Even with the air conditioning installed last year, the Assembly Hall is normally (short) sleeve territory on the opening night of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
the outgoing moderator, the Right Rev Dr Ivan Patterson, instigated a theme that would be later picked up by the incoming moderator. From a reading
“We talk about grace and we rejoice in the richness of God’s favour to us but how do we live it out. How do we try to bless the world around us.”
Patterson reflected on his year in which he visited many congregations across the island:
“We were aware of many congregations north and south working to be relevant in their localities seeking the welfare of those around them and we thank God for that.
We discovered that there is still a place in society for the Christian voice and many are interested to hear the Church’s take on various issues. They listen but whether they take heed or not is another question particularly when it comes to moral issues. Nevertheless we should be encouraged that we still have a voice that some influential people want to hear.”
He noted that some congregations were “more ardently” making a difference in their societies than others.
“It was good to be in various locations and to see the commitment of people in their discipleship and to the church. Commitment is not high on the agendas of people these days and we don’t readily sign on to belong as we prefer to hang loose to most things including church. So that our motto can be ‘give me what I want, when I want it and tailor it to my needs’. Yet when that is the case how much of a blessing are we to anyone.”
He also spoke about visits to Lebanon and Latvia.
In years gone by, Moderators used to spend considerable proportions of their addresses commenting on recent atrocities and the progress of the peace process. With political commentary left to the report from the Church and Society committee later in the week, in one of the few references to civil society tonight, Patterson spoke about his interactions with “wider society”.
“I have had the privilege of meeting many individuals from different parts of society and to see that they were willing to hear what the view of the church was on various issues. Often the conversations were positive, about how the church could have a relevant contribution to make rather than telling us to keep out. That was true with industrialists, academics, politicians and PSNI. All too often we ‘cleave’ them through being overly condemning rather than trying to encourage them through being a blessing to them.”
As well as hosting a public debate in Belfast, the four main church leaders combined to lobby in Westminster about the Social Welfare Reform legislation.
“I believe made some impact on some of our politicians as they listened to our concerns.”
Patterson believes that “we have such opportunities to be salt and light and bring some flavour to a tasteless world” and become “people who are Grace filled and prophetic”.
However, he questioned whether some in PCI “have reached our ‘sell by date’ in the matter of being grace filled individuals?”
“We all have or should have, as congregations, our Mission Plans as we look to our future ministries but they ought not to be set in stone but constantly being reviewed so that we are being what God wants us to be and not to be hampered as some are through internal dissention. I believe that the Judicial Commission [the denomination’s ‘court’] has seldom been busier than this year and ongoing.
Why is it we can’t rise above our own agendas and realize that we all get it wrong from time to time? While we continue to live with old grudges and disagreements we are no shop window for the transformed lives that we say the Christian faith makes.
We don’t seem to be able to forget even though we embrace what the Psalmist says about God’s attitude to us - He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities; he forgives all our sins. We have such long memories.“
Glitz and gimmick aren’t the answer in a post-Christian world.
“We attempt to reach out to a lost world by rightly making our services more attractive. More attractive graphics, more attractive music. When all the time what we need is more attractive people and Christian communities who embody the grace of Jesus Christ. Merely opening our doors each Sunday is no longer sufficient if we are to be take Jesus seriously when he said that we were go into all the world. We must not see ourselves as an institution but as a movement.”
Quoting Peter – “I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, ... Live such good lives - they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” – Patterson explained the approach Presbyterians should take:
“We are to a little bit odd, to be outsiders living on the edge of culture and yet at the heart of society for its blessing and ours too! Increasing numbers of people don’t come to church so they’ll never hear a sermon for they will never be in church and yet we think that sermons in and of themselves will change the world. But whose listening other than the committed.”
After a bit of processing – or “the walk of the old men” as ex-Moderator Stafford Carson refers to it – the Right Rev Dr Roy Patton was installed as the new moderator.
“Who would have ever have believed it- as a boy running around the farm at home, going to school in Monaghan, I could never have imagined for one minute standing here before you this evening. And I am sure my mother who is sitting by the radio listening cannot believe it either.”He returned to the theme of being a prophetic voice:
“How and what are we going to say to a society which is increasingly secular and often opposed to Christian values and lifestyle. And the more I thought about it , the more I was drawn back to a story from long ago. The story comes from the Prophet Isaiah. Today when we hear the word prophet we think of someone who tells the future, but the prophets we find in the bible, especially before the time of Jesus were not so much fore-tellers but rather tellers of the truth. These are the men who tell it like it is - who speak God’s words without fear or favour. And Isaiah was one of those truth tellers, hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.”
The good old days are gone.
“We may well long for it to be different, sentimentalise about the days when our churches were packed to the rafters, when hundreds of children went on Sunday school outings etc, but that really doesn’t get us very far does it.? Whatever we do, we certainly cannot turn the clock back to the good old days.
So how do we respond? How do we find our voice again? How with confidence do we speak to the world around us?”
Patton’s suggestions were informed by the life of Isaiah and the death of King Uzziah.
“Too often we give the impression that we are better than others, more moral, superior kind of people. And sadly the greatest stumbling blocks to people finding faith in Christ are the lives of those who claim to follow him. We resent being called hypocrites and of course people may make such a charge in order to hide behind it, but the nevertheless we need acknowledge how we have failed to be true followers of Jesus. And we need to name those areas of life in which we have failed. Like Isaiah who acknowledged that he was a man of unclean lips, we need to acknowledge those ‘Christian’ sins- sins of bitterness, gossip, exaggeration, destructive criticism.- which sadly are too often prevalent in our lives and too often found in the church.
If we are speak to the world around and if anybody is going to take time to listen to us, really it will happen only if we have faced the truth about ourselves; when they see that the words we say are rooted in the honesty and integrity of our lives; when we acknowledge the truth about ourselves then we encourage others to do the same.”
Patton hinted at the way forward:
“If indeed we are to be fit for purpose, a prophetic voice in the society around us, then we desperately need to recapture the Biblical view of God. I love it when we sing with our children, Our God is a great big God, Our God is a great big God, our God is a great big God and he holds us in his hands. And when we, like Isaiah, see God for who he is - Holy, High and lifted up, but also as the God of mercy, forgiveness, generosity who reaches out to broken people sinful like you and me, we will be astonished that he should want to use us to speak for him. We will long with Isaiah to say, ‘Here am I! Send me!’”
The agenda (and reports) for the week of General Assembly – which is nearly all open to the public – is available on the Presbyterian Church in Ireland website, and you can follow some of the business at @pciassembly or at the #pciga12 hashtag.