Moderator elect on suicide crisis, same-sex marriage and a female successor

The Moderator-elect of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) has revealed that he is only too familiar with the ongoing suicide problem in Belfast and beyond, Claire McNeilly reports in the Belfast Telegraph.

Rev David Bruce (62), who was elected Moderator by a massive majority, told how his son is still grappling with the impact of tragedy after two of his friends took their own lives within as many months.

He also believes his Church can play a pivotal role in providing the pastoral care that could protect young people from the strains of modern life that so often lead to suicide.

It was the second attempt to secure the top job by Mr Bruce, whose formal election will be in four months, and the father-of-four said he is “simply humbled” by the decision to select him.

His “dear friend” Rev Mairisine Stansfield – one of three competitors – was unsuccessful again this year.

But the Elmwood minister said he is “absolutely convinced that the time will come” when a women is the PCI’s chief public representative, adding that he will “be cheering on any female candidate” who puts herself forward for the role.

Mr Bruce also said that while he supports the PCI’s opposition to same-sex marriage, he is “desperately sad” if gay people believe the message the church is sending out to them is that they are not worthy or acceptable.

Furthermore, the secretary to the Church’s Council for Mission in Ireland revealed that he “regrets” Queen’s University’s decision to sever ties with Union Theological College, which he attended for a year in 1983.

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph at Assembly Buildings in Belfast on Wednesday, Mr Bruce, the first Moderator to come from a position outside of parish ministry in 24 years, said he was aware of the devastating surge of suicide – and its consequences – in today’s society.

“Two of my eldest son’s friends have taken their own lives over the past two months,” he said.

“James and his circle are just reeling with the fallout from this as a friendship group, quite apart from the devastating effect it has on families.”

It is less likely that a young person who is integrated into a caring community will be drawn into this vortex of mental health despair that would lead them to take their own life

He added: “And, whenever I was in Dublin, one of the earliest funerals I had to conduct was of a 15-year-old lad who decided to end his own life.”

Mr Bruce said he hoped that by staying relevant to young people and giving them “a place of belonging”, his church can play a role in the reduction of suicide here.

“There’s something about the atomisation of society that has subtly been taking place, creating a generation that is isolated from its natural mechanisms of support, such as peer groups and family,” he said.

“Provision of community is real.

“It is less likely that a young person who is integrated into a caring community will be drawn into this vortex of mental health despair that would lead them to take their own life.”

He said he also accepted that the perceived glamorisation of suicide, particularly when it is a case of a high-profile celebrity, could be adding to the proliferation of people taking their own lives.

In total, 19 presbyteries across the island of Ireland met independently two days ago to cast their votes for the next moderator.

Mr Bruce, who ran unsuccessfully for the top job last year, received 14 of the 19 votes on the night.

The three other nominees were Rev Richard Murray from Drumreagh and Dromore Presbyterian Churches, who got three votes, Rev Dr Trevor McCormick of First Kilrea, who received one vote, and Rev Mairisine Stansfield, who with one vote, polled two fewer than last year when she was also a candidate.

The grandfather-of-one stressed, however, that it was his view that a woman would assume the role in future.

He added: “I would be very supportive of a female moderator and I’m confident that will happen.”

When pressed on a timeframe he replied: “That’s in the hands of others.”

Mr Bruce confirmed that he advocates the law of the Church, which does not permit same-sex marriage, but he said he would welcome open conversations with gay people.

“My first point of connection would be to listen to their story,” he said.

“It would be to talk to them as people, to understand their heart, their aspirations, and how they express their faith in Christ in relation to their full identity.

“These are complex conversations. No two conversations are the same, so this is no ‘one size fits all’.”

He added: “That’s where I would want to start and continue with families who feel alienated from us and I think it’s desperately sad that people do feel that.”

Nevertheless, Mr Bruce confirmed that he believes someone who is a practising homosexual is committing sin.

“The basis of Christian marriage is between one man and one woman and that is the only framework within which human sexuality should be fully expressed so we believe that any sexual activity outside that is therefore sinful,” he said.

Mr Bruce, a keen sailor and camper van traveller, will replace Rev William Henry as Moderator and will be officially installed at the start of the Church’s General Assembly in June.

My entire direction of life really changed when I came to faith in Christ at the age of 18 and I found myself looking at the world through a different lens

The youngest of three children, David was born in Banbridge, schooled in both Lurgan and Belfast, and he now lives near Lisburn with his former schoolteacher wife Zoe (58).

The couple have four grown-up children – James (31), Anna (29), Harry (27) and Ellen (26) – one granddaughter Marlow, who is 16 months, and another grandchild is on the way.

The Campbell College old boy, who still has friends from his schooldays, fondly recalls his “very uncomplicated childhood” comprising “a really happy family life” with his sister Liz and brother Nigel and “loving parents”, Harry and Joan Bruce, both doctors.

Almost 40 years after being ordained, the business and accounting graduate has no regrets about forsaking sums for God.

“A career needs to be built on more than just skills,” he said.

“There needs to be something that makes your heart beat faster when you get up in the morning.

“My entire direction of life really changed when I came to faith in Christ at the age of 18 and I found myself looking at the world through a different lens.”

I would be open to meeting any representative of the Christian churches, including the Pope, if asked

He added: “As an accountant I might have been richer but I wouldn’t change a thing. It was the right decision to make.”

In 2018, the PCI, which has more than 200,000 members north and south of the border, voted to sever its ties with the Church of Scotland because of the latter’s more liberal attitude to same-sex relationships.

The unprecedented move meant the Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly would no longer be invited to the annual meeting of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast.

Asked if he would make any attempts to heal the division between the PCI and the Scottish Presbyterians over same-sex marriage, Mr Bruce said they had ‘agreed to disagree’ on that issue.

“The Church of Scotland have taken decisions which have led them undoubtedly on a different pathway to us and that has created this different trajectory which makes the ceremonial exchange of Moderators’ visits complex for us,” he said.

“There are good connections between the two churches at the level of delivering ministry.

“But I don’t think the ceremonial decision, having been taken by the General Assembly, is going to be changed and we simply accept that.”

Rev Charles McMullen went to Dublin to meet Pope Francis in 2018 when he was Moderator and Mr Bruce said he would be happy to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps.

“I would be open to meeting any representative of the Christian churches, including the Pope, if asked,” he said.

Mr Bruce described QUB’s recent decision to sever ties with the Presbyterian-run UTC – which he attended for a year in 1983 – as “regrettable”.

“All of us are sad to see that disengagement of Queen’s from Union,” he said. “It means we need to reframe some aspects of the way we train our ministers.

“And it’s also a source of regret that there is no current undergraduate theological option for students who come to Queen’s.”

Belfast Telegraph February 05 2020 10:00 PM