Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Opening night of #pciga13 PCI General Assembly in Derry

After an absence of eighty years, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland's General Assembly returned to Derry tonight with the opening session of the four-day assembly in the Millennium Forum.

The nearby Magee College – now part of the university of Ulster’s Magee campus – was once the theological training college for Presbyterian ministers (and other denominations) and some of the senior ministers attending tonight remember their time studying in the north west fondly. And apparently many Derry girlfriends turned into ministers’ wives!

18,500 miles later, having journeyed across Ireland, Europe, Indonesia and Jamaica, the outgoing moderator Dr Roy Patton used his address to challenge Presbyterians to be conscious of the danger of dwelling on the past and to see that God was doing new things. The incoming moderator Dr Rob Craig picked up the theme of transformation – both inside the church and outside in society.

There was little fuss - or discussion (that I could detect) amongst delegates - about the presence of a number of local Catholic clergy at the opening night celebration, guests of the Derry and Donegal Presbytery. This is in contrast to the Free Presbyterian picket outside Assembly Buildings in Belfast some years ago whenever Dr Ken Newell invited Catholic Primate Sean Brady.

I spoke to both Roy and Rob earlier in the day and they picked up the themes of their addresses.

You can listen to an interview with the two moderators along with some snippets from their speeches and Rev Stephen Johnston’s thoughts on some of Tuesday’s business.

In his opening address Dr Roy Patton noted that in the intervening eighty years “the social, economic and political landscape has changed very dramatically” as has “the place, the privilege [and] the position of the church”. [full text / listen to full address]
The separation of life into public and private spheres results in the marginalisation of religious faith from society. Faith is reduced to a privatised matter for likeminded people, tolerated as long as it kept private and personal. Long accepted norms and values are set aside. This is a different world, and it is world that can leave us believers very uncertain, fearful of the unknown, unsure of ourselves, as it threatens so much of what we hold dear, and disturbs the comfort of what we know and love.

But using words from Isaiah 43 he used the words of the prophet – “preaching to a discouraged and demoralised people, people who by the waters of Babylon sat down and wept when they remembered Zion” – to encourage the denomination to look forward:
God says through Isaiah, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past, See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

Roy Patton commented that “in Ireland we love anniversaries and Churches too are very good at remembering the past and celebrating various anniversaries”.
There are constant calls throughout the Bible to remember, to remember God’s faithfulness in the past, his goodness and his mercy which follow all the days of our lives … There is also a good deal of truth in the words which remind us that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”.

But the prophet’s call to his people and God’s call to us is that we need to remember the past without living in it.

… while change for change’s sake is not very helpful, so tradition for tradition’s sake is equally unhelpful.

Roy Patton pointed to God wanting “to do a new thing” in individuals as well as in congregations “so that our life together maybe be marked by grace of the Lord Jesus Christ”.
The grace of Lord Jesus is the basis of our getting on together, yet so often we are so reluctant to extend grace to one another, to consider one another’s interests above our own.

In the church we need to model what we call others to do especially those who are in political and civic life. The Christian gospel calls us into a new relationship with God, but it also brings us into a new relationship with our neighbour. Together we work for the common good.

I believe we would do well, all of us, to work together for the common good. Too often the common good is quite uncommon, and we pursue too frequently our own sectional interests. But in the church lets us be humble enough to say that our public life could be much better if we would practice what we preach. Living this out is essential if we are to have credibility in a deeply sceptical world, and especially among young people if they are going to listen to what we have to say.

He applied this concern for the common good to the church’s input into the marriage debate and world poverty:
We resist the attempts to redefine marriage because we believe that doing so undermines a fundamental building block of society. Such concern for the common good must also lead to speak out against one of the major injustices of our time, hunger. And so I want to encourage you to do whatever you can to support the IF Campaign. We believe that with the Prime Minister hosting the G8 this is now a special opportunity to take action.

He drew the Assembly’s attention to two examples of God at work that he had seen during his year in office: the charity Christians Against Poverty very practically tackling poverty issues in Antrim, and The International Meeting Point on the Lisburn Road in Belfast.
We sell ourselves short and sell others short if we think that Christianity is solely about getting to heaven when we die, of course we need to live in the light of eternity and the promise the fullness of the new heavens and new earth to come, but there is much more to it, so much more. God is already bringing newness of life now.

He referenced the recent BBC documentary series:
This Presbyterian Church has an incredible opportunity to impact this country and indeed the world. The BBC television series – An Independent People told something of that story. But the opportunity still remains, for God still wants to do a new thing.

Later in the service the incoming moderator spoke. Dr Rob Craig is minster at the nearby Kilfennan Presbyterian church. [full text / listen to full address]

He introduced the PCI theme for 2013/4:
Within the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, as a matter of Priority, we believe that an essential part of our calling as the Church is that we are to be A Place of Transformation: where people do not leave as they have entered but are challenged and changed, having encountered the living God present in the worship and the lives of his people …

For the Christian Church there is nothing new in this: yet, it is a truth which we are in danger of forgetting and thus are in need of constant reminding - our dependence on The Lord. We can never be a place of transformation in our own strength. But if it is our priority that we are to be a place of transformation then we need to open to this: that transformation is as necessary within the Church as it is within our society.

Regarding transformation “inside the church”:
The spotlight on culture here in our city is very much on what we call the Creative Arts – a celebration of music, dance, drama, poetry, art, storytelling and the like. Yet, there is so much more to both our understanding and our experience of human culture.

At the risk of being too simplistic, culture is “the way things are done around here”. Across all societies there is our preferred way of doing life, of looking at the world, our culture – which is something we all intuitively know, and with which we all feel comfortable for we have imbibed it with our mother’s milk.

The thing about culture, about “our way of doing things, our way of looking at life” is that like an old pair of slippers it fits so snugly that more often than not we are not even aware of it. Because it fits us so well, we can see nothing wrong with our culture; and suppose that if only others could see things our way and adopt our culture then the world would be a much better place.

His own congregation underwent a physical transformation during the Troubles:

More than 30 years ago the Presbyterian congregation of Great James Street [left] the Cityside for the Waterside, leaving a lovely building where Christian worship had been conducted for some 140 years to begin the new congregation of Kilfennan – a much more modest building, with no assurance of what the future would hold; leaving very much against their will – as one of the older members put it to me “We had to go, but we didn’t want to.” As we all know, that was another kind of Exodus.

Yet within a very short time few within the new congregation of Kilfennan doubted the wisdom of the move; and those of us who have benefited from that move have often saluted the courage of those who were willing to respond positively to what was happening around them; and who did not remain prisoners within their own culture.

He reminded the denomination:
As Presbyterians we have a watchword; a slogan which reads as follows – that we are called to be a church which not only “has been reformed and which must always be reformed.”

Changes in Sunday morning services like ministers no longer all wearing clerical collars, moving away from the King James Bible and organs, never mind the introduction of PowerPoint were examples of congregations being “willing to change the wineskins so that we might preserve the wine”.
At a local level, within our congregations the absence of teenagers and young adults, the emergence of other new forms of church challenge and a drift of many out of Presbyterianism into such churches should cause us to re-think how to be church, finding new wineskins and thus preserve the wine.

And transformation needs to extend “outside the church” too.
With my smart phone I now have access to more information than was once contained in any library. Today those who want to smoke must stand outside our public buildings. The constitutional claim by the Republic of Ireland upon Northern Ireland was ceded through the Belfast agreement. We now have our own executive at Stormont. Civil partnerships are a part of our cultural landscape.

Since I was installed in Kilfennan in 1994 those are just some of the ways in which life in Ireland – North and South has changed and continues to be changed. And sometimes one person’s transformation is another person’s regression!

In many walks of life there are those who are working hard to transform life within Ireland – seeking to make this island a better place for us all to live in. Dedicated police officers, community workers, politicians, businessmen and women, teachers; and not least parents raising their children.

Some are people who share our Christian faith; others who have walked away from their Christian heritage; and those who even are opposed to our Christian way of life. There are few, if any, who do not want Ireland, North and South, to be a better place for their children: a place where jobs and opportunities are being created, where sectarian hatred is being eroded and where a shared future has become a reality.

No-one would claim that we have yet been fully transformed.
Rob Craig asked how Christians should “fulfil our calling to be a place of Transformation?”
Sometimes it means that we can be partners, sharing common ground and working together with others for the common good. The IF campaign which seeks to bring pressure to bear on the G8 is one example of the way in which we can partner with others to transform life for others.

Sometimes it means that in the public square ,although our voice is only one of several we must speak up and speak out – offering an alternative, a counter-argument; explaining the good and positive lifestyle contained within the way of Jesus. When I was interviewed the morning after my nomination as Moderator I was asked "why is the church so negative?" This is how we are perceived - many know us for what we are against, not for what we are for. While we cannot be true to our calling and endorse every lifestyle or government policy we must demonstrate to our community that Jesus came to bring life to the full.

It is notable that marriage - in the context of same-sex marriage - is an enormous magnet that neither outgoing nor incoming moderator could avoid mentioning. Somehow the issue has been blown up into a shibboleth of orthodoxy and Christian distinctiveness, while so many other issues are ignored. And certainly the issue has taken on a significance amongst clerics that it fails to achieve to the same extent in the pews. Perhaps if the quality of our relationships - within and outside the church - was prioritised, that would set how we deal with secondary issues in a better context.

Perhaps the themes of the two addresses could also have been applied to the Assembly business this week - the need to be debating and legislating in a changing world, willing to be transformative and offering positive alternatives.

On Tuesday morning at the Assembly, delegates visiting from other denominations – across Ireland, the UK and beyond – will be welcomed. Members of Assembly will walk round to the nearby 1st Derry church to share communion before lunch. The afternoon is dominated by the report and resolutions of the General Board.

Major items of business will include the appointment of a Clerk designate and a Principal for Union Theological College, ruling out churches being allowed to install baptismal tanks, discussing plans to initiate a denominational conversation on “human sexuality” (ie, gay issues), boosting conciliation when conflict arises in the church, revising central denominational structures (moving from the current boards to a smaller number of councils), a project to encourage more generous giving, reaction to the Church of Scotland’s recent decision around the selection of gay ministers, and new initiatives around Good Relations.

It will be miraculous if all this planned business fits into the four hours allocated to the debates, meaning that some resolutions are expected to lapse into spare sessions on Wednesday and Thursday.

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