General Assembly Preview - Tuesday 5 October 2021

5.10.2021 | Congregational Life, General Assembly, Global Mission, Church in Society, Church Life, The PCI Sunday Service

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, will meet in Assembly Buildings in Belfast today for a second day’s business.

With the Moderator, Right Reverend Dr David Bruce, in the chair, who addressed the Assembly yesterday, unveiling his theme for 2021-2022, which is entitled ‘Hope’, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper will be celebrated. This is the second of three acts of worship, which will be led by Dr Bruce that will take place throughout during the General Assembly. This service of worship will also include the reading of the Memorial Roll of ministers who passed away since the last General Assembly in 2019.

As a result of the relaxation of some Covid regulations, and with the necessary Covid mitigations in place, members will gather in person for fellowship, worship, prayer, Bible study, debate and decision-making. Unlike previous General Assemblies, those attending the denomination’s governing body this year 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. While most of today's sessions will be livestreamed via there will be no public access. The attendance of the media, however, will still be facilitated. Business will close tonight at 8.30pm.

Throughout the day, members from PCI’s 500-plus congregations from across Ireland will discuss a wide range of issues relating to the Church and wider society in the reports and resolutions from:

  • Trustees of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland
  • Council for Global Mission
  • General Council and
  • Council for Congregational Life and Witness.

On Monday, in agreeing the order of business the General Assembly decided that item 9 of the General Council's Report (Section 2), which includes the reports of the Implementation Task Group and Human Identity Task Group, should be taken in private session. This means it will not be livestreamed.

Decisions relating to employing ‘…a ‘divest and engage’ strategy in relation to companies producing or using fossil fuels…’ to issues around human sexuality and how the Church makes policy and takes its decisions, to human identity and resourcing and supporting congregations in a post-pandemic Ireland, will come before members.

Global Mission and the pandemic

Following the report of PCI’s Trustees this morning, Members of Assembly will discuss and debate the report of the Council for Global Mission. The Council is tasked with enabling the coordination and delivery of global mission as determined by the General Assembly and especially where it is beyond the ability of the local congregation.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has a long tradition and strong commitment to global mission since the first missionary was sent out from the denomination in 1841, a year after the Church was established. Today the Church directly supports 29 Global Mission Workers, who have a clear outreach focus to their work, in 11 countries on 4 continents.

While representatives of PCI’s partner churches were not able to be present this year, due to the global pandemic, Covid-19 features in a number of resolutions to the General Assembly. The Council will ask Members of Assembly, in one resolution, to ‘…give thanks for the faithful witness of PCI’s partner churches and mission organisations around the world, and commit to serve together with them in the mission of Christ’s Kingdom, not least with those suffering greatly due to devastating variants of Covid-19, the wide-ranging impacts of climate change, or being isolated, persecuted minorities.’ Members will also be asked to ‘….give thanks for the resilience and creativity of PCI’s global mission workers during times of global uncertainty…’

Climate Change & fossil fuels

While Covid-19 is the focus of a number of resolutions before the General Assembly, the Council’s work in relation to Climate Change also features in its report and will be discussed today. This includes ‘Climate Sundays’ when congregations have been encouraged to set aside one Sunday during the autumn, in the run up to COP26 - November’s global Climate Change conference in Glasgow - to focus on God’s creation and humanity’s responsibility to be good stewards of it.

In 2018 the General Assembly passed a resolution commending the Stewardship of Creation Report on Climate Change that had been produced by the Council, It encouraged congregations to consider how its conclusions might challenge lifestyle choices. The Report provided a biblical and theological foundation to guide PCI as it approaches issues relating to the care of God’s creation and affirmed God’s creation as being good, while reflecting on the importance of God’s people being good stewards of that same creation.

Today the General Assembly will discuss a ‘divest and engage’ strategy in relation to PCI’s investments in a resolution brought by the Council for Global Mission. The debate will be preceded by discussion around the Report of the Trustees, which includes a paper on investments in fossil fuels, giving important background information.

The Council for Global Mission report states that, ‘…PCI’s investment policies must flow from a biblical basis and theology of creation, a commitment to God’s world and to those whom Jesus Christ described as neighbours. The broad consensus of scientific thought supports the view that fossil fuel production contributes to climate change. It is therefore morally questionable to invest in companies deriving revenue from fossil fuels. PCI’s response should reflect a consistency of witness and provide a lead to church members and wider society. Most importantly, how PCI invest reflects how we value our Heavenly Father’s creation and is an outworking of what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ.’

The General Assembly will be asked to take a twin track approach that  ‘…direct[s] the Trustees to employ a ‘divest and engage’ strategy in relation to companies producing or using fossil fuels, thereby divesting from those that derive more that 10% of their turnover from oil and gas extraction (the coal, oil and gas majors), and engaging with companies that derive more than 10% of their turnover from the use of fossil fuels…’

An important feature of General Assemblies since 2015 has been the inclusion of the Council for Global Mission’s alternative presentation ‘Listening to the Global Church’. It has been an important opportunity to hear of the challenges and opportunities that Christians around the world are encountering. This year it forms part of Wednesday afternoon’s worship service. Entitled ‘Christ our hope’ the General Assembly will hear how different churches, and their home nations, have coped with a range of disasters / crises alongside the impact of a global pandemic.

