Along with other organisations, businesses and society a whole, the Church has witnessed extraordinary times over the past 19 months that have required unprecedented adjustment in how it does its business, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the casualties of the pandemic was the General Assembly of 2020, which had to be cancelled.
The pandemic and its impact on society, the lives of individuals, families, church families and frontline workers at home in Ireland and Covid’s impact overseas, will be recognised throughout the week. A number of resolutions will reflect on the times these islands have lived through, and those who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, selflessly giving of themselves during the pandemic.
As a result of the relaxation of some Covid regulations, and with the necessary Covid mitigations in place, members will gather for three days of fellowship, worship, prayer, Bible study, debate and decision-making. Unlike previous General Assemblies, those attending in person will be ‘full voting members’ of the General Assembly. To facilitate the necessary social distancing required, the floor of the Assembly Hall, its large gallery, along with a few suitable overflow halls in the city centre venue, will be used. Business will close tonight at 9pm.
Another significant departure from normal practice will be the Opening Service of Worship. Traditionally held on a Monday evening, it will take place this morning at 11.30. Led by Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, he will be formally elected and appointed as Moderator for an historic second term. This will be the first time that a Moderator has served a second term since 1894.
Having given his address to the General Assembly, which will include the launch of his theme for 2021-2022, Dr Bruce will then preside over three days of business, which will start this afternoon. This has been scheduled across 17 sessions, with members asked to consider the reports of the General Assemblies Councils and Commissions and vote on over 80 resolutions. The General Assembly will close on Wednesday afternoon.
Decisions taken by members this week will impact to the life, witness and mission of PCI, with matters discussed relating to previous General Assemblies, and those remitted to it by the 2020 General Assembly Standing Commission, which met in lieu of last year’s General Assembly.
For all of the business before the General Assembly, see the schedule here. Today's business includes the reports of the:
- Council for Social Witness
- General Council
- Linkage Commission and
- Council for Mission in Ireland.
The first report that Members will discuss this afternoon will be that of the General Council – the most senior of the General Assembly’s nine councils and commissions. Of all the Annual Reports before the General Assembly, the Report of the General Council is the longest, running to some 145 pages out of the 343 in the Blue Book, which contains the reports and resolutions before the Assembly. The General Council is PCI’s senior decision making body that takes any necessary decisions on behalf of the General Assembly between its meetings.
The era of Covid-19
In these unprecedented times the Council and its Standing Committee, provided a vital role in the governance of the Church, which its report explains in detail. In the introduction entitled ‘The Era of Covid-19’, it describes the lives of individuals, families and church families having been ‘turned upside down’, with the impact on church life having been ‘significant, [and] at times, almost overwhelming.’
The report goes on to describe how the Council had an overview of the necessary Covid-19 restrictions and mitigations that were implemented in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It also details the overall approach, co-operation and general engagement with the administrations in both jurisdictions, which differed considerably.
Expressing thanks and paying tribute
In two General Council resolutions before Members today, the General Assembly will be asked to ‘…express [its] thanks to front-line workers in all sectors throughout the island of Ireland, whose dedication and sacrificial self-giving during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic enabled essential services to be maintained and the vulnerable to be cared for in often stressful and challenging circumstances and situations.’
The General Assembly will also be asked to ‘…pay tribute to local ministers, elders and leaders for their dedicated and innovative service enabling congregational life and witness to continue in the ways that were possible during the long months of restrictions and shut-downs, and express thanks to those at Presbytery and General Assembly level whose support and encouragement was especially important during this period.’ Members will also be asked to consider a number of further supplementary resolutions relating to the pandemic and associated measures.
The Council for Social Witness, will also present its report, with a significant focus on the pandemic. The Council is tasked with the delivery of an effective social care service for the denomination. As a Church, PCI is called to demonstrate God’s love for people. This means the putting of faith into practical action and simple Christian caring, which is a very special kind of witness, and a powerful social witness of the gospel. As a service provider with a budged of £10 million, the Council manages PCI’s provision of residential, nursing, supported housing, respite and day care, and community based programmes.
The Council reported on each sector of its work, saying, ‘In keeping with all Councils of the General Assembly, the work of Social Witness has been disrupted by the assault of Covid-19 on our society and the restrictions that the various degrees of lockdown imposed on us. Where perhaps we differed was that the work of our homes and units became even more intense and vital. Just as emergency workers find themselves walking toward danger while all others run from it, so our staff became key workers in the fight against Covid-19…’
The report also describes as ‘humbling’ ‘…the professionalism, dedication and Christian compassion that our staff have shown to residents and their families. The heroic interventions by staff are too numerous to mention, their care and dedication has been immense.’
With that in mind, the General Assembly will be asked to ‘…express [its] gratitude to all who have worked in PCI’s care facilities during the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, recognising the sacrificial service of both locally based staff and senior management that always put the care of residents to the fore.’
Looking to the future, a further resolution also urges the Northern Ireland Executive and Irish Government to put in place measures to ensure that mistakes made at the outset of the pandemic, in relation to under resourcing and support for the care sector, are avoided.
The General Assembly will also be asked to welcome the review of social care in Northern Ireland, calling on ‘…all parties to take the hard decisions that will be required to implement long overdue and necessary change in this area and in the health service generally.’
The work of PCI’s chaplains
In a resolution from the Council for Mission in Ireland, the General Assembly will also be asked to recognise ‘with sincere gratitude’ ‘…the dedicated work of chaplains serving in hospitals, prisons, the forces, and universities and colleges during the restrictions and challenges of Covid-19…’
The Council provides operational management and support to the Home Mission, Irish Mission, deaconesses and centrally managed mission projects of the Church. These include the International Meeting Points in south and north Belfast, and South Belfast Friendship House.
It also supports the provision of a chaplaincy service in universities and colleges, the healthcare system, the prison service and the armed forces. In addition, the council also seeks to assist the denomination in sharpening its missional focus by developing a strategy for mission across Ireland, which includes church planting.
Throughout the year the Council has continued to develop PCI’s strategic priorities in all-age mission in Ireland, considered new church development and church planting, while overseeing all aspects of the Home and Irish Missions, amongst a number of other responsilities.
New rural initiative
Council Convener, Very Reverend Dr Frank Sellar, who will propose the report will also outline the Rural Chaplaincy Pilot Scheme, which has been under development for a number of years, but delayed as a result of Covid-19. It will take an important step forward today, when he announces PCI’s first Rural Chaplain. The aim of this new initiative is to enable PCI to begin to address the very significant challenges which face farmers, farming families and those living in a rural context.
The Report from the Linkage Commission, which acts on behalf of the General Assembly in allocating ordained ministry and related financial resources to congregations will also be presented this evening.
The Commission’s report summarises its work and details the congregations with over 20 congregations granted Leave to Call a new minister during the year. The Council also highlights two new linkages: the congregation of Downshire Road with Ryans in south County Down and Second and Third Rathfriland and Brookvale Presbyterian, also in County Down.
The Commission will also bring forward a paper to test the mind of the General Assembly regarding PCI’s Additional Pastoral Personnel, who support the work of congregations across Ireland.
The General Assembly will meet in Assembly Buildings until the afternoon of Wednesday, 6 October. Business will also take place on Monday and Tuesday evenings. For full details visit the General Assembly Overview page here. As in previous years, throughout the General Assembly there will be a live Twitter feed. You can follow preceedings via @pciassembly hashtag #PCIGA21.