During the hour that we had, it was difficult to remember how normal his selection as Moderator-Designate had been on that first Tuesday in February 2020. Presbyteries gathered across Ireland to choose from four names as something called ‘Covid’ continued to impact large parts of a Chinese province and wouldn’t be front page news in Ireland, or the UK, for another four or five weeks.
Little did Dr Bruce, or any of us appreciate, that the life that we had come to know, and all the things that we took for granted, would soon change beyond recognition, with its impact still felt in both the church and society as a whole, as Dr Bruce touched on.
Having been ordained in 1984, Dr Bruce said that along with most Presbyterians, he could remember Moderators who had fulfilled the role in a way that had personally impacted him. “What I have discovered is that everyone is different, and every circumstance is different, and each year presents a different narrative, so a Moderator needs to adapt to the circumstances before them, which is certainly what I have found and my successors will find too.”
A time to adapt
It is perhaps an understatement that the last two years have seen considerable ‘adaptation’, especially during his first term of office. Most of his predecessors would have preached their first Sunday sermon having been invited by a congregation soon after their election by the General Assembly. With congregations across Ireland closed from mid-March 2020, Dr Bruce had to wait until the end of September and a socially distanced gathering in Christ Church Presbyterian in Dundonald for his first face-to-face gathering for worship.
During the first four months of his moderatorial year, Dr Bruce combined the role while continuing his day job, as Secretary to the Council for Mission in Ireland. “In fact in the first phase we were in a deep lockdown from March 2020, right the way through, so in continuity with my predecessor, William Henry, I continued the series of pre-recorded services for congregations that didn’t have the facilities to livestream, or record their own. I chose to preach through Ephesians for the next 22 weeks…it was demanding for many different reasons, but I enjoyed that,” he recalled.
Like most people he said that he’d got used to working from home and using Zoom and Microsoft Teams. A myriad of virtual internal meetings, to online discussions with the NIO and Taoiseach’s office with his fellow Church Leaders – the leaders of the Church of Ireland, Catholic Church, Methodist Church in Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches. In a normal year they would meet two or three times together. After March 2020 they met online on a monthly basis, if not more.
Reflecting on his first half of this first year in office, Dr Bruce said, “I think the Church was reeling with the uncertainty of it all and fearful. There were little pin-pricks of hope and light as people responded creatively, wisely, and well, to the circumstances, and we shouldn’t lose sight of how people came together in the face of such testing times and those on the frontline who went far beyond that extra mile. But for many this was a time of controlled concern, or even panic in some quarters. We certainly knew we were facing a crisis.
Presbytery Tours – meeting people
Dr Bruce undertook more presbytery tours than any of his predecessors, seven in total. These were adapted to suit the prevailing restrictions at the time. “Some were in that deep season of lockdown and were undertaken online with very few face-to-face meetings. The tour of Ballymena Presbytery was largely conducted remotely, with livestream preaching and pre-recorded sermons, virtual coffee mornings and prayer meetings with ministers. Contrast that to my last tour, Coleraine and Limavady Presbytery, which was full-on with 30-plus engagements in eight days,” Dr Bruce explained.
The real value for Moderators of these tours, he suggested, was not just seeing the church first-hand and at work in their local communities, but making face-to-face connections with ministers and their families, with some engagement with civic society through visits to schools, Police Service, hospitals and other organisations.
The Moderator also saw the tours at this particular time as an extension of PCI’s ‘Refresh’ initiative that was designed to allow ministers to pause in their work because of their radically changed circumstances due to the pandemic. In each of the 19 regional presbyteries ‘Refresh Groups’ of 6 to 8 ministers were set up for prayer and fellowship, alongside a one day multi-site livestreamed (and socially distanced) conference that took place last June.
While many things changed during that time, Dr Bruce said that we haven’t really begun to see its long-term effects, “The deep seated pastoral pain of people in our churches who have not been able to grieve properly, is a story not yet written. Grieving is a mysterious thing, it is a leave taking, a loosening of bonds that have in many cases taken decades to forge. If it is not handled well, or enabled to happen healthily, deep-seated harm can result.
“I am sure we will see evidence of this in the years to come, as families feel that they couldn’t say goodbye properly to their loved ones.” There was a feeling too, he said, that society had lost its confidence, as if the pandemic had taken the wind out of its sails.
There is of course a positive side to these events. Dr Bruce continued, “When a crisis occurs, it can be like hitting the reset button on a computer. Everything shuts down, then reboots cleanly forcing us to re-examine the basics…This enforced reset could in fact, under God, be a real blessing to us.”
Reflecting on this the Moderator said that on some visits to churches there was a focus on the ‘ABC’ of church life – ‘Attendance’, ‘Buildings’, and ‘Cash’. While understandable (and not typical of all congregations), Dr Bruce said that there was an opportunity for local churches to refocus on the ‘DEF’ of church life – ‘Discipleship’, ‘Evangelism’, and ‘Fellowship’.
Such a reset isn’t just confined to the Church. “Much that is good will emerge from the serious disruption, challenges and pain that we have been through, but it may take some time to recognise and respond to it,” he said.
