The 65-year-old minister of Portrush Presbyterian Church in County Antrim, was addressing 800 church members, overseas guests and civic dignitaries during the opening service ahead of three days and two evenings of debate by ministers and elders from the Church’s 500-plus congregations across Ireland. Meeting together in General Assembly they will discuss a diverse range of church-related matters and public issues.
Having previously explained that Grace is “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…” Dr Kirkpatrick recounted in his address how one wet summer’s day at New Horizon, the annual Christian festival on Antrim’s north coast, the American pastor John Piper was speaking and he put it like this: “It is not grace to bar what is not bliss nor flight from all distress but this: The grace that orders our trouble and pain, And then, in the darkness, is there to sustain.”
Dr Kirkpatrick continued, “If God’s grace works in the hard places then it is seen to stand a real test. The message that I will try to share this year is neither new nor is it complicated - it is the story of Grace not Works.
“This is the story of every Christian and we need often to be reminded about it, to reflect and meditate on it. It is a story that anchors our lives in troubled times, that fills our hearts with courage to face the hard time, moves us to forgive and love our opponent, produces a generous spirit [and] has sent people to the ends of the earth,” the Moderator said.
Using the first two chapters of the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians as his text, Dr Kirkpatrick looked at Grace at work in the past, Grace at work in the present and how Grace shapes our future. In terms of that future, Dr Kirkpatrick said, it was a “plan we are fully included in for the grace of God enables us to fulfil the work “…we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10.)” he said.
The Moderator, who is the 177th person to hold the office since the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland 182 years ago, concluded by saying, “His spirit, the Holy Spirit…is the guarantee, and who unites us to Jesus forever, as we place our faith in Him. This truly is our story, this is our message, this is big enough to carry the weight of human need, to both change and unite everyone on this island who embraces Jesus.”
During the evening worship was led by New Irish Arts’ string quartet, directed by its creative director Jonathan Rea. Rev Mark Spratt, minister of Kilmore Presbyterian in County Down, played the organ during the procession of former Moderators into the historic Assembly Hall. This evening was the first time since 2019 that Members of the General Assembly have been able to gather together in person alongside invited guests from civic society and PCI’s overseas partner churches and organisations, for the opening night due to the outworking of Covid pandemic since 2020. The challenging times that the Church and society had been through formed part of the address given by the outgoing Moderator, Dr David Bruce.
Having completed two terms as Moderator, the first person to do so since 1894, Dr Bruce based his address on 1 Peter 1:6, which says, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”
He began by saying that one of his predecessors had said that “Presbyterian Moderators eat their way around Ireland, so I stand before you as one, overfull with tea and tray bakes who is (frankly) relieved that it is coming to an end, for the sake of a stretched cassock…”
However, his “…overwhelming emotion in stepping down is of gratitude to God and his people for these two years – albeit in a deeply turbulent period of our history. Much of my second year in office has been a time of readjustment for the church as we have gradually emerged from the pandemic…” Dr Bruce went on to talk about the seven tours of PCI’s 19 regional presbyteries that he had undertaken, some heavily restricted due to Covid and conducted virtually, others more full on, “Zoë and I survived, thrilled to see the robust and strong work being done on the ground across the country in our churches. There is much to be thankful for,” he said.
Looking back Dr Bruce continued, “On this occasion last October, I listed some of the major local and world events in the period of my first term in office. These included Brexit, Covid, centenaries, legacy of the past and much more besides. Of course we now add international outrage at the inexcusable invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, Assembly elections here in Northern Ireland, the imposition of ever more radical social policies in both jurisdictions, Partygate, Beergate, Wordle and the gradual leaching of respect for people whose leadership ambitions are not matched by their depth of character.”
“Commending the teachings of Jesus Christ in face of such a conflicted public square has always been the Church’s story. As the Apostle Peter put it, we are “strangers in the world”. And really, our story is no more complicated, except in detail, than his was – and the promise that he offered those early believers in Jesus - that their inheritance could never perish, spoil or fade – is what will keep us going in the teeth of overt criticism. Peter writes to them, ‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials’… ” he said.
“We have found ourselves in recent times under harsh scrutiny as a people. Some have struggled to understand what we mean when we say we are a confessional church, with standards to which we physically subscribe as elders at the moment of our ordination. Our critics, alighting on a number of social policy issues such as the provision of abortion, end of life care, the redefinition of marriage, a changed understanding of human identity, among others consider our views to be incomprehensible, or even dangerous….”
Dr Bruce continued, “We do of course need to listen carefully to those who criticise us. Like any human organisation which has been around for a while, we have our blind spots, prejudices and deficiencies – of course we do…But similarly, we need to be confident in the calling we have received to be the church of God, and especially when to do so means swimming against the tide. In particular, and for us with confessed standards which define us, we need to state with loving clarity to the world around us, that we are not minded to re-define our relationship with the Bible, which as our supreme standard we consider to be the word of God. We will not re-write it, re-edit it or re-frame it…The Bible is not toxic, but the word of life.”
Concluding his remarks, the two-term Moderator said, “…Similarly, we are not minded to adjust our relationship with our subordinate standards which this church has held since its formation. It is under this generous canopy of truth where we as a community of grace confidently gather. There is room here, and we include all who wish to come, embraced by the forgiveness bought by Christ on our behalf – the ultimate act of generous inclusion before the human race.”
Moderators' Addresses: You can read Dr Kirkpatrick's address here and Dr Bruce's address here.
Photos: (1) Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland for 2022/2023 (2) with his predecessor Dr David Bruce just after his election and (3) outside Assembly Buildings.
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.