Moderators of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland take on the role of the denomination’s ambassador for twelve months. By the end of their term, most moderators appear to have grown in wisdom and understanding of both the church and society, as well as become quite weary with the workload and travel.
Prior to taking a year out to be moderator, Norman Hamilton had been ministering in Ballysillan Presbyterian Church and the surrounding north Belfast for more than twenty years. He described his feelings in the run up to becoming moderator last June as “a mixture of apprehension and excitement and anticipation and certainly a journey into the unknown both in terms of places to go, people to meet and situations to encounter”.
During their year, PCI’s moderator has duties within the denomination.
“The moderator does some formal things within the life of the church. He chairs some of the senior boards and committees. But his main role is be the chief spokesman, the chief public face, of the Presbyterian Church for the year, certainly throughout Ireland and to some extent overseas and in the UK.”
Outside of ecclesiastical circles there is a role in wider society too. In Norman’s case, that included seven engagements with the Royal Family and three with President McAleese.
Norman reflected that it is time “to redefine the relationship of the church with the state”.
“I think the models of a previous generation have long since passed their sell by date and that we need to find a proper mutually helpful, challenging relationship.”
That includes rethinking role of the ‘four main church leaders’. I wondered whether it was time for a fifth person to stand alongside them to give a non-religious viewpoint.
“I am very uncertain about the value of statements from the four church leaders to be honest.
Some of the latest initiatives by the Taoiseach out of the Lisbon Treaty do involve other faiths and indeed do involve humanists. And I was at the first meeting of that group convened by the Taoiseach only a couple of weeks ago.
That is what I mean by a reconfiguration of the relationship. Those of us who are Christians and want to promote a Christian and biblical worldview need to realise that we are in a society that no longer accepts that as given or takes it for granted.”
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s motto is Ardens sed Virens – “burning but alive” or “burning but flourishing”. Is the denomination flourishing?
“Some bits are flourishing and some bits are struggling. Our structures are struggling to cope with the realities of an increasingly secular changing world. Certainly the much more overtly critical emphasis in wider society is bringing challenge at local levels that we haven’t faced in the past. That’s what I meant earlier about the reconfiguring of the proper relationship between the church and wider society.”
Both in his work in North Belfast and over the last year as moderator, Norman Hamilton has conversed with many politicians. What is his assessment of the maturity of our local political process?
“I was seriously disappointed by the level of internecine warfare over the budget … That seriously troubled me. But I do think that that penny has probably dropped with the new Executive and they do understand the need not so much to hide their differences but to actually ensure that they are seen to be rowing the boat in the same direction, pulling in the same direction. I would be hopeful that they would do it together but slightly fearful that from time to time we will be mentored negatively.”
Cohesion, sharing and integration was a theme throughout Norman Hamilton’s year. He even appeared at the SDLP’s conference as part of their Shared Society panel debate. Has he seen any tangible progress?
“There hasn’t been a lot of tangible progress in policy terms in the north. The widespread disaffection with the previous Executive’s papers showed that.
However the visit of the Queen and the welcome given to her by President McAleese and the Irish people I think has changed the dynamics of that. And perhaps in the North we have some catch up to do with what we saw modelled in the Republic.”
Confident that he’s not leaving his moderatorial successors “a cupboard full of skeletons” Norman also suggested that the definition of the role of moderator deserved thought.
“There is a task for the role of the ministry of the moderator to be defined from the role of the moderator. The moderator does all these things, but what’s he actually there for in Christian ministry terms? I think we need to give a bit more careful thought to that.”
Around many issues, including the gender of moderators – of which he says “I would love to see a woman who was moderator, but I suspect that’s a wee while away” – what makes PCI so conservative and slow to change?
“It does seem to me that temperamentally we are conservative, with a small ‘c’. We are conservative about everything. And therefore we are conservative about our theology, we are conservative about what we do, what is acceptable. There’s just an in-built conservatism in our DNA and I think that has been accentuated by the Troubles. The need to be protective of who we are and what we stand for. That will change, but I still think it’s a long process.”
Norman described a charity concert run by the Carrickfergus Presbytery in the Ulster Hall as an “extraordinarily uplifting” highlight from his year as moderator.
“Some of the praise and worship was led by a group of young adults who have significant learning disabilities. That was stunning and those folks are contributing on Monday night. That is one of my outstanding positive memories because it is all too easy to think that only the good things are done by the great and the good.”
There were difficult moments in the year too.
“There were many. How many do you want? I think probably the most difficult one was being in Malawi during the visit of the Pope and the furore that broke around me when actually I was unable to even hear what was being said and to respond to it. That’s not a complaint, just a statement of fact. That was really quite difficult.
I think the other thing I have found difficult is that we still live in a society and even in a church world where relationships are often very strained and very difficult. And it does seem to me that there is a real challenge for Christian people to show in action the gospel of grace that we proclaim in our teaching. We have to behave graciously. And I’m not sure we do that as well as we might.”
When I talked to Dr Ivan Patterson, he was less than 72 hours away from taking over the reins at the front of PCI. I asked what in his life or ministry had prepared him for this moment?
“I think life prepared me. Having been in business for a number of years and come back to study, life for me has always been just a plodding on. There’s never been bright lights, it’s just been listening, seeing what’s available, where I go, and through all of that listening – hopefully to God who would direct me. I suppose life teaches us lots of things. I ministered in a rural area, been in semi-rural in Newcastle. Lots of dealing with people, seeing what makes them tick, and in the context of trying to make God relevant to them through scripture, through teaching and through talking.”
He’s been ministering in the Newcastle congregation for twenty years. The church has recently completed a redevelopment and he welcomes the opportunity for children from the town – who attend different schools in surrounding towns – to be able to mix together twice a week, breaking down church and community barriers.
