Hostility and hope: Confident in Christ

21.6.2023 | General Assembly, Moderator, Church Life

The Right Reverend Dr Sam Mawhinney has become the first minister from a congregation in the Republic of Ireland to lead the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) in nearly a quarter of a century, when he was formally elected as its new Moderator by the Church’s General Assembly at its Opening Night this evening.

In his address to the 800 church members, overseas guests and civic dignitaries, in Assembly Buildings in Belfast, the minister of Dublin’s Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church spoke of the overwhelming hope and confidence that we can have in Jesus, even with the ‘breath-taking speed of change’ that he has witnessed in an ever-changing post Christian world.

In the opening service, which heralds three days of debate and discussion on a diverse range of church-related matters, social and public issues by ministers and elders from the Church’s 500-plus congregations across Ireland, Dr Mawhinney spoke of his theme for the year, ‘Confident in Christ’.

Taking those in the Assembly Hall back to his roots in Ballycastle in County Antrim, where he was born, he began to unwrap his theme, using one of the best-known parables that Jesus told – the builder who built his house on a rock, the other on shifting sand – saying that when the storm comes, it is “the foundation that counts.”

“When I think of a rock, I think of the basalt rock on the beach there and it gives me a picture that I often think about, of permanence and stability, one that hasn’t changed in my lifetime. Jesus tells us that the true Christian is like one who builds on “the rock”, a metaphor of Jesus and His word. A Jesus who is unchanging, solid and stable like the rock on Ballycastle beach,” the Moderator said.

Dr Mawhinney continued by speaking of testing times, “In the picture Jesus paints, “the flood came, and the torrent struck”, a crisis, and a testing. We live in post Christian Europe and the culture and society is hostile to the church of Jesus Christ…” For those, like him, who live in the Republic of Ireland, he said that “the speed of the change has been breath-taking.” He spoke of the introduction of same sex marriage in 2015 and the repeal of the Eighth amendment three years later that legalised abortion. “Two of the primary teachings of Jesus and the Church were rejected, two foundation blocks of Christian teaching for society, marriage and the sanctity of life in the womb were rocked and we felt the seismic ripples beneath our feet,” Dr Mawhinney said.

He said that contrary views were often cancelled, “and it is getting harder to get a hearing for the Church in the public square. So, we live in post Christian times, the Christian message is now not seen as good news, there is hostility towards the Church, from an increasing number of quarters, these are the storms that we face… following Jesus has got a lot more difficult and there are competing and opposing views to our Christian world view.”

Dr Mawhinney said that even so, this was not a new reality, as the Apostle John writes (John 6:66) that Jesus Himself lost many disciples who turned away. “[His] deep desire of course is that His people would not abandon Him and would not build on sand, or follow the tide of the world’s thinking, finding themselves sadly without hope in collapse and destruction when the storms of life come, facing death, judgement and eternity without the One who loved them and gave His life to save them and keep them for eternity.

“Thankfully Simon Peter utters these brilliant words, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This is my call to myself and the Church of Jesus Christ and particularly to PCI. Let us be confident in Christ, let us build on the rock. Let us hold to His words in the scriptures and let us build lives and communities that will stand and thrive in the reality of our present world, without criticism, cowering, capitulation, or caving in, and to do that with confidence,” the Moderator said.

Dr Mawhinney continued, “…we have confidence in His [Jesus’] promises as the Apostle Paul told the Church in Philippi, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you, will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” As true for the Philippian church members then, as it was for the members of the congregations in Fermoy and Cahir in County Cork and County Tipperary, when I was their minister, just as it is for Adelaide Road members in Dublin, for us here this evening, and all believers.”

During his address, he spoke of his time working as a medical doctor in Kenya, where he fully appreciated the importance of community over the priority of the individual. Quoting a well-known African proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child’, he said that growth and confidence in Christ happens primarily in the community of the Church. He touched on the world’s “struggles with loneliness and the fragmentation of community”, saying “we encounter in scripture, in Jesus one who loves you personally, gave his life to have relationship with you, and places you into a loving family the church…”

The Moderator also spoke of his concern for teenagers and young adults, a group he believes is perhaps the most affected by the storm hitting the church, as they try to make sense of the world and themselves faced with very different answers and worldviews.

“For all of us our confidence in Christ comes from digging down deep into God’s word and that must happen in relationship within our churches - and I am really looking forward to visiting as many as I can throughout this forthcoming year, encouraging fellow brothers and sisters in Christ across this island of ours, and indeed further afield.”

Dr Mawhinney, who is the 178th person to hold the office since the establishment of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1840, concluded by saying, “Confidence in Christ comes when we know Him, obey Him and live in community with others who seek to follow Him as disciples within the Church with a focus that is outward and missional. This is how Jesus has built His church throughout the last two millennia and it is how Christians have survived and thrived despite the hostility of the world in every generation. As Jesus memorably says to us in this short story of a house that stood the test, the one who can be confident, “is like the one who dug down deep and laid the foundation on the rock…When the flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it because it was well built” (Luke 6:48). Let us be confident in Christ. Let us build well, let us dig down deep, into Christ and His word, for his glory alone…”

Earlier in the evening, before he took his leave as PCI’s Moderator, Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick reflected in his address on his unique year in office, and in no particular order, the 10 things that he had learnt.

He said that, ‘thank you’ was still ‘a powerful phrase’ “…and that little things and ordinary people matter much more than we can say and character is by far more valuable than fame.” He said that “respect for one another even in our differences is a gospel imperative much needed right now and how a constant danger exists if secondary matters are allowed to distract from gospel focus, while those who declare wishful thoughts that the church is history and on the wrong side of it, are very wrong and time will prove this so.”

The minister of Portrush Presbyterian continued by saying that, “In all parts of this island there is real gospel life and God’s promise to build his church is a reality. The congregation at its best has something to learn and in the struggling congregation, there is always something to commend. There is a welcome for a humble church in most places in society and the office of moderator is like a universal key to open doors to allow others a way in and we should value it.”

He also spoke of working together in partnership and how it is the best way to progressing honouring God and that Grace still works in every place for every problem and as a Church we need to depend on it and to express it to each other.” Dr Kirkpatrick said that having been changed by this experiences this year “I have still so much to learn and grow.”

You can read Dr Mawhinney's full address here.

Photos: (1) Rt Rev Dr Sam Mawhinney the new Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland with his predecessor, Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick who (2) prayed for his successor (3) Dr Mawhinney addressing the Assembly and (4) relaxing before it.

The General Assembly will open today at 7pm. It will be livestreamed on here on this website. All public sessions will be livestreamed until the Assembly’s close on Saturday, 24 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 #PCIGA23.

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