community limp for the last 100 years, and about which there is a growing and gnawing disquiet – an injury so successfully bandaged up by the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, but now inflamed again and aching like a reminder that the dark damp days of winter are coming and December will soon be upon us. So I need to comment on the options here, and their implications for us as we think of ourselves as ministers of reconciliation.

A soft Border, such as we have had on this island for over 20 years, has been good for community relations, for trade, for building prosperity and hope for the future. We have even organised our parishes across this invisible line with relative ease. Reconciliation between communities and traditions, while never easy, is made less complicated when the border is removed as a significant barrier or issue.

To introduce what amounts to a border in the Irish Sea (which will shake Northern Ireland’s relations with the rest of Britain, and call into question the very viability of many of the business models that drive our economy here due to the requirement of regulatory compliance for exports from Britain to Europe, which aren’t actually going to Europe), is a politically risky thing for a UK government to sponsor, if they genuinely do affirm their commitment to the Union. Reconciliation in the broadest sense between the peoples of these islands will not be best served by such a policy.

On the other hand, a hard land border, re-established from either side of the line on the map as originally drawn around the six counties of Northern Ireland will heighten tensions, alienate one side or the other, and hold all the potential for conflict reignited down the line. Lord, in your mercy, preserve us from this – a potential return to a terrible chapter in our past, where the beauty of reconciliation seemed like an impossible dream.

There are provisions within the Good Friday Agreement, which promote and enable better co-operation on both parts of this island. The part of the document, which is the actual international agreement between the British and Irish governments, includes the following words which I need to quote to you about the aspirations of the Agreement in respect of the peoples of these islands:

“….Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.”

The framers of the Good Friday Agreement 22 years ago could not have anticipated Brexit. Removing the framework of the European Union from the mix, as Brexit increasingly will do, removes some of the steadying foundations upon which the Agreement itself was built and makes the ability to maintain the ‘soft’ border, which has been a great blessing to us, much more difficult to maintain. John Hume would have been horrified at the prospect, and many, perhaps most moderate unionists would share his disquiet.

I finish my introduction with this. The full impact of whichever border arrangements are finally put in place for Northern Ireland cannot be fully predicted in these months of relentless uncertainty. We, as Church Leaders in Ireland, have already asked for urgency and generosity in the negotiations, to end this uncertainty.

But Covid-19 has dominated the news bulletins for months, distracting us, and possibly also the UK government, from this deeply serious political moment – some I imagine have rather hoped the whole thing would simply go away, locked down and suspended like everything else. We can say that to stall the negotiations, and to default to a no-deal, will harden not only the border, but the hearts of a new generation of young Irish men and women who dream of a better future here.

It is clear that such a scenario would place untold pressure on trade, on community cohesion, on the further prospects for peace-building, let alone reconciliation, and on a sense of ourselves on this island (if I may borrow from Yeats) as more beautiful than terrible.

Education – An informed ethos?

13.10.2020 | Church in Society, Public Affairs, Education.

As schools prepare for the half-term break, writing in today’s News Letter, Andy Brown, chair of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s State Education Committee, reflects on the importance Christian ethos in our schools. Under the original title ‘Education – an informed ethos?’ he says that ethos, values and education are inextricably linked, ‘as it is impossible to have a value-neutral schooling system.’

Ethos is a funny word. Most of us have no problem using it and understanding it, but don’t ask us to define it. We often add it after another word to make sense of what we’re trying to say – ‘academic’, ‘professional’, ‘inclusive’, ‘Christian’ – or confuse it with other concepts such as culture, or environment, and most often values. For me, at its simplest, ethos is who we are, what we do, why we do it that way, where we are going and how we plan to get there.

Ethos, values and education are inextricably linked, as it is impossible to have a value-neutral schooling system. Education is so much more than books, formula and exams; teaching and learning is about life and how to inhabit our world with all of its differences. This must be done within a framework of values, enshrined within an ethos.

Discussions around ethos and values in schools, and in particular the place of churches in education, raise many questions for some. There have also been some quite vocal opponents of anything to do with faith or religion in schools, but little in the way of their unpacking this clearly to say why it might a problem.

Next year will see the 100th anniversary of churches beginning to hand over control of their schools to the state, heralding a century of involvement at a range of levels within our education system. Most notable among these is their role in maintaining an ethos built on Christian values.

It would be wrong, and indeed arrogant, to suggest that Christians have the monopoly on values. The churches acknowledge that everyone has a worldview and a value system. However, the primary purpose at the very core of the churches’ involvement in schools – their raison d’être – is to bring that value-base to education. No other organisation, governor, or staff member has that remit. Without the churches, no one has the stated responsibility to highlight and promote values and without them, schools become places beset with competing values or, God forbid, none at all.

