General Assembly opens tonight

22.6.2022 | General Assembly, Moderator

For the first time since 2019, Members of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, will gather together in person alongside invited guests from civic society and PCI’s overseas partner churches and organisations, for the opening night of the all-Ireland denomination’s principal decision-making and governing body.

During the service of public worship, which takes place in Assembly Buildings in Belfast at 7pm and can be watched online here, Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick of Portrush Presbyterian Church in County Antrim, will be elected as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the 177th person to hold the office since 1840 and the first from the Portrush congregation. His predecessor for the past two years, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, will perform one of his last duties as Moderator when he addresses the Assembly and reflects on his year in office. Following is election Dr Kirkpatrick will take the Moderator’s Chair and give the main address of the evening.

The Opening Night of the General Assembly heralds three days of worship, prayer, Bible study, celebration and debate. Around 1,000 ministers and ruling elders from the Church’s 500-plus congregations across Ireland are eligible to participate in its 26 scheduled sessions that will involve over 70 resolutions from the General Assembly’s Councils, Commissions and Task Groups. Like the Opening Night itself, the General Assembly is open to the public and will also be livestreamed.

On Thursday morning, the General Assembly will formally welcome and hear from overseas representatives for the first time since 2019. This year they come from the Reformed Church in Hungary, Church of North India, Scripture Union Malawi and the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. Some of them will take part in Thursday’s session ‘Listening to the Global Church’. Since its introduction in 2015, the presentation has become one of the highlights of the Assembly. This year it is entitled ‘Hearing the Heart’.

Another highlight of the General Assembly is the traditional Evening Celebration, which this year will take place on Thursday evening. Looking ahead to the evening Moderator-Designate, Dr Kirkpatrick, encouraged people to come along, or if they couldn’t be there, to tune into livestream. “It is always a very special night and this year we will gather around the theme for my year in office, which is ‘Grace Works’. Described variously as ‘amazing’ in the words of the famous hymn, but essentially Grace is God’s favour towards the underserving, something that changes everything for those who understand it.”

“With worship and music provided by the New Irish Arts, and specially commissioned poetry from Andrew Roycroft, our keynote speaker will be Peter Lynas. As the Evangelical Alliance’s UK director, and before that the director of EA in Northern Ireland, many people will know Peter from his appearances on local media. I look forward to him bringing a wider perspective to our theme, while I will give a short reflection. You don’t need a ticket and all are welcome,” Dr Kirkpatrick said.

PCI is one of the largest churches in Ireland and the largest Protestant, or Reformed’ denomination in Northern Ireland. Along with its primary focus on mission and ministry as part of the Church of Jesus Christ, the General Assembly is a time where the pressing social, moral, denominational and public issues of the day are also discussed. As the Rev Trevor Gribben, Clerk of the General Assembly explained, while many of the issues are important, some can be mundane, but necessary, and sometimes they can be controversial.

“Some of that business this week will reflect the recent times that we have lived through. We all recognise that Covid-19 it still around and many people are still feeling its effects and grieving personal loss. It continues to cast a long shadow and is at the heart of some substantial pieces of work that will come before us this week,” Mr Gribben said.

The Clerk was referring to the reports of two Task Groups that were established by last October’s General Assembly – the Pandemic Response (Governance) Task Group and the Pandemic Response (Theological, Moral & Spiritual) Task Group – and the work of the Council for Congregational Life & Witness.

“In some respects, looking back it is still difficult to comprehend what actually happened, but it is prudent to look at our response, which is what Members of Assembly will do when they discuss the first report on Governance. Essentially it looks at what was done in the light of experience, examining in detail the interim processes that were put in place at the time, looking at their strengths and weaknesses, areas were improvements could, or should, be made and key lessons for the future,” he said.

Mr Gribben said that the second report is a wide-ranging interim report which seeks to review PCI’s response to the pandemic setting out theological, moral and spiritual principles to guide the Church in any similar situation in the future.

On Friday, the Congregational Life & Witness’s (CCLW) will present an hour-long alternative presentation entitled ‘The Turning of the tide’. During the presentation, Members of Assembly will get a picture of how congregations are emerging from the pandemic, with stories focusing on pastoral care, discipleship and leadership for this season. Moving forward, it will also look at opportunities and challenges for youth, children’s and women’s ministry and new resources to help and support congregations. During the Assembly the Council will also announce a two-year listening exercise across the denomination’s 19 regional presbyteries to enable it to better resource the whole church, as well as to more fully understand the impact of the pandemic.

“The discussions that we have, and the decisions that we take, will set the direction for the life and ministry of the Church for the coming year and beyond. It is not only a collective and prayerful process, but a democratic one in the best sense of Presbyterianism,” Mr Gribben said.

As the Assembly meets on a Saturday for the first time in many years, Members will be able discuss a range of issues in the public square, from the cost of living crisis to the reform of education in both jurisdictions, hate crime and devolution in Northern Ireland.

“It will certainly be a busy three days as we will also be looking at mission at home in Ireland, including church planting and other new missional opportunities, alongside other reports on important work that is ongoing across the Church. As in previous years, the General Assembly will also be presented students for the ordained ministry,” Mr Gribben said.

The Clerk concluded by saying, “As I have often said, at the heart of the Church is our central calling to proclaim and live out the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in a world that is constantly changing and in need of hope. Much of our work in these coming days seeks to further that primary calling in different contexts. It will also be great to be together, and to worship together again.”

Photos: Taken at the time of their inititial selection as Moderator-Designate prior to becoming Moderator are (1) Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick (2022) and (2) Rt Rev Dr David Bruce (2020) and (3) the Opening Night of the 2019 General Assembly.

The 2022 General Assembly opens on Wednesday, 22 June with Dr Kirkpatrick’s election and installation and closes on Saturday, 25 June. You will find the business before the Assembly here and the Reports that will be discussed here. You can  follow proceedings live via Twitter @pciassembly using the hashtag #PCIGA22 for all public sessions, which will also livestreamed from this website. The Evening Celebration will also be livestreamed. You can also watch Assembly debates from the public gallery in the Assembly Hall.

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