PCI’s response to the pandemic debated

24.6.2023 | General Assembly, Church in Society, COVID-19 Emergency

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic led to the first cancelation of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly since it was established in 1840, and disrupted the lives and livelihoods of countless thousands across Ireland. At this year’s annual gathering of the Church’s principal decision-making body, the pandemic was revisited as the General Assembly adopted the recommendations of the Pandemic Response (Theological, Moral & Spiritual) Task Group.

At the socially distanced General Assembly in 2021 a request was made, and agreed to, that the all-Ireland denomination reflect on its response to the pandemic – theologically, morally and spiritually – and bring forward recommendations to guide the denomination should a similar situation arise in the future. This report was debated this morning.

Proposing the Report, the Convener of the Pandemic Response Task Group, Karen Jardine, PCI’s Public Affairs Officer, said that while the work of the Task Group had been challenging, it had also been a privilege to capture PCI’s pandemic story, at home and overseas, identifying key learning from it that has led to the framing of proposals before the Assembly.

“The UK Covid Inquiry which has just begun its public hearings is expected to report in 2026 and a similar inquiry in the Republic has yet to begin. While the Task Group’s work is not on the same scale…this has been a useful exercise in documenting PCI’s response to a most unprecedented time,” Miss Jardine said.

Over the course of its work the Task Group met with representatives from each of PCI’s Councils; small groups of ministers working in rural and urban settings, north and south of the border; those involved in healthcare, education and work with the economically vulnerable, and others as requested.

“Across all of these engagements a full range of views were expressed, from those critical of, and at times angry or bewildered at, the directives flowing from government – north and south - the response of PCI and its leadership, to those who found decision-making to be helpful and useful as they sought to navigate through the challenges presented,” she said, offering the Task Group’s thanks to all who took part.

The report came on the final day of business at the General Assembly, which is meeting in Assembly Buildings in Belfast. The annual meeting brings together ministers, elders and others from the church’s 500-plus congregations, alongside a number of partner churches and organisations from these islands and further afield.

Miss Jardine explained that the main body of the report is divided into three parts – ‘Acknowledge’, ‘Lament’ and ‘Offer’. The report acknowledges biblical understanding of the world and its brokenness, alongside the sovereignty of God; and the challenges faced by many especially those caring for loved ones with vulnerabilities, coming to terms with different ways of working, schooling and worship.

The report also “…acknowledges the tension between those who felt that church buildings remaining open for gathered worship would, in itself, be a prophetic act, and others who felt that such a choice would compromise the Church’s witness as servants in Christ in a world of need and further marginalise its perception in the public square,” she told the Assembly.

Throughout the Task Group’s deliberations ’lament’ was a consistent theme. “Many families experienced significant loss and we grieve with those unable to mourn their loved ones in the ways in which they expected and needed, and also with those prevented from offering pastoral care in the usual ways. The restrictions on meeting together for worship on the Lord’s Day were difficult, as was the inability to visit loved ones in hospital or residential facilities.” Miss Jardine also spoke of lamenting the shortfalls in political leadership, how some used it to profiteer and how young people missed out on important aspects of their education, mental, social, physical and spiritual development.

She said that the Task Group also offered a number of theological, moral and spiritual principles, which may help to guide the church should any similar situation arise in the future. These included the importance of balancing the understanding that the state ought not to constrain a person’s liberty to worship and serve Christ, with the obligations of the Church to honour the authorities, which exist and have been established by God, even though at times their decisions appear to be deficient. “The good news of the gospel speaks hope to every fear,” Miss Jardine said.

Should any similar global, or other catastrophic event take place at a future date, the Task Group offered a number of recommendations that were adopted by the General Assembly this morning. The recommendations encourage:

  • consideration of whether it might be appropriate to voluntarily set aside our own rights and privileges as believers in order to facilitate the common good,
  • the Church to use its voice prophetically on behalf of those who don’t have the same access,
  • the importance and value of holistic care that acknowledges spiritual needs, as well as mental and physical recognising the plight of those beyond our own shores and
  • working together with others.

Concluding her report on this significant undertaking, Miss Jardine said, “even as in the midst of bitter providence we give thanks, so too when in the providence of God, it appears that the crisis is ending, time is taken to offer thanks to Him, and to draw from the wisdom gathered through the journey to invest in the future witness and mission of the Church.”

The General Assembly is 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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