Clerk sets the scene for next week's Assembly

16.6.2022 | General Assembly, Moderator

Presbyterians from across Ireland will gather in Belfast next week for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). From Cork to Coleraine, Dublin to Donaghadee ministers and elders from the denomination’s 500-plus congregations, will listen, debate and discuss a range of church matters and issues that affect broader society across the island.

Meeting in Assembly Buildings in the city centre, the annual meeting will open on Wednesday evening when Members of Assembly will come to worship, alongside guests from civic society, and elect Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick as Moderator for the forthcoming year. Dr Kirkpatrick, who is the minister of Portrush Presbyterian Church, will succeed PCI’s two-term Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce as the denomination’s senior office-bearer and principal public representative. Both ministers will make the first speeches at this year’s Assembly, when they address Members and guests in the Assembly Hall and those watching online. The Assembly will close on Saturday afternoon.

It will be the first time since 2019 that the Church’s principal decision-making and governing body has been able meet in its usual month and manner. It will also be the first occasion since then that guests from PCI’s overseas partner churches and organisations will also be present. But as the Clerk of the General Assembly, Rev Trevor Gribben explained, while a return to June restores a welcome sense of normality, as the first ‘normal’ post-pandemic Assembly takes place, Covid still casts a long shadow, which will be reflected in some of the business that will come before its 1,000 members who are entitled to attend.

“As the familiar events do return to their more accustomed slots in the year, I genuinely give thanks to God that our Presbyterian family can come together again in full General Assembly next week, to worship, pray, and take decisions, just as we have done for generations,” Mr Gribben said.

“This year’s General Assembly, while it will have the same look and feel, will I hope be more accessible. Last year’s Assembly decided that we would move to a slightly later start in June this year, with the Opening Night on a Wednesday and not a Monday. This means business can be conducted into Thursday and the Friday evenings, with business sessions on Saturday morning and afternoon for the first time. Hopefully it will give people a greater opportunity to come and take part in discussions and our decision-making process.

“While it may seem a strange thing to say, our General Assembly isn’t a meeting. It is primarily an assembly of people meeting in ‘general assembly’, a coming together first and foremost, to pray and worship, seeking God’s will as we take decisions together. Worship is at the heart of that,” he explained.

Mr Gribben, who became Clerk of the General Assembly in 2014 and was Deputy Clerk for six years prior to that, served for over 18 years in parish ministry. “It will be a busy time with 26 items of allotted business from the General Assembly’s 12 councils and commissions, numerous panels and task groups, spread across 25 hours of debate and discussion that will ultimately involve over 70 resolutions being decided upon,” he said.

Pandemic’s long shadow

“Some of that business does 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 next 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 mad and key lessons for the future.

“It has been well consulted on with our 19 regional presbyteries, and brings a number of recommendations that seek to put in place agreed governance structures and mechanisms should a similar situation arise in the future. For example, how our General Assembly and Councils are convened if they can’t meet in person, and their membership. I am sure that many other organisations are in the process of undertaking a similar exercise.” the Clerk explained.

Mr Gribben said that the second 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.

“The report states that the ‘pandemic necessitated making many difficult moral and ethical decisions’. For us it is important to identify a firm set of theologically well founded moral principles upon which to base any future decisions should this happen again. It will be an important debate on Friday afternoon.”

Mr Gribben continued, “When the final report comes to the 2023 General Assembly, it is anticipated that it will capture PCI’s story of the pandemic, identify key learning for our denomination and frame any proposals requiring decisions by the courts of the Church. In short, what is the very best and wisest response we can make, in the set of circumstances that we may face.”

On Friday morning Assembly Members will, through the symbolic taking of bread and wine, follow Christ’s example at the Last Supper and remember His sacrifice for us when the General Assembly comes together for its Communion Service. Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is one of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s two sacraments.

As Mr Gribben explained, the church is essentially a worshipping community and worship plays an important part in the General Assembly. “Along with Communion, a service of worship will also take place on the first day’s business at 12.15pm after the visiting delegates have been officially welcomed. On Thursday evening, the Moderator, Dr Kirkpatrick, will also lead the Assembly’s Evening Celebration, which is always a very special night and this year it takes place around Dr Kirkpatrick’s theme for his year in office, which is ‘Grace Works’. Worship and music will be provided by the New Irish Orchestra, with key note address exploring ‘Grace Works’ from Peter Lynas, the director of Evangelical Alliance UK. You don’t need a ticket and everyone is very welcome,” Mr Gribben said.

In one of two special presentations this year, Members of Assembly will take time out on Friday for the Council for Congregational Life & Witness’s (CCLW) hour-long alternative presentation entitled ‘The Turning of the tide’. Introduced in 2015, these presentations allow PCI’s Councils, to focus on a particular aspect of their work, mission and ministry, or specific issues relating to them. During CCLW’s presentation, Assembly Members 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.

