General Assembly Preview - Thursday 6 June 2019

6.6.2019 | Social Witness, General Assembly, Union Theological College

Today is the third and penultimate day of business at the 2019 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. 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, starting later this afternoon at 1.45pm with a special presentation. Life Always Matters will focus on the dignity of human life.

A Report from the Council for Training in Ministry will highlight 10 new courses to be launched by Union Theological College and reports on Queen’s University, Belfast’s review of the Institute of Theology (UTC). For the first time the College’s Management Committee reports on its response to the Review. The Report also sets out the narrative of events in relation to the Review that led to the University ending its relationship with the UTC.

A number of internal Church related business and financial matters are contained in the General Council’s Report, while the Council for Social Witness, which is tasked with the delivery of an effective social care service for the denomination, presents its report.

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.

Life Always Matters

The first session today is the second of the General Assembly’s Alternative Presentations. The innovation, which was introduced in 2015, has become an important opportunity for members of Assembly to listen and explore specific aspects of church life, or matters of pressing public concern or policy. In doing so, it allows the Church to consider these issues with recognised experts and other interested parties.

The Life Always Matters Council for Public Affairs' presentation, seeks to speak into the professional world and public square on the dignity of human life. Through specially commissioned video, a presentation and an informal panel discussion involving three Presbyterian elected representatives, the General Assembly will be looking at dementia care, palliative care and child and adolescent mental health services.

The first video on the area of dementia, which was filmed at the Church’s residential care home, Adelaide House in Belfast, will highlight some of the work that PCI does and the challenges presented by a lack of funding and the need to update the Government’s dementia strategy.

In a resolutions at last year’s the General Assembly, members voted to ‘strongly oppose any legislation which allowed assisted suicide or euthanasia’ and commended palliative care, ‘calling on the governments in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to ensure the adequate resourcing of both research and delivery in this important area.’ In today’s presentation, the leading Palliative Care consultant Professor Max Watson, will give a presentation on end of life care in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The third area, in relation to human dignity, is Adolescent Mental Health. In a short video shot at the Big House in North Belfast. The Christian charity was set up around 15 years ago and exists to help young people know God’s love and that they are cared for by the church, especially when life is difficult. This part of the presentation will challenge the Church in relation to the needs of young people and social services in terms of statutory provision.

The three Presbyterian elected representatives from East Antrim will join the panel discussion will be Stewart Dickson MLA (Alliance), Gordon Lyons MLA (DUP) and Roy Beggs MLA (UUP), two of whom are elders in the Church. In an informal discussion they will share their views on these important issues, how they manifest themselves in their constituency and wider policy issues.

Training in Ministry

The afternoon’s first business session, which follows worship, will deal with the Report of the Council for Training in Ministry. The Council has responsibility of looking after all aspects of selection, training and ongoing development of ministers and is also responsible for the management of Union Theological College. In addition, it selects, trains and develops auxiliary ministers, accredited preachers and deaconesses, who in turn serve in congregations and communities across Ireland.

During the course of the session, the General Assembly will be asked to accept 13 candidates as students for the ordained ministry. On acceptance they will be placed under the care of their presbyteries and can begin their studies in September. This represents a significant increase in ministry students for September 2019.

The report also highlights that the applicants for the ordained ministry are part of a growing trend where many have previous theological training and ministry experience within local churches, yet the Church system at present is not sufficiently flexible enough to take such training and experience fully into account.

Last year an appeal was made at the General Assembly for the Council to provide more flexibility in its training pathways, especially for those who are already well qualified and who have significant experience. The Ministerial Studies and Development Committee is proposing a flexible pathway arrangement that it is hoped will provide this.

The General Assembly will therefore be asked to give approval for the direction of travel contained in a paper concerning Flexible Training Pathways, and give permission for the Council to pilot the scheme, reporting back to the 2021 General Assembly. It is expected that most candidates will follow the current 5 year training pathway in its entirety. The Council says that it ‘wants to be responsive to the way God has already gifted, taught and used people before they have applied for ministry.’

Union Theological College

The management of Union Theological College is undertaken by the Union Theological College Management Committee, with general and strategic oversight given by the Council for Training in Ministry.

The Council will report on Queen’s University’s review of its Institute of Theology in June 2018. Members of Assembly will also hear that on the basis of this review, on 18 December Queen’s suspended undergraduate programmes for September 2019, and on 9 April the university decided that all programmes (including post-graduate programmes at Union, the Methodist Edgehill Theological College, Irish Baptist College, and Belfast Bible College) would be withdrawn and there would be no further intake of students. The college will continue to teach the current first and second year students and those enrolled on part-time courses to the end of their programmes.

Looking to the future

The Council’s Report states that ‘The ending of the relationship is highly regrettable but the Council and the College are committed to ending it well. While the adjustments to be made are significant, the Council is in no doubt that an exciting future for the College lies ahead. In particular, there are new opportunities for flexibility in training ministry and other students that it is believed will lead to a better student experience and better outcomes.’

