As a result of the relaxation of some Covid regulations, and with the necessary Covid mitigations in place, members have gathered in person for fellowship, worship, prayer, Bible study, debate and decision-making since the General Assembly opened on Monday morning. Unlike previous General Assemblies, those attending the denomination’s governing body this year will be ‘full voting members’ of the General Assembly only.
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. All sessions today be livestreamed via www.presbyterianireland.org There will however, be no public gallery. The attendance of the media, however, will still be facilitated. Business will close this afternoon at 5.30pm.
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 its:
- Council for Public Affairs
- Council for Training in Ministry and
- General Council.
During the third and final act of worship the Council for Global Mission will hold its annual presentation ‘Listening to the Global Church’. This has been an important feature of General Assemblies since 2015.
Speaking into the public square
Despite the challenges presented by the global pandemic this particular element of the work of the Church – developing its thinking on current issues and communicating the General Assembly’s views in the public square through the Council for Public Affairs, has continued at apace.
Since December 2020 the Church has made 13 submissions on significant public consultations on a wide range of issues in both jurisdictions. Following a conference held in 2019, to further develop its thinking and key areas of work, the Council introduced two new panels.
The remit of the new Human Dignity Panel, includes beginning and end of life, human rights, artificial intelligence, and matters relating to criminal justice. The new Welfare and Wellbeing Panel, has a remit which includes welfare support, housing and homelessness, debt, ageing and loneliness.
In presentng its Report, the Council will ask the General Assembly to express its ‘…continued support for the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland…’ Further, Members will be asked to express their ‘…grave concern about the undermining of the devolution settlement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland through the imposition of legislation on matters within the competency of the Northern Ireland Assembly, including abortion and the cultural package.
The General Assembly will also be asked to share the concerns of the Council regarding matters of legacy and dealing with the past, as the UK government has indicated its intention to move away from arrangements for dealing with the past in the Stormont House Agreement. One key area, is the right of victims and survivors to seek due process and justice in the courts. The Council’s report states that, ‘What has been proposed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland denies victims and survivors that possibility.’
Training in Ministry
The Report of the Council for Training in Ministry will also feature on today’s agenda. The Council has responsibility for looking after all aspects of selection, training and ongoing development of ministers and is also responsible for the management of Union Theological College. In addition, it selects, trains and develops auxiliary ministers, accredited preachers and deaconesses, who in turn serve in congregations and communities across Ireland.
During the course of the session, the General Assembly will be asked to accept 14 candidates as students for the ordained ministry. On acceptance they will be placed under the care of their presbyteries so that they can begin their studies in September.
In 2019 the Council reported that some applicants for the ordained ministry were part of a growing trend where many had previous theological training and ministry experience within local churches, yet the Church system was not sufficiently flexible enough to take such training and experience fully into account. The General Assembly will be asked to give its approval to the Flexible Training Pathways Pilot Scheme.
Today, Members of Assembly will be updated on the Scheme and asked to extend the Scheme for a further two years. They will also be updated on the arrangements for the undergraduate programme at Union Theological College, which will be validated by St Mary’s University, Twickenham.
Listening to the Global Church
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 and to pray with them. 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. Unlike previous years, when leaders of PCI’s partner churches could be welcomed in person, this year, via recorded video messages and interviews, Members of Assembly will have the opportunity to listen to senior representatives from the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Zambia and the Evangelical Christian Church of Timor.
A producer from PCI’s partner SAT7, the Christian satellite television network, which broadcasts in Arabic, Persian and Turkish across the Middle East and North Africa, including Afghanistan, will talk about the Christian community and other minorities in Afghanistan and also how the Christians in neighbouring Iran are praying for their neighbours at this very difficult time.
Making the General Assembly more accessible
The General Assembly will also discuss a separate report on making the General Assembly more accessible, which includes the recommendation to meet on a Wednesday evening with three further days of business, including evening sessions, with the General Assembly closing on Saturday afternoon.
The General Assembly will meet in Assembly Buildings for the final time this year, closing at 5.30pm. For full details visit the General Assembly Overview page here. As in previous years, there will be a live Twitter feed, which can be followed via @pciassembly hashtag #PCIGA21.