Major social changes
As the public face of Irish Presbyterianism, Dr Bruce said that he also felt that there had been another kind of change. For example, major social and policy issues across Ireland have come to challenge the Judeo-Christian world view, like they have never done before – including end of life issues, abortion, human identity, marriage and its definition. Positions that had been shared since the creation of the General Assembly 182 years ago, are now divergent.
“I am finding the Church having to recalibrate how it is heard in the public square. We are having to re-state the importance of our belief in the revealed Word of God in the Bible. Many people have a radically different understanding of how society ought to determine what is right and wrong, and therefore, where social policy should emerge from. It has made some folk nervous, because the changes which result are radical.”
Dr Bruce continued, “My response to that is that our confidence doesn’t rest in government legislation, it rests with God, and in particular with Christ and the Gospel, which we have received from Him. Even if we find ourselves out of step with public opinion on certain important matters, this is not unusual for the world church. Nor has it been unusual over history, as we unpack the story of God’s people through the centuries.”
Two years in post; some special events
While much was different, including the fact that Dr Bruce was the first Moderator to serve two terms of office since 1894 – a semblance of normality returned during his second year. He was able to visit PCI’s Global Mission Workers in Portugal, speaking in congregations most Sundays, representing Irish Presbyterians at state occasions in Dublin and London, while moderating a General Assembly, albeit a smaller gathering, that took place in October - a far cry from the previous year.
His term of office also coincided with the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland and the partition of Ireland, which PCI marked with a special event in September 2021 called ‘On these steps’, at Union Theological College, the home of Northern Ireland’s first parliament. Dr Bruce gave the main address at the event that had a broader aim beyond the commemorative, as it sought to create space to hear different perspectives as people reflected on the island’s past, while looking in hope to a shared future.
Dr Bruce also spoke of the Church Leaders’ centenary ‘Service of Reflection and Hope’ in St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh a month later. “We chose our language with great care as we were formulating the purpose of the service…We recognised that within the Church Leaders Group itself, the polarities and perceptions about the very existence of Northern Ireland were well represented - and these differences were evident between us.”
Dr Bruce continued, “We wanted to model how we could differ well, and in that sense demonstrate how reconciliation across differing political and ecclesial views was possible. Similarly we wanted not to celebrate, but mark what was an historical reality, whether we lamented it, celebrated it, or rejoiced in it…
But is the service to be remembered for the fact that the Queen, for reasons of ill-health, and the President of Ireland, for reasons of his own, were unable to attend? “Possibly,” Dr Bruce says thoughtfully, “But I think history will still view it as a significant moment ecclesially, where we had church leaders from different traditions demonstrating that it was possible to collaborate creatively and graciously together, and to do so well.”
Passing on the baton
It has been two years in the spotlight, with countless media appearances, but following this month’s General Assembly he will spend a well-deserved break with Zoë, his wife of 37 years. He will then return to his day job as Secretary to the Council for Mission in Ireland, until he retires at the end of October.
While at times he hasn’t found his two terms easy, especially at “a time of great flux and fluidity” as he puts it, Dr Bruce said that “I have hugely enjoyed it and it has been a great honour.” But will he miss anything?
“Not really,” he replies. “I believe the calling to do this came from God and the calling to relinquish it, and pass it on to someone else, also comes from God. It has been a huge honour and a fascinating season in my life, and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.”
Photos (1) Dr David Bruce giving is address to the Church across Ireland, and further afield, in an empty Assembly Hall via Zoom at his installation by the 2020 Standing Commission of the General Assembly in June of that year (2) the Moderator's first face-to-face gathering for worship, a socially distanced service in Christ Church Presbyterian, Dundonald in September '20 (3) Dr Bruce recording the first of 22 online Sunday services, June '20 (4) another recorded sermon for the online thanksgiving service for 10th anniversary of PCI's youngest congregation, Donabate Presbyterian in Co. Dublin (5) Presbytery tours (LtoR) (i) visiting Glengormley High School, November '21 (ii) with the multi-denominational chaplaincy team at Causeway Hospital (iii) on a Co. Armagh farm, March '22, one of many visits to farmers (iv) with the RNLI crew at its Newcastle Station, March '22
(6) Moderator speaking at the service of worship and morning conference, as part of the Church’s ‘Refresh Week’ initiative, June '21 (7) visiting the residents of PCI's River House in Newcastle March '22 (8) at Terrace Row Foodbank (9) one of many plaques unveiled to commemorate the opening of new church halls, Bloomfield Presbyterian May '21 (10) with participants at PCI's special event 'One these steps' at Union College to mark the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland September '21 (11) Church Leaders Service of Reflection & Hope October '21 (LtoR) (i) Church Leaders outside St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral greet the UK Prime Minister Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP (ii) P7 children from local schools carry the Lantern of Hope (iii) Moderator shares his personal reflection at the service (iv) First Minister Paul Givan MLA and Ireland's Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney greet one another (12) over London in a RAF Puma Mk2 while on a PCI visit its tri-service chaplains in England, May '22 and (12) with his with Zoë in their Lisbrun garden.
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.