When Union Theological College became aware of the direction of travel in December 2018, the Review Task Group was set up to review the options for the college, the training of ministers and what financial savings might be made. To enable this, and to look at a range of options for the future, specific resolutions will be put to the General Assembly by the General Council tomorrow.

New College courses

In developing the College's student base through online and blended online / campus courses, the General Assembly will hear that next year the UTC will introduce 10 new courses, with 7 being fully online. The course brochure will be available to members of Assembly. The courses, in a variety of subjects, will be at Master’s degree level, as well as graduate and postgraduate certificate and diploma level. A PhD will also be offered.

The report states that the ‘potential to develop this work is significant and this could prove to be great resource for the global church as well as having the potential to provide income for the college.’

Setting out the narrative of events

In a significant and detailed report to the General Assembly, for the first time Union Theological College will set out the narrative of events to date in relation to the Review of the Institute of Theology by Queen’s that led to the University ending its relationship with the UTC.

It also contains the College’s Management Committee’s response to the Review which concludes by saying that the it was ‘based on a flawed and confused review process that did not permit engagement on the substantial issues; lacks supporting evidence for its claims and conclusions [and] did not adequately or respectfully include Union College in its consultations.’

Social Witness

The Council for Social Witness is tasked with the delivery of an effective social care service for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and to the wider community by the provision of residential, nursing, supported housing, respite and day care, and community based programmes.

As a Church, PCI is called to demonstrate God’s love for people, which means putting of faith into practical action and simple Christian caring, which is a very special kind of witness - a powerful social witness of the gospel. As a service provider with a budged of £10 million, the Council manages PCI’s nursing and residential care homes, along with supported housing schemes for people with a learning disability/intellectual disability and those with addictions and former offenders.

The Report to the General Assembly presents ‘a kaleidoscope of care and witness that has been undertaken’. It also highlights a number of concerns. The Council’s Disability Services Committee, for example, states that it ‘continues to be concerned about the impact of welfare reform on individuals and families living with disability on a day to day basis. The lack of a working Stormont Assembly only serves to make life more difficult for such families, compounding the pressures upon them as additional support measures are not being explored, proposed or implemented.’

The Council is also concerned that ‘the infrastructures and institutions within social care are broken and no longer fit for purpose.’ In a resolution, the General Assembly will be asked ‘to express real concern that in the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly vital legislation and appropriate funding is being denied to essential Health and Social Care Services.’


Through the Council, PCI continues to actively support Scamwise initiatives, endorsing its key message: ‘If you can spot a scam, you can stop a scam.’ In a separate resolution, the General Assembly will recognise the work of the Scamwise Partnership in Northern Ireland and encourage congregations to use its resources.’

General Council

PCI’s General Council is the senior decision making body that takes any necessary decisions on behalf of the General Assembly between its meetings. Its Report is the largest and is divided up in to four sections, being discussed on each of the four days of Assembly business.

Today, the General Assembly will discuss a number of internal related matters contained within the Council’s report from Data Protection and charity registration, to the report of Holding Trustees Task Group. Much of the report concerns finance the administration of the Church, including the report of the Support Service Committee and United Appeal for Mission.

United Appeal for Mission

The United Appeal for Mission, or just 'United Appeal', is at the very heart of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Every aspect of the Church's mission depends, to some extent, on it. Through grant support to the General Assembly’s Councils, the United Appeal provides significant financial support for the work of the Church at home and overseas.

Aside from the incredible work individual congregations are doing in their own communities, United Appeal allows congregations to support areas of work which they could not do on their own, as it helps them and individuals to build God’s kingdom through youth and children’s ministry, social action and the training of leaders.

Hundreds of projects and programmes at home and overseas are supported by it, demonstrating God’s love and compassion in action to hundreds of thousands of people – and it is all down to the generous support of ordinary Presbyterians the length and breadth of Ireland.

When the 2018 United Appeal closed in January 2019 contributions received from PCI’s families across its 500-plus congregations totalled £3,291,684 (€3,724,869). The United Appeal agreed for 2019 is £3,550,000 (€4,017,180). For 2020, the General Assembly will be asked to approve a United Appeal of £3,600,000 (€4,073,760).

Other business will also be before the General Assembly. For further details, click here.

The vast majority of business sessions and presentations will be open to the public and streamed live via this website, along with today's worship service at 2.45pm.

You can also follow a live Twitter feed @pciassembly using the hashtag #PCIGA19 for all the General Assembly's public sessions. You can find details of each days business here. All news stories, Reports and daily draft minutes, can be found in the General Assembly Overview here.

Today's business commences at 1.45. Proceedings will close on Friday, 7 June at 1.30pm.

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