In order that no one person would exercise excessive influence over the church, or do too much damage, our Presbyterian forefathers agreed a form of church government which requires moderators in presbyteries and General Assembly to serve only for one year. The old line is that, as moderator, for a year you are “it”, and then you are “ex-it”.
I made my exit on Monday evening and handed over to Dr Norman Hamilton, minister of Ballysillan Presbyterian Church. Now I can relax a bit, and begin to think about taking up my duties in First Portadown again.
On the opening night of the General Assembly I had the opportunity to reflect on my year in office and this is part of what I said.
In spite of the PMS crisis dominating my year in office, I want to record my profound thanks to this Assembly for honouring me in calling me to the Moderator’s chair. As the year has progressed, Patricia and I have realized what an enormous privilege we have enjoyed, and we are so thankful and grateful for the wonderful opportunities that have been afforded to us. We have been enriched and blessed and inspired beyond measure by the experiences of this year.
I want to express my thanks to so many people here in Church House, and across the denomination, who have supported us and helped us during this year. Thanks to my own congregation of First Portadown for releasing us for these important duties, and thanks to everyone who has prayed for us throughout the year. Thanks to the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk, and the Press Officer for their kindness and friendship, and for helping me survive, and especially for helping me not to become a major embarrassment to the church. Thanks to my chaplains, Philip and Nigel, for their friendship and prayers. Thanks to all who have invited us to share in their special occasions. We have been welcomed so warmly everywhere we have gone and we have met so many great people who have a passion for Christ and compassion for people.
I want to record my special thanks to Joyce Anderson in the General Secretary’s office for her extraordinary help and advice, and for her willingness to go the second mile on so many occasions. Joyce, your administrative skills, your knowledge of the church, as well as your sanctified feistiness, are a great resource for our church, and one which every Moderator values.
Last year, at the beginning of my term, one of the reasons we gave to the Government to intervene in the PMS crisis was that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, through its members and congregations and boards, makes a significant and positive contribution to this community. At the end of the year, I want to report that we have seen, firsthand, the evidence for that claim. All across this island, and indeed all across the world, Irish Presbyterians are living out our motto: they have a passion for Christ and compassion for people.
Bishop Tom Wright tells the story of one of his students who spent a whole summer holiday working in a sub-Saharan African country. When he came back, the head of the college asked him what he wanted to do when he graduated. He replied that he was hoping to work in international development, to bring help and support to the poorest people in the world. The head of the college at once asked him why, in that case, was he studying theology rather than politics or economics.
The student didn’t miss a beat. “Because theology is much more relevant”, he replied. He had seen firsthand the way in which the church had