One year on

Today marks the first anniversary of the Presbyterian Mutual Society going into administration. Some of us thought that the situation would have been resolved a long time ago, and we are grateful to the Newsletter for its feature on the crisis.th1_1711200933pms-logo2

Back in June, we were full of hope. At that stage, it had taken seven months of lobbying and letter-writing to get the attention of the Prime Minister, and to engage the government in the process of addressing the issues affecting so many PMS savers. We thought then that the train was beginning to roll and that it would take us quickly towards a solution. But five months later, we are still waiting. The frustration is immense and while many savers are struggling on. There is real pain and much anxiety in almost every congregation. During my travels around the church in the past six months, many people have told me their stories, and some of them have been heart-breaking. Yet many, in spite of their hardship, have remained calm and patient. Continue reading “One year on”

Presbyterian “Holy Ground”

The Fireplace in the Jerusalem Chamber
The Fireplace in the Jerusalem Chamber

One of the most exciting things for me in staying in the Deanery at Westminster Abbey is that I was sleeping less than 20 yards away from the Jerusalem Chamber. Presbyterians don’t believe in “holy ground”, but if they did, this would have to be in the top ten of most holy Presbyterian places.

It was in this room that many of the meetings of the Westminster Assembly of Divines took place in the 1640s when they discussed and agreed on the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as well as the Directory of Public Worship. For some of us, the Westminster Standards represent the high water mark of Protestant theology and they contain the system of doctrine which we subscribe ex animo as the confession of our faith.

Following the Remembrance Day Service in Westminster Abbey, the Dean entertained us to lunch in the Jerusalem Chamber. I was in conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and was expressing my delight at being able to eat lunch in such a location. He was quick to say that he had begun life as a Presbyterian and was aware of the significance of the venue.

The medieval house of the Abbotts of Westminster was known as Cheyneygates. (It sounds a bit like an American public scandal!) The principal room, the Jerusalem Chamber, was added by Nicholas Litlyngton (Abbot of Westminster, 1362-86). The origin of the name is uncertain but it was not uncommon in the Middle Ages to assign names to rooms. In the old Palace of Westminster there were three rooms called “Heaven”, “Hell” and “Purgatory”, and in the Abbey there is also “Jericho” and “Samaria”.

One of the most famous events in the chamber’s history took place besides the fireplace: the death of King Henry IV.  In 1413, King Henry IV was en route to the Holy Land, and when praying at St Edward’s Shrine he was taken ill, apparently with a stroke. He was brought to the Abbott’s house and placed by the fire where he recovered consciousness. King Henry asked where he was and he was told “Jerusalem”. The story is that the King realised he was going to die because it had been prophesied that he would die in Jerusalem. In Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare tells this story of the King’s death and has Prince Henry trying on the crown while his father lay dying.

The Jerusalem Chamber was also the venue for the committees engaged in writing the Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611 (400th anniversary coming up soon!), the New English Bible in 1961, and the Revised English Bible in 1989. The bodies of several famous people including Joseph Addison and Sir Isaac Newton have lain there before being buried in the Abbey.

The Jerusalem Chamber is today one of the private rooms of the Deanery, and is used for meetings of the Dean and Chapter, and for private meetings and receptions as arranged or permitted by the Dean. Thank you, Dean, for your wonderful hospitality, and thank you, Anton (Hospitality Manager) for the delicious lunch, especially the salmon and leeks. I have stood, and eaten, on “holy ground”.

The current situation

The leaders of the four main denominations in Ireland meet regularly to discuss matters of current interest. The group is comprised of the Anglican Archbishop, Alan Harper, the Roman Catholic Cardinal, Sean Brady, the Methodist President, Donald Ker, and myself. Here’s the letter that we sent to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in light of the current situation.

As leaders in the four largest Christian denominations in Northern Ireland we are greatly concerned at the levels of violent crime in our society. We wish to highlight the need for a  comprehensive and collective approach by all community and political leaders in responding to this issue, so that the future of Northern Ireland will be one of peaceful respect and care for every person, particularly the most vulnerable in our society. The recent attacks on the elderly and other vulnerable groups are very disturbing.