The Council in its report also details the ongoing challenges for congregational life and witness, detailing how it has supported congregations during this time of change and re-emergence. “CCLW is one of PCI’s largest Councils and has a wide remit to support the on-going life, mission and witness of congregations across Ireland in their work with all age-groups. During the Assembly it will announce a two-year listening exercise across all our 19 regional presbyteries to enable it to better resource the whole church, as well as to more fully understand the impact of the pandemic. It will be an important and timely undertaking for the future of the denomination,” Mr Gribben said.

Shifting social and political landscape

Echoing the comments of Dr Bruce, PCI’s outgoing Moderator in his review of his two years in office, the Clerk said that while the pandemic has changed much, there have also been developments in recent years in major social and policy areas across Ireland, which have come to challenge the Judeo-Christian world view. These include end of life issues, abortion, human identity, marriage and its definition.

“In response to a radically shifting legislative landscape in relation to the provision of, and access to abortion services across the island of Ireland, the General Assembly will receive the final report of the Supporting Families in Challenging Times Task Group. The group was set up to review and develop PCI’s pastoral care for women and families affected by pregnancy crisis, pregnancy loss, the diagnosis of a life-limiting condition and other related circumstances. It also was tasked to looking at support for those caring for children and young people with disabilities,” he 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. In particular, the General Assembly will be asked to ‘express its deep regret at the continued and unhelpful undermining of the devolution settlement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland…’ The resolution specifically references Mr Lewis’ self-given power ‘…to direct Northern Ireland Executive Ministers and Departments on matters including, but which stretch beyond the provision of abortion services, to education and other areas...’

In another resolution, the General Assembly will asked to ‘express its concern about the significant and rapid increases in the cost of living across Ireland…” The governments in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will also be asked ‘…to not only find ways to mitigate the immediate crisis, but also prioritise the development of anti-poverty strategies in each jurisdiction that begin to tackle the root causes of endemic poverty on the island.’

Since the resolutions and reports went to print and have been sent to Assembly Members, the UK government’s Troubles (Legacy & Reconciliation) Bill, Identity and Language (Northern Ireland) Bill, and legislation on the Northern Ireland Protocol, have been published. A Supplementary Report will be tabled to allow for discussion on these issues during the General Assembly.

Listening to the Global Church

While focusing on political issues at home, the day before the Council for Global Mission presents their report detailing its work, including the amazing response to the Moderator’s Special Appeal for Ukraine, which was launched in March following the Russian invasion of the country. On the opening day’s business on Thursday, an important feature of General Assemblies for the last seven years will take place in the form the Council’s alternative presentation - ‘Listening to the Global Church’. This year it is entitled ‘Hearing the Heart’.

“This presentation is always a highlight of the General Assembly as it is an important opportunity to hear the challenges and opportunities that our brothers and sisters in Christ are facing around the world. Through Listening to the Global Church we seek to hear whatever PCI’s partners feel able to share from their hearts, especially about what God is doing in their lives today,” Mr Gribben said.

Some of those taking part, either in person or via video, find themselves as minorities facing considerable hardship, many are on the move, whether refugees in Europe, internally displaced in Myanmar, or struggling to survive as minority communities in the Middle East.

The Clerk continued, “Yet for many, their hope in the gospel remains sure and new beginnings and fresh opportunities being grasped. As we take time out to listen, it’s good for us to realise that the very folk we might too readily label as minorities, migrants or helpless, may in the providence of God be the missionaries from whom we here have much to learn and who will inspire us with fresh hope.”

Mission and ministry at home

Just as our mission and ministry overseas is important, with a resolution expressing the Assembly’s ‘thanks for the faithful, enduring witness to the gospel of PCI’s global mission workers…’ Mission and ministry at home is equally important, and members will hear of the expansion of the work of the International Meeting Point in south and north Belfast and the resumption of the significant work of South Belfast Friendship House during the report of the Council for Mission in Ireland.

It has been seven months since PCI’s Rural Chaplain began work as a new pilot initiative. The Assembly will learn of encouraging developments in this important area of chaplaincy, alongside the work that PCI’s chaplains in healthcare, universities and colleges, prisons and the UK armed forces do. An exciting development in mission will also be announced that makes use of existing facilities in Carrigart in County Donegal, which also requires a new post.

As part of the Council for Training in Ministry’s report, Members will also hear of new developments in Union Theological College, including preparations to welcome the first undergraduates studying of the new BA (Hons) in Theology which starts this September. The College is also the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s principal body for the training of its ministers prior to ordination. As in previous years, the General Assembly will be presented students for the ordained ministry.

Mr Gribben concluded by saying, “It will be a busy three days of debate, discussion, prayer, Bible study and worship. 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. Much of our work next week seeks to further that primary calling in different contexts. As we count down the days to next Wednesday’s Opening Night, it is always a welcome opportunity come together.”

Photos: (1) Clerk of the General Assembly and General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Rev Trevor Gribben (2) a scene from the opening night of the 2019 General Assembly (3) incoming Moderator Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick and (4) PCI's outgoing Moderator, Rt Rev Dr David Bruce

The 2022 General Assembly opens on Wednesday, 22 June 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. You can also watch from the public gallery in the Assembly Hall.

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