What are the big issues that face Newcastle today as a town, a society, a community?
“It’s really a restaurant town nowadays and there are quite a number of clubs. One of the areas we’ve been trying to do something about is a Night Light team. That’s folk out – usually only on a Friday night because that seems to be the busier night – it’s just being there as a Christian group of people, seeing kids not well enough dressed … it’s really just making sure they get home, they’re not cold, all of that. I think that is one of the major issues.”
He’s proud of the good relationships between townspeople and churches in Newcastle.
“From I went to Newcastle, I was keen that there would be good relationships between everybody. So I’ve gone out of my way to keep good relationships. I think Newcastle was a town that throughout the Troubles was very fortunate. There are no ghetto areas, so the whole town is mixed and relationships have always been – at least superficially – good if not slightly deeper than that.
At the beginning, churches were a little bit suspicious of each other. Even Protestant churches didn’t always do things together. We have been able, not only to reach out, but to do things with the Catholic community – Bible studies and services – but we also do work with the Baptists and sometimes the Elim come to that. Every fifth Sunday there is an open service down in the Newcastle Centre.”
Later in the interview, Ivan refers back to another example of “reaching across the community” and his involvement in the setting up of Youth Link NI, an inter-church youth service established by the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in 1991.
“That was quite a unique thing in the British Isles because at that stage there was no other youth organisation which included the Catholics. We had about three agonising years to try and get that to work. That was a real learning curve for me. Because you discover that we all have our own hang-ups, but there are certain things very core issues about what it is to be a Christian that are the same. There is a big report on sectarianism. It would be good to be talking about that and seeing how we are part of it because none of us are perfect.”
As Norman Hamilton pointed out, society is increasingly secular. I asked what Ivan thought about the church’s changing role in society?
“Certainly I think we are fairly largely “post-Christian”, in the sense that even some of the Christians are almost post-Christian because for many people it is really something they do rather than something they know about and something that they want to experience of God.
This year the theme that I’ve got is “Word is Life” so it’s really discovering God through his Word, and trying to expose people to what Christ was saying to us and what he expects of us in the world. To me one of the big challenges is to try and get folk to think – especially Christian folk to think – what God might think and not necessarily to be preaching to people but to be just among people.
I try to encourage some of our folk [congregation of Newcastle Presbyterian] – particularly some of the business men – to get involved in the Chamber of Commerce, get involved in those areas where they can go and bring not necessarily a preaching role but to be some kind of salt and light that the New Testament talks about.”
So given Ivan Patterson’s theme for the year, does he think it’s important for churches to spend more time worrying and agonising over ordaining gay ministers and resolving Kirk Session disputes than tackling things like poverty which is what Jesus talks about most in the Gospels and seemed to be pushing his buttons?
“I do think there are times when we get hung up on important issues but sometimes … If I can explain it this way. I remember Orlando Costas being here years ago and he talked about the truth being like a flash lamp. And what so many Christian people do is they shine the flash lamp up into the air and look at the beam, and they forget they ought to turn it down onto the road and say what does this mean for me living out my Christian life.
If we are going to be influential people – and I believe the Christian gospel has something to make an impact on people’s lives and without it I believe they’re not as whole as they might be – then I think we need to sit down and with people, whatever their problem is, whether we like who they are or what they are, just to be able to sit down and share 'This is my understanding, this is how it works for me, but what do you think about this?'”
For the first time, representatives of various sporting organisations have been invited to the opening night of the General Assembly, including the GAA, IFA and Irish Rugby Football Union. Ivan welcomes the greater inclusion of civil society.
“I can’t actually speak for the General Assembly, but as a personal opinion – locally at least – I don’t see that anybody should be told not to come in. And I think it’s good to allow people to see that you’re human, that this is how we do things, this is what we’re about, do you want to engage with us?”
Given that approach, does it sit oddly with him that somebody like Cardinal Brady – who he’ll meet regularly during the year – would not be invited to the opening of the General Assembly?
“My feeling on this would be – and I’ve no idea how the church is going to go on this – but especially at an opening night, the service is our service. And there’s no sense in which anyone’s being compromised – the only person who’s probably being compromised would be the archbishop if he comes. So I don’t really have a problem with it and I would welcome it. Although I did read somewhere in a report that maybe we should actually be thinking about others because we don’t invite the Baptists, we don’t invite the Reformed Presbyterians.”
Described as “conservatively biblical with a strong evangelical outlook”, Ivan Patterson explains what those labels mean to him.
“What it says to me is that I believe the Bible, even the difficult bits. And I believe the Bible impacts people’s lives. I think the good news of Jesus – the Gospel – is something that changed me. Not as dramatically as some people, but it certainly changed me. So I would be fairly conservative in all of that, but I think as I get older – which is maybe not how it should be – I would want to be much more open to how we live that out, how we do church, how we react to people.”
He’s looking forward to the year ahead, with its programme of church visits and services, as well as invitations to civic events. What’s he dreading?
“Probably at this point in time: next week! I’ve two sermons to preach. It’s one thing preaching to other people, but I always feel it’s a different thing preaching to your colleagues.”
Having been away for the last three weeks preparing for his year as moderator, he knows that he’ll miss his home congregation in Newcastle.
The opening night of the General Assembly takes place on Monday night at 7pm in Church House, Fisherwick Place, Belfast. Tickets aren’t required and anyone is welcome to attend. (Belfast Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile is taking up his invitation and will be joined for the first time by representatives from sporting organisations including the GAA, IFA and Irish Rugby Football Union.
Radio Ulster normally broadcasts the opening night on Medium Wave with a wry commentary from Bert Tosh and William Crawley, and there’s always a chance that PCI may stream it on their website.