We are particularly concerned at the most recent assessment of the activities of paramilitary groups carried out by the Independent Monitoring Commission.  We note in particular that “dissident republican activity since the early summer of 2008 had been consistently more serious than at any time since the IMC started to report in April 2004”.  We also note, more encouragingly, the welcome given by the IMC to the decommissioning to date of a quantity of UDA weapons and the “significant and positive development” of the decommissioning of UVF and RHC arms. We call on all armed paramilitary groups to immediately disarm and to stop all criminal activity. We call on everyone in Northern Ireland to support the PSNI and to cooperate fully with them in bringing those who commit crime to the due process of the law. This is fundamental to the peace and stability of a just and democratic society.

The IMC report has much to encourage, but it also highlights the continuing risk of violence we face as a society.  We believe that risk will best be overcome by demonstrating clear, united and stable political and community leadership at all levels.  While acknowledging and welcoming the steps taken by the political parties in recent years, we want to encourage all in positions of political influence to continue to provide leadership which demonstrates our ability as a society to overcome difference and work together for a better and stable future.  We assure you of our continuing prayers for you in this vital enterprise.

Bloom where you’re planted

My friend, Carl Trueman, is not one for beating about the bush. And in a recent blogpost, he is critical of those of us who blog a bit and spend too much time in front of computer screens. His main point is one which I have been reflecting a bit on recently: however imperfect our present situation, God desires that we bloom where we’re planted. That applies particularly to our local church situation. As Carl puts it, “welcome to wherever you are”.

This realization that the Lord has called me – and I am guessing, most of us – to serve first and foremost wherever we actually are – our families, our congregations, our denominations, and our workplaces — is surely a sobering one. It lacks so much ambition, and shows such a limited vision, after all.  Yet in this regard, I think the church is best served by those with such limited ambitions and myopia. I am not much of a web-wanderer but on the odd occasion I do a bit of websurfing, I am struck by how many Christians, pastors, professors, and laity, have blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitters going.  How many millions of Christian hours are wasted writing this stuff, engaging in mindless blogthreads, and telling the world about personal trivia? And what does it tell us about the expansive visions and ambitions out there?  Apparently the world is now everyone’s birthright.

Now, I find myself very uncomfortable with this. I do believe that some professors, pastors, and laypeople are called to have regular ministries outside their immediate geographical locations; but I also believe that there are precious few thus called.  Certainly, mere possession of hi-speed internet is not a divinely given sign of such a worldwide calling.  When I see Christians blogging so much, I wonder how many sermons are being prepared on the fly because of lack of time, how many parishioners go unvisited, how many prayers remain unprayed, how many words of love and affection to spouses and children are never said, how many books – let alone the Bible – are left unread, and how many fellowships atrophy through lack of any real, meaningful social and spiritual intercourse.  Indeed, to summarize: how many online `communities’ (sic) prosper to the detriment of the real, physical communities into which the Lord has placed each and every one of us?  How many complain of insufficient time to do the boring routines of the Christian life – worship services, Sunday School, visiting the sick and the aged, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer – and yet always somehow manage to fit in a quick twitter or blog or podcast or change to their Facebook status?

I am increasingly convicted of my own failures in this regard.  The internet has never been my particular temptation; to me the web has been – and, indeed, remains – basically a quick means to shop.  Beyond that, it is simply an ironic-to-absurd medium in the way in which it allows everybody, regardless of sanity, IQ, or qualifications, to have their fifteen seconds of fame. Frankly, 95% of it is utterly ridiculous as far as I can judge, the denizens of webworld being akin to the institution described in Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.  Yet, if the web has not consumed my time, then travelling has perhaps been my particular weakness, combined with a general inability to say `no’ to any request to help with preaching or lecturing. The net result is that I have probably ministered all over the place, but not so much in the church congregation where the Lord has actually placed me, that part of the Body of Christ which I am particularly obliged to love and encourage and to which I am accountable.  Of course, being there of all places will never make me a superstar or a guru or earn me a fortune or get me a cool conference gig or land me on the cover of Christianity Today; but it is nonetheless the place where I am meant to be.

The command to love the Body of Christ is indeed a command, not a sentiment.  It comes with specific demands on time and on place.  I pray that I will learn more and more about what these demands truly mean.  And I pray too that more and more Christians will come to realize that real life is lived in the real world in the real church where they really attend on a Sunday.  Time to get out of the system of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether and join the real world.  Welcome to wherever you are.