PCI’s pandemic response

24.6.2022 | General Assembly, Church in Society

As the Covid-19 continues to cast a long shadow the pandemic was at the heart of some substantial pieces of business that came before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) today.Members of Assembly received reports submitted by two of its General Council 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.

The reports looked at what was done in the light of experience, examining in detail the interim governance processes that were put in place at the time, reflected on their strengths and weaknesses, areas where improvements could, or should, be made and key lessons for the future.

A number of recommendations that sought to put in place governance structures and mechanisms, should a similar situation arise in the future, were put before the General Assembly this afternoon and agreed. For example, the recommendations looked at how the General Assembly and PCI’s Councils are convened if they can’t meet in person, and their membership. They also included advice on the way forward if presbyteries, or local Kirk Sessions, are not able to meet in person.

Speaking to the General Assembly as Convener of the Pandemic Response (Governance) Task Group, the Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev Trevor Gribben described the work of the second group as ‘a mammoth task’ which was why its report being presented was interim. A final report will come before the 2023 General Assembly.

“The Task Group dealing with governance have produced a final report as almost everything in it has already gone down to presbyteries and been talked about between the first year of the pandemic and the second,” Mr Gribben said.

“This is basically putting before the Church formal agreement of what we should do if something like this should every happen again…codifying what our processes will be. In a way we are adopting these as our emergency provisions for the future.”

The second is a wide-ranging report 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. It came following a debate at the October General Assembly and an amendment that was put and carried. Speaking to the General Assembly the Convener of the Pandemic Response Theological, Moral & Spiritual Task Group, Miss Karen Jardine, said that it was “rare…for a whole society, the global community, to be faced with the same challenge at the same time – in this instance the covid-19 pandemic. The phrase ‘same storm, different boat’ is now well-worn but the thing about a cliché is that it generally contains a kernel of truth.”

Miss Jardine reminded the General Assembly of what was asked of the General Council through last year’s amendment, ‘that the General Council be asked, in light of the last period, to undertake a review of the Church’s response and to set out theological, moral and spiritual principles to guide the Church in any similar situation which could arise and report to the General Assembly 2022’.

Miss Jardine continued, “In bringing forward their licensed amendment the proposer and seconder asked some big questions about the nature of the relationship between the Church and the State, the definition of Church, the kind of society we want to see, how we understand the sovereignty of God, our theology of risk, and the Church’s prophetic voice.

“This interim report is offered to you as a means of providing some background and context to the work of the Task Group, share some initial learning and outline its proposed direction of travel…Specifically we considered it important to understand the context of PCI within which the pandemic has been experienced, and also what the world was like at the start of 2020.

“Our beliefs and understanding of who we are as Christian people, and specifically Presbyterian Christian people, influence how we have responded and reacted to the pandemic and the challenges it has presented. Similarly the economic, political, social and cultural dynamics of the world around us have an impact on the decisions that were made by governments and others,” she said.

In considering the interim report and the work of the Task Group to date, Miss Jardine asked members to be mindful of a number of things including the complexity of PCI’s response to the pandemic, which she categorised as, “a constantly changing and developing situation, dare I say it ‘unprecedented’, a requirement to respond to decisions taken in two different jurisdictions – often with very different approaches to consultation and decision-making and little to no understanding of how long the pandemic would continue.”

At the same time Miss Jardine said that the Task Group understood the requirement of its remit “to draw out ‘theological, moral and spiritual’ principles as an encouragement to be thorough in our work, rather than as prescriptive categories. It also approached its work with the benefit of hindsight, as we all do when we consider and reflect on all that has happened over the past couple of years.”

Miss Jardine concluded by saying, “This work will be ongoing in the weeks and months to come – it is important that when we come to you with the final report next year that we can demonstrate we have listened as broadly as we could, so that when we come to reflect and draw our conclusions we can present an authentic understanding of how PCI responded to the pandemic, theologically, morally and spiritually, and what principles might be derived for the future.”

Following the session the Moderator, Rt Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick, thanked the Clerk for his leadership during the pandemic, “We want to say ‘thank you’ for the leadership that you gave the whole church during this pandemic time.  Whatever your view was, wherever you were in the church, we were all where we were in a place we’d never been before. It was a very difficult time and we deeply appreciate how you led us through it,” he said.

Photos: (1) Convener of the Pandemic Response (Governance) Task Group, the Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev Trevor Gribben addressing the Assembly and (2) Karen Jardine, convener of the Pandemic Response (Theological, Moral & Spiritual) Task Group and PCI's Public Affairs Officer.

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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