The PTFI awards degrees by the authority of its Royal Charter, which was granted in 1881 by Queen Victoria. Also honoured this evening with an honorary Doctorate of Divinity was the Minister of First Armagh Presbyterian Church, Rev Tony Davidson.
The online service was presided over by the Principal of Union Theological College (UTC) Very Rev Professor Stafford Carson. Himself a former Moderator, he congratulated the Church’s next holder of the office saying, “This evening has been a special and unique occasion. Special in that we honour two outstanding ministers, unique as it is the first time the service has taken place virtually.
“This evening’s ceremonial would normally have been part of our PTFI annual graduation ceremony in Assembly Buildings in Belfast, where our ministry students and other graduates, watched by family and friends, would have received their degrees. These are very different times for everyone and it is our prayer that we will be able to come together next year, as we have done so many times before, to celebrate the achievements of our students and honour those who have served the Church with distinction.”
Watched online by members of the Presbyterian Faculty of Ireland, UTC staff and invited guests, Rev Professor Drew Gibson, Professor of Practical Theology at the College, delivered the citation, highlighting the Moderator-Designate’s vision, that he was a ‘team player’ and had been at the ‘centre of the corporate life of our church’ for many years.
He spoke of how some may not recognise that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland “has a breadth to it…It has differences of outlook and varieties of churchmanship and theological viewpoint that serve it well as we both provoke and moderate each other. In this church, David will provide leadership that sees the big picture and the variations and tensions within it in a number of ways.”
In a brief resume of his upbringing and career Professor Gibson said, “He has both rural and urban roots, being a son of Counties Down and Armagh but educated in Belfast. He has secular and sacred streams in his thinking, having a degree in Business administration and Accounting from Queens University and a Bachelor of Divinity from Aberdeen University. He has commitments both provincial and island-wide, having ministered in Ballymena and having led Scripture Union (SU) in Northern Ireland, but also having been minister in Clontarf, Ormond Quay and Scots churches in Dublin.
“He has local and international vision. As well as leading SU in Northern Ireland, he was for five years responsible for providing guidance for the newly forming work of Scripture Union in the former Soviet states in Eastern Europe. He has both a denominational and an ecumenical understanding of the witness of the church. I have noted his work with SU, a parachurch agency and he is now Secretary to the Council for Mission in Ireland, a work that puts him at the centre of the corporate life of our church…”
Professor Gibson explained that as long has he had known him; Dr Bruce was never a ‘Lone Ranger’ but a ‘team player’. “He is committed to the historic structures and teaching of the Church and the conservative, Reformed expression of that teaching and those structures, yet he is fully aware that the Church has to change if it is to be ‘fit for purpose’, that is, fit for the purpose for which God has formed it.
“We must adopt new ways of doing things that can speak clearly to the secular, pluralistic, consumerist, divided and fragile society in which we live. Perhaps the clearest expression of his thinking is in his own words, ‘The Church constantly needs to imagine how it is heard and seen by people who are not its members – and ensure that when it speaks, it does so with truth, clarity, love and grace.’ Or maybe some more of David’s words are more earthy. When we bring the Gospel to a secular, often hostile world we have to learn ‘How to preach when it’s not your gig.’
Professor Gibson concluded by saying, “We, as the Presbyterian Theological Faculty of Ireland, offer to you, sir, our support and our prayers during this your moderatorial year and as a tangible expression of that support, we are very pleased to recognise both the honour of the office to which you have been called and your worthiness to fulfil the duties attendant to that office…”
Presenting Rev Tony Davidson for the conferment of his honorary Doctorate in Divinity, Rev Professor Michael McClenahan, Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological College, began by saying that, “Tony’s life and ministry are well known to the faculty and we hold him in the highest regard as a fellow servant of the gospel of God’s grace…”
He talked about Dr Davidson’s Dungannon upbringing, his time at Queen’s University, Belfast, Aberdeen University and UTC, before recalling his near 40 years in parish ministry, from his days as assistant minister in Stormont Presbyterian Church, minister of Christ Church, Limerick, before being called to First Armagh, where he has been served for the past 26 years.
“Everyone who knows Tony appreciates that he is as far from possessing an unthinking party-spirit as it is possible to be – he is the very definition of an eclectic Reformed pastor, seeking light from any quarter,” Professor McClenahan said. “He is deeply read and has co-ordinated the Armagh Presbytery Ministerial Reading Group for many years. These meetings continue unabated – giving a whole new sense to the ministers in the presbytery zooming over to Tony’s house.”
Talking about Dr Davidson’s current role within PCI, Professor McClenahan said, “In 2016 the General Assembly asked the Council for Public Affairs to produce resources reflecting on the Irish Presbyterian experience of the division and suffering of The Troubles. Tony was appointed to convene the Dealing with the Past Task Group and in 2019 a landmark volume – Considering Grace – was published. This work, developed in partnership with Dr Gladys Ganiel and Queen’s University, is a significant step in the healing process for our community. Considering Grace offers enduring testimony to the enormous price paid by so many and the deep wells of life and renewal found in the Christian faith.”
He concluded by saying, “Like his reading Tony’s life is eclectic. He is an ecumenical Canon at St Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh, and his ministry in the wider city has led him to engage in significant dialogues, in public and private, with all sectors of society. He is well known and highly regarded as a minister, a preacher, a peacemaker, a poet, an author, and a friend to many. We wish Tony and his wife Christine many more years of joyful service together.”
Dr Bruce, along with Dr Davidson, were the only graduands at this year’s service, as the other recipients opted to leave their presentation of degrees and diplomas until there could be a ‘physical’ graduation ceremony.
Photos (1) Principal of Union Theological College, Very Rev Professor Stafford Carson, who presided over the ceremony from his home via Microsoft Teams (2) Moderator-Designate, Rev Dr David Bruce, in his robes following this evening's virtual graduation with his wife Zoë in their garden in Lisburn (3) Rev Dr Tony Davidson following the online service with his wife Christine in their Armagh home.
The installation of Dr David Bruce as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland will be livestreamed on this website at 7pm on Monday 1 June. He was selected by the denomination's 19 regional presbyteries to be the next Moderator, when they met separately across Ireland on 4 February this year.