On the second full day of business (5 June) at the 2019 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland today, the Church’s governing and decision-making body will discuss and debate a range of subjects and issues that span different aspects of Church and public life.
Business will begin at 9.30am, and will include areas of public policy and political life in Ireland, the life and witness of the Church itself and its mission on the island. Along with relations with other churches, including the Church of Scotland, and inter-church groups, the General Assembly will also hear from its overseas delegates and others who will take part in the now traditional Wednesday afternoon presentation, ‘Listening to the Global Church.’
With the Moderator, Right Reverend Dr William Henry of Maze Presbyterian Church, in the chair for the day’s proceedings, approximately 1000 ministers and elders from PCI’s 500-plus congregations, corresponding members and delegates from home and overseas, will continue to meet in General Assembly for worship, prayer, celebration and discussion.
Business will close at 6pm and will be followed at 7.45pm by the Wednesday Night Celebration, which is entitled Enjoying God and will be hosted by the Moderator. Drawing everything together will be the evening’s keynote speaker, the Australian-born author, speaker and evangelist, Rev Glen Scrivener, the ordained Anglican, and the Director of the charity Speak Life.
Glen will be speaking on the evening’s main theme, ‘Enjoying God’. The evening celebration, today’s business and worship at 12.15pm are all open to the public.
The first session of today’s business will focus on issues in the public square. The Report of the Council for Public Affairs, which is tasked with addressing current topical issues on which the Church seeks to have its voice heard also develops its thinking on important areas such as education, youth, children’s, social, moral and ethical issues.
Dealing with the past
The Council’s report contains an update on a major project that the Church has been engaged in over the past 3 years. The Dealing with the Past Project Task Group’s was asked by the 2016 General Assembly to explore how Presbyterians responded to the Troubles from1968 to 2000. The aim of this significant undertaking is to tell a wider story than has been available to date, to acknowledge both what is good but also to reflect upon the times when Presbyterians failed to be faithful peacemakers.
Working with the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University, Belfast, Dr Gladys Ganiel and Dr Jamie Yohanis have conducted interviews with 122 people. This group has included ordained ministers, security forces personnel, victims and survivors, ex-combatants, emergency responders, quiet peacemakers and politicians. Amongst that number, the views of some who left the denomination and critical friends have also been interviewed.
The General Assembly will hear of the proposed book, provisionally entitled Consider Grace, that Dr Ganiel has been working on. It will include the stories that have emerged from the 100-plus interviews. The book will be launched towards the end of the year and it is hoped, along with the resources that will be developed for use in congregations, that the book will encourage other Presbyterians to ell their stories in a safe and supportive pastoral environment.
In October, the Church published its response to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s legacy public consultationAddressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past.
The General Assembly will have an opportunity to discuss the 2,800 word submission, which called out both the deficiencies it saw in the current arrangements and the limitations of the institutions set out in the consultation paper. At the same time PCI’s submission proposed revisions of the proposals to enable them to be a means of improving the current arrangements.
As the Church stated at the time the status quo was not acceptable and a new approach was needed. It also warned that a rejection of the proposals would likely set the issue back for many years – if not forever – adding even more distress to victims and survivors.
While recognising the limitations in the NIO’s proposals, members of Assembly will be asked in a resolution to acknowledge that with some modification, the proposals present ‘a potential opportunity to contribute to bringing a measure of healing to society in Northern Ireland.’
In the same resolution, the General Assembly will be asked to ‘reiterate that any one-sided suite of measures, which fuels a culture of recrimination at the expense of reconciliation and the restoration of broken relationships, will have failed.’
The General Assembly will be asked to commend a paper on Human Rights, which seeks to establish a framework, based on biblical principles that will assist the Council for Public Affairs as it seeks to respond to rights-based issues in the public square.
The paper, which is an appendix to the main Council for Public Affairs report, reflects on a Christian approach to contemporary thinking on Human Rights and makes the point, amongst many, that ‘too much of [the] current public debate and discourse is focused on individualism over and against the common good; on autonomy over the legitimate needs and concerns of others; with litigation and conflict becoming early ports of call over the painstaking work of building consensus.’