Decision making and dissent in PCI

Much of the work to be discussed at this year’s delayed General Assembly has its genesis in previous meetings. Following a number of decisions taken by the 2018 General Assembly, that led to much public (and private) comment, the General Council, PCI’s senior decision making body that takes any necessary decisions on behalf of the General Assembly between its meetings, accepted that clarification was necessary regarding the issues of decision making and dissent within the denomination. It established a Task Group to draw up a report on ‘Presbyterian decision making and the place of dissent’.

The Report of the General Council is the most substantial of all the Reports in the Blue Book. Made up of 4 separate reports it runs to some 140 pages out of the Blue Book’s 344. Tuesday afternoon will see three significant reports coming to the General Assembly from the General Councils.

The Decision Making and Dissent Task Group’s was asked to outline how decisions are made in PCI’s Presbyterian system of church government, what dissent formally means and how other forms of ‘dissent’ can be expressed, while outlining how decisions of the General Assembly can be changed.

The 2019 Assembly considered the initial report and agreed to send it down to PCI’s 19 regional presbyteries for discussion, with focused questions on decision making and dissent to be discussed by representatives of all PCI’s 500-plus congregations. While the consultation took place, like most business scheduled for that year, however, the report was remitted by the 2020 Standing Commission of the General Assembly, to the next Assembly – which is taking place this week.

The comprehensive report makes 12 recommendations that would, if passed, alter significantly the way in which PCI manages and discusses policy prior to a General Assembly. This would include the introduction of regional / presbytery conferences and a ‘Green Consultation Paper Stage’, where significant changes in policy or controversial matters would be considered prior to coming to a General Assembly.

Credible profession of faith

Tuesday afternoon will also see the Assembly discuss one of the widest consulted on papers in recent times. The Implementation Task Group was established in 2018 to address the remit given to it by that year’s General Assembly that, ‘appropriate training be offered to kirk sessions on the theology and practice of the Church’s understanding of a ‘credible profession of faith’ and the pastoral guidelines on homosexuality. The Task Group was appointed and directed to put together a resource with a clear pastoral tone to be used by kirk sessions. This remit was broadened by the General Council to include training on a general approach to ‘a credible profession of faith’ as well as lifestyle issues. Two groups were formed to look at the issues of ‘Credible Profession’ and ‘Guidance for pastoral care’.

Draft resources, ‘Credible Profession of Faith and admission to the sacraments: a framework for discussion for kirk sessions’ and ‘Guidelines for pastoral care of same-sex attracted people and their families’ were sent down to PCI’s19 regional presbyteries for discussion and comment, which has informed the two reports that the General Assembly will be asked to receive and approve.

The framework states from the outset, ‘One of the joys of church life is accompanying individuals on a journey to exploring, experiencing and expressing faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord.’ That journey can lead ultimately to an individual seeking membership of the Church or baptism. This report seeks to support kirk sessions in that journey focussing, as the report also states, on ‘…the role and responsibility for ministers and ruling elders to guide and shepherd the flock and to do so in a way that is loving…’

During the work of the Task Group some common themes also emerged, relating to bringing young people and adults with special needs into membership of the Church. The General Assembly will be asked to establish a Task Group on this.”

The Guidance for pastoral care of same-sex attracted people and their families is also aimed at kirk sessions and those who provide pastoral care within congregations. As the guidance states ‘It is not meant to be exhaustive but to offer some practical help in this sensitive area.’

Human Identity

In the autumn of 2017, the General Council established the Human Identity Task Group as a means of seeking a biblical and pastoral response to the complex and often difficult issues facing PCI members, families, ministers, congregations and wider society in respect of gender identity.

From the outset, the Task Group was conscious of the urgent need to resource PCI in order to, as the report states, ‘…help it navigate this publicly contested, highly nuanced and rapidly developing debate around gender identity. These issues are important but in congregational life what matters most is that those who struggle, and those close to them, receive good pastoral care that is full of God’s love and truth.’

The resource, ‘A Biblical Framework and Guidance for Pastoral Care of People who Struggle with Gender Identity’ is intended to help equip those who provide pastoral care rather than to be given to those in need of pastoral care. With Presbyteries having been consulted on the framework, it will be, however, the first time that gender identity has been discussed on the floor of the General Assembly.

Supporting congregations

Before the General Assembly closes at 9pm, the last report to be debated today will be the report of the Council for Congregational Life and Witness. The Council seeks to support the on-going life, mission and witness of congregations in their work with all age-groups through assisting in development, offering training, providing and signposting models of good practice and resourcing.

It holds specific responsibility for ensuring the strategic development within PCI of youth and children’s ministry; women’s ministry generally, including Presbyterian Women, young adults’ ministry, support for the family; marriage and counselling services. The Council also has the responsibility for encouraging and resourcing congregations to witness in their communities where they are placed – all of which has been challenging during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As its report states, “Throughout the period of the Covid-19 pandemic the normal operations and ministry of the Council for Congregational Life and Witness have given way to a wider and more general role in supporting congregations and their members during this season of disruption. The council has set itself to be as nimble and agile as possible in responding to a very fluid situation to offer accompaniment, encouragement and support to congregations on their journey through trying times…

Members of Assembly will hear of the initiatives that have developed digital and distanced ways of supporting congregations. These have included, as the report explains, ‘Bible study for download and use in the digital space on pandemic specific themes, a regular series of webinars and podcasts on a range issues pertinent to congregations and their members and a series of ‘Fanning the flame’ sessions encouraging a gradual return to more regular patterns of church life delivered for all 19 presbyteries.’

The General Assembly will meet in Assembly Buildings until the afternoon of Wednesday, 6 October. Business will also take place this evening. 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.

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