Of course, their role in education is much more than this, a point that a recent university report and subsequent media commentary around it ignored, or were seemingly unaware. Deep offence is caused by implying that schools in Northern Ireland are bastions of intolerance and disrespect, governed by inept and bigoted bumbling amateurs, which is, of course total nonsense. At the heart of local communities are local churches serving those communities. This includes spending many hours in schools, faithfully supporting pupils, parents and staff in very real and tangible ways.

What the recent ‘debate’ hasn’t done is outline what is wrong with an ethos based upon the values of a Christian faith – the cornerstone values of honesty, truthfulness, kindness, consideration, concern for others, compassion, obedience, responsibility, respect and duty. Neither has it demonstrated that the majority of those who don’t share a Christian worldview have an antipathy towards those values.

It is a common sight to see children dropped off at Sunday school, or Christian youth organisations, by parents or carers who actually have no church affiliation. Could this be because, while not wishing to practice a Christian faith themselves, they want their children to be surrounded and influenced by its values? The same is true in schools. The Controlled, Maintained and Integrated sectors were all founded upon a Christian ethos, and the majority of parents seem to acknowledge and welcome these values as being preferable to those that appear to permeate the rest of our rather self-centred and self-absorbed society.

Perhaps I’m just an idealist, but so far no one has presented me with substantive evidence to the contrary. What is being presented however, in some areas of the media and academia, is mostly subjective opinion that seems to be based on personal (or corporate) suspicion of, and antipathy towards, anything to do with faith and religion.

In the same way that the churches in education have learned to embrace different points of view and foster an ethos of tolerance, inclusion and respect within schools, I hope that those who lambast their work will become more knowledgeable, tolerant and respectful of what they actually do, learning themselves to embrace a more informed ethos.

Photo: Dr Andrew Brown, who is a principal lecturer in education. He is also the vice chair of the Transferor Representatives’ Council and vice chair of the Controlled Schools’ Support Council.

First PCI digital conference

9.10.2020 | Congregational Life, Moderator, Church Life, Discipleship, Resources, The PCI Sunday Service.

In any normal given year, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) would hold a number of conferences and training events designed to equip its members in various areas of church life and ministry. With large-scale in-person face-to-face events no longer viable, the Church has launched its first digital conference, as part of a new series of resources called ‘Refined’.

Explaining the thinking behind the new development, Rev David Thompson, Secretary to PCI’s Council for Congregational Life and Witness (CCLW) said that different times often necessitate a different way of doing things, “At the start of February we welcomed 250 people from across the denomination to Assembly Buildings in Belfast for a conference on an important area of church life. Since then, restrictions on gathering, due to the Covid pandemic, have meant that we can no longer organise events like that.

“What we have done, as a result, is look at what we can do with the people and technology available to us, which is why we are pleased to be able to launch our first ever digital conference. Its theme is ‘Refined’ and can be used to help our congregations explore God’s refining work in our church life at this particular time,” Mr Thompson said.

Following on from the ‘These Three Remain’ initiative, which saw a range of resources developed in response to lockdown in March 2020, Refined is a new programme of resources for supporting and developing congregational life and witness, which the digital conference forms and an important part.

Produced in two video formats, the material could be shared, or watched with others online, or in a variety of small socially distanced church settings. They also offer something to tune into for individual personal devotions. The 50-minute version features a message from Rev Dr Neil Hudson, preacher, popular author, church consultant, and working pastor in Salford Elim church in Greater Manchester.

Dr Hudson’s message, which is based on 1 Corinthians 3: 9-17, is followed by a panel discussion facilitated by Rick Hill, PCI’s discipleship development officer, between the Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce and Rev Nigel McCullough. Along with Dr Hudson’s talk, it is hoped that the panel discussion will also stimulate conversation. Other features invite participants to reflect personally and respond to God in prayer and praise. A shorter 30-minute version is also available.

Welcoming the Refined programme of resources, and the first digital conference to come out of this latest initiative in particular, Dr Bruce said that this new way of gathering digitally is very different from what the church is used to. “No one could have guessed at the start of the year that we would be where we are today.

“In making use of these great new resources, I hope that they will help us all, as a Presbyterian family across this island, to try and make sense of this new place that we find ourselves. Even though the future may not fully resemble the past we have known, God is walking beside us in every rough step. These resources will also help us to seek His leading and guiding for this next season in church life together, even when we can’t yet map every single step ahead of us. But in each of those steps, He is with us and we follow Him closely by faith,” he said.

Dr Bruce concluded by saying, “We will come through this and we will be stronger for these days of testing and refining. And to everyone who has used their God given skills to bring us these resources, a huge thank you.”

In this video Dr Bruce offers some encouragement to the Church at this time and commends the new suite of online resources available to help support and develop congregational life and witness.

Photos (1) Rev David Thompson, Secretary to PCI’s Council for Congregational Life and Witness and from the digital conference (2) Rev Dr Neil Hudson and (3) the panel discussion.