Politics and Society – North & South
As an all-Ireland church, the report acknowledges that ‘Presbyterians may be a small minority in the Republic of Ireland but their distinctive witness and influence continues to be recognised in the public square, not least through the participation of former Moderator Very Rev Dr Ivan Patterson in the inauguration of Michael D. Higgins as President of Ireland in November 2018, and the attendance of current Moderator Rt Rev Dr Charles McMullen at an event in January 2019 to mark the centenary of the first meeting of the Dáil. Dr McMullen also met with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney TD along with the leaders of the main Churches in Ireland in October 2018…’
In a resolution before the General Assembly, it will be asked to welcome the opportunities for the Church to participate and seek to influence policy for the good of all in society, while acknowledging the increasing secularisation of the public square in the Republic of Ireland.
In Northern Ireland, for the second year in succession the General Assembly will be asked in a resolution to ‘express its deep concern and frustration about the prolonged absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland, the resulting stagnation in public policy and the negative effects on the most vulnerable in society, and repeat their call for all involved in the political process to find a resolution that establishes good and stable government based on good working relationships.’
PCI’s State Education Committee reports on a busy year. The greatest investment in time, it says, was carried out on the reconstitution of the boards of governors of the controlled sector’s 558 schools across Northern Ireland, with the appointment of over 1,600 Transferor Governors. The governors represent the interests of PCI, Church of Ireland and Methodist Church in Ireland and have done so since the1930s. The Committees work included an updated handbook on their role and a roadshow which gave training in their specific role to 300 Transferor Governors.
The three churches nominate governors to serve on the boards of controlled schools in Northern Ireland, which are ‘church-related schools’ because in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the Protestant Churches transferred their school buildings, pupils and staff into state control (hence the terms ‘transferor’ and ‘controlled’). They did so on the understanding that the Christian ethos of these schools would be maintained in perpetuity.
During the transfer process, the Church leaders at the time stressed that it was not simply buildings which were being transferred, but pupils, and a concept of education directly informed and shaped by Christian teaching and values. In return for transferring their schools into state control, the transferor churches were accorded statutory rights of representation on Boards of Governors. Governors nominated to school boards by the churches are known as ‘transferor governors’.
In a further resolution, the General Assembly will be asked to ‘affirm the role of Transferor Governors in the preservation and promotion of Christian ideals, values and ethos within the Controlled Schools’ Sector; and commend all those who have agreed to serve as school governors in any capacity during the 2018-2022 term.’
Mission in Ireland
While much of the work of the Council for Public Affairs has a high public profile, the work of the denomination’s other council’s is often undertaken quietly behind the scenes. The Council for Mission in Ireland (CMI) provides operational management and support to the Home Mission, Irish Mission, deaconesses and centrally managed mission projects of the Church. These include the International Meeting Point, South Belfast Friendship House and Nightlight.
It also supports the provision of a chaplaincy service in universities and colleges, the healthcare system, the prison service and the armed forces. In addition, the council also seeks to assist the denomination in sharpening its missional focus by developing a strategy for mission across Ireland, which includes church planting.
International Meeting Point 2
The Council reports on a number of new initiatives, including the opening of a second International Meeting Point (IMP). Funded by United Appeal for Mission and the South Belfast Presbytery, the International Meeting Point was set up in 2010. It provides a food and clothing bank, a bicycle workshop, a daily lunch club, English language classes to migrants and asylum seekers in the city – and a place of safety and belonging. Today, the centre welcomes people from over 30 different countries and is dedicated to meeting their practical and spiritual needs.
The opening of a second International Meeting Point in North Belfast has been considered by the Strategy for Mission Coordination Committee and the North Belfast Presbytery. The General Assembly will hear that steps have been taken to open a second IMP at Carlisle Circus in the north of the city. The project will include a charity shop for young mothers and carers, and the commencement of English language classes. The pilot will run for a year as a project of the Presbytery with CMI input and support.
In its report to the 2018 General Assembly the Council acknowledged that there was a general recognition of a unique spiritual need among the farming community – often including young men, and their families working in isolated locations, and in trying economic times.
With the encouragement of organisations like Rural Support and the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Council has progressed this initiative over the last year. This year’s General Assembly will hear that agreement in principle has been reached to proceed towards the appointment of a Rural Chaplain for a 3 year pilot scheme in 4 of the Church’s 19 presbyteries, the Presbyteries of Armagh, Down, Iveagh and Newry.
Currently there are over 530 congregations within PCI. All of these churches were started (or “planted”) at some time in the past – and PCI continues to do this. For example, in Maynooth in County Kildare, a new church was started in September 2002 when a small group of people started meeting together to pray and study the bible together. It grew in number steadily, and was constituted as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 2007 and today involves over 50 families and around 125 people of all ages.
Similarly in Donabate in County Dublin, members in Malahide Presbyterian felt God was asking them to start a new church in the town where five or six of their existing families lived. Weekly services in a Community Centre started in November 2010. Today about 150 people are part of the congregation.
In Belfast city centre in recent times, two new expressions of Church have been started – in each case using buildings which housed churches in the past, but have closed. Rather than abandon the old buildings, they are being re-purposed as new places of worship.
Members of Assembly will be asked to affirm the work of the Strategy for Mission Coordination Committee, and in particular its promotion of New Life, New People, New Places in support of Presbyterian church planting.
Listening to the Global Church
For the fifth year in succession the Council for Global Mission will present a session entitled ‘Listening to the Global Church’. The purpose of the session, which opens the afternoon’s business, is to hear of the challenges and opportunities that our brothers and sisters in Christ are encountering in their daily lives in a way that will help PCI to better understand and be supportive of them. At the same time, it enables the Church to learn from them, as members live out their Christian lives in their own context across Ireland.
The annual presentation is one of the best attended of the General Assembly and this year is entitled, People on the move. Through our delegates from partners churches and guests from overseas and from the wider world who live in Ireland, the General Assembly will hear first-hand about the displacement of people caused by Cyclone Idai, which swept through Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe earlier in March, causing severe flooding and major loss of life.
The General Secretary Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Blantrye Synod, from Malawi will talk about how his Church responded to the emergency. Rev Alex Maulana will also talk about how the cyclone devastated the region. The General Secretary of the Evangelical Church of Greece, Rev Dimitris Boukis, will update members on how the church has supported Syrian refugees in Katorini, a village in northern Greece, an example of how a small church can make a huge difference. He was gave a presentation to the General Assembly in 2016 at the height of the Syrian conflict. Finally, global voices on our doorstep, as the General Assembly hears the stories of those who have now made their home in Belfast.
Relationships with other denominations
The General Council will present the second of its four reports to this year’s General Assembly after ‘Listening to the Global Church’. During his session members will discuss church relations and be asked to support the continuation of PCI’s membership of the Community of Protestant Churches in Europe and the Council for European Churches. Following meetings with the United Free Church of Scotland a resolution asks that ‘future natural areas of collaboration’ with the Church be explored. A similar resolution will be put with regards to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.
Delegations were welcomed from the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland during the year. The Church Relations Committee reports that it was agreed, in line a previous resolution of the General Assembly that ‘we ought to continue to enable complementary working within our respective churches where this was thought to be mutually beneficial.’
From 1929 until recently PCI’s site at Guysmere, Castlerock was used as the denomination’s youth centre for the development and discipleship of the Church’s young people. For a number of years, the Centre has not been used, largely due to Health and Safety concerns, and has been mothballed.
Having debated the possible future use of the site for a number of years, the 2018 General Assembly asked the local Presbytery of Coleraine and Limavady to draw up a feasibility study and bring it – along with definitive recommendations – to this year’s General Assembly. Today, the Church will therefore have to decide if it wishes to begin Phase One of a redevelopment project, largely putting in place detailed plans and permissions, as well as securing the necessary funding.
Memorial of the South Belfast Presbytery (Church of Scotland)
From time to time the General Assembly receives memorials. These are petitions to the Assembly, usually from a person or body who is not a member of the General Assembly, such as a subordinate court of the Church (Kirk Session or Presbytery), a Church member, group of members, or persons unconnected with the Church. The request is stated in the form of a “prayer” is stated.
The Memorial from the South Belfast Presbytery is in relation to the decision taken last year by the General Assembly with regards to the Church of Scotland. After a number of years of debate the General Assembly last year decided to no longer invite the Scottish Moderator to the General Assembly and to make permanent previous decisions not to send PCI’s Moderator to the General Assembly in Edinburgh.
The Memorial states that the ‘Memorialists, therefore, pray your Venerable General Assembly to accept Notice of Motion to rescind the decision of the 2018 General Assembly no longer to issue an invitation to or accept an invitation from the Church of Scotland.’
In a technical procedure, the General Assembly will therefore discuss and vote today on whether or not to accept the Notice of Motion. If accepted, the issue will be fully debated at the 2020 General Assembly and a decision taken.
Council for Congregational Life & Witness
The Council for Congregational Life and Witness has responsibility for envisioning, equipping and enabling congregations to be fruitful in the Lord’s work. In its report to the General Assembly, it says that it seeks to set itself in constant listening mode. As such it derives its direction from ongoing feedback from congregations…’
It report speaks of two essential facets of church life that overlap and interlock: an inward face of congregational life and an outward face of congregational witness. The Council will take the time to launch several new resources and initiatives that will help to develop outward face of congregational witness, many of which were highlighted in Tuesday evenings alternative presentation entitled ‘Beyond Ourselves’.
The Share resource, for example, will help congregations reflect on how to build relationships with those outside the church, the kind of community in which they can find a home and ways of inviting encounter with the gospel message. The Inside Out resource, will challenge congregations in the area of biblical hospitality and approachability by others who are often ‘not like us in a variety of ways’.
Details will also be given of a resource crafted specially to engage with unchurched children who know little of the Gospel Message and the Bible’s story. The Go Deep, Go Wide initiative, which is aimed at enlivening congregational involvement in global mission, represents a recognition that in today’s global village PCI’s reach of impact as congregations in mission can extend a lot further than it used to in simple, but significant, ways.
All of the resources will be available and ready to use for the start of the new church year in September. It is hoped that they represent an important rebalancing of the Council’s overall remit between an emphasis on helping the local church develop the inward face of its congregational life and the outward face of its congregational witness.
Preparations for Side by Side were also reported on. This initiative seeks to encourage women to develop their gifts in relational ministry and mission in a whole variety of areas in congregational life and witness, including discipleship, pastoral care, leadership development, intergenerational ministry, evangelism and prayer. The Council also continues to commend the particular contribution of Presbyterian Women in its work of resourcing women’s ministry in congregations.
In two resolutions before the General Assembly, members of Assembly will be asked to instruct the Council to review provision made for guidance and support given to ministers asked to marry a couple where one or both individuals has been married before and is divorced, or, in situations of ‘mixed marriage’ and report to next year’s General Assembly. Another resolution asks that the resources contained in the Church Hymnal Trust Fund be placed at the disposal of the Council for the support and development of all aspects of worshipping life of congregations.
Youth Assembly Fringe and Wednesday Evening Celebration
Following the close of business at 6pm, the Church’s Youth Assembly will hold a fringe event entitled ‘Developing and building unity, within congregations and beyond’ in the conference facility on the ground floor of Assembly Buildings.
This year’s Fringe event will build on some of last year’s discussion on intergenerational church by reflecting on some of the discussion from the Youth Assembly event in February on the theme of ‘Unity: Many Parts, One Body’. There will be a presentation on this, including the Youth Assembly’s proposal for regional pilot projects in 2019/20, with time for discussion around tables and an opportunity to engage in some creative prayer for young people, the church and our working together.
The popular Wednesday Night Celebration of worship and prayer will be held in the Assembly Hall at 7.45pm. Open for all to attend, the theme of the evening is ‘Enjoying God’, which will be led by the Moderator, Dr William Henry. It is a subject that is close to Dr Henry’s heard the heart and will play a key part in his year as Moderator.
During the evening, supported by many across the denomination through video presentations and live interviews – he will unpack what it means to enjoy God in different settings and different stages of life and situations: in church, in the family, in the work place and the general busyness of life and in the struggles of life too.
Drawing everything together will be the evening’s keynote speaker, the Australian-born author, speaker and evangelist, Rev Glen Scrivener. With a passion for people to meet Jesus, the ordained Anglican is the Director of the charity Speak Life.
For further in formation see www.presbyterianireland.org/pciga2019