Wednesday, February 05, 2014

“We have a responsibility to speak for the disadvantaged, to speak for the downtrodden, to speak for the poor” (Rev Michael Barry)

Rev Michael Barry is softly spoken. He’s not a stickler for formality and displays an easy sense of humour. A maths teacher before he went into the ministry, he’s been pastoring the Sandys Street congregation in Newry since 1985. If he hadn't been a teacher and then become a preacher he says he'd like to have gone to sea.

Last night he was one of the three ministers who tied with five votes each in the first round of the election for the Presbyterian moderator to take over at June’s General Assembly. Along with Revs Liz Hughes and Ian McNie, the Newry minister had to wait a little longer for the final result while another round of voting was organised.

In the end, seven Presbyteries cast their vote for Michael Barry with the remaining twelve evenly split between Liz and Ian. Describing the experience as “a surreal night” the moderator designate said he felt “humbled and honoured” that the church had asked him to be the new moderator.

Rev Michael Barry (Sandys Street, Newry) 7 Votes
Armagh, Carrickfergus, Coleraine/Limavady, Dromore, Newry, +Down +Omagh

Rev Liz Hughes (Whitehouse) 6 Votes
North Belfast, East Belfast, South Belfast, Dublin/Munster, Monaghan + Ards

Rev Ian McNie (Trinity, Ballymoney) 6 Votes
Ballymena, Iveagh, Route, Templepatrick, Tyrone +Derry/Donegal

This morning Michael Barry woke up to be interviewed on Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle before coming up to Belfast for a press conference.



June’s General Assembly will  His first week as moderator will be busy chairing the business at the denomination’s annual conference which will again have to address the re-organisation of the denominations central support staff and boards of mission and ministry. Unplanned and unexpected events, terrorist attacks, and church discipline tend to shape the rest of a moderator’s year and the legacy they leave when they handover to their successor. But at the outset I asked the moderator designate what he hoped to achieve during those 51 weeks?
“One of the things that I am looking forward to is the fact that I’ll be able to get out and about and meet Presbyterians in congregations and Presbyteries, to encourage people involved on the ground. I think we have a very good church that does tremendous work … Sometimes there is not much evidence of fruit for all of their labours, but I’m looking forward to meeting them to bring a word of encouragement.”
Serving the community and reaching out into the community will be PCI’s theme for his moderatorial year, part of the denominations’ five-year Fit For Purpose programme.

While there are still “some folk who really refuse to work with others” he recognises “there has been a tremendous change” in Newry in over the 29 years he has ministered in Newry.
“It has been very slow and we probably could have done more. I think there’s an element in which maybe for the first half of my ministry, Presbyterians kept their head down below the parapet because they were afraid. They weren’t very confident about how others would react so we really kept ourselves to ourselves. But I think over the past 10-15 years people have become more confident and beginning to peep over the parapet a wee bit, beginning to reach out.”
Michael Barry describes himself as being from the “conservative wing” of the Presbyterian Church. While definitely conservative on some issues, he’s less traditional on others. In Newry he enjoys good relations with local Catholic priests and laity, shares platforms at civic events and has attended wedding and funeral masses in Catholic churches. He spoke in the press conference about “God being forgiving” and his willingness to pray publicly for grieving parents of dead terrorists. Ecumenically, he draws a line at sharing in the joint leading of services and sounded a little uncomfortable on the radio this morning answering a question about the potential for a future female moderator.
“One of the great cries of the reformers in the 16th century was that the church should be reformed and always reforming. I’m glad we are a reformed church and I think we do reform. Perhaps not always easily. Generally we are a conservative church and change comes perhaps more slowly to us than in other places.

But on the other hand I think we are still holding on to our traditions and our core beliefs. What we’ve got to do is continue to seek God’s guidance as to how we are to interpret the Bible and how we are to see the place of the church in society and in the world. One of the problems is that sometimes you can throw the baby out with the bathwater and you can change and reform and to an extent that you lose your identity. I think our church has maintained its identity well and I think we are standing squarely in the line of the reformation.”
Anything specific he’d like to see reformed?
“I think there are some of our congregations that are a little bit stuck, not in the 20th century, maybe in the 19th century. I grew up in that kind of environment and treasure and value it. But I think we need to look at new kinds of music and new kinds of hymns and a new way of doing worship that is in accord with what we believe to the regulative principle that God tells us how to worship and we need to be looking at that.”
So expect a lively opening night of General Assembly!

Last week, PCI hosted a conference about The Church in the Public Square in its Belfast Assembly Buildings headquarters. The moderator designate commented:
“Our church has always been involved in the public square, the difference is that we’re now speaking into the public square from the outside, or at least from the edge, whereas before we would have been much closer to the centre ...

We always have to speak into all of those issues with a Christian voice and encourage people to hear what the Bible has to say. Jesus was involved in the communities in which he moved and we want to do that as well.

Does the church have a role to create space and lead society as we deal with the past, commemorate centenaries of events across the island?
“I think we need to understand that people – whether we agree with them or they agree with us – people are human beings. One of the phrases that was used by Prof Macleod [at the conference was] 'people bearing the image of God, icons of divinity or deity' ...

The people we deal with, the people we shout at, we harangue, are people who bear the image of God. We need to treat people with respect. And if we were to do that we would possibly find that we are able to connect with them better.

The Apostle Paul in Philippians says we are to treat other people better than we treat ourselves and put their affairs and concerns before our own. That’s not something that happens in our community very easily. It’s something I think the church needs to teach perhaps more vocally …

We have a responsibility to speak for the disadvantaged, to speak for the downtrodden, to speak for the poor. Sometimes we haven’t always done that as faithfully as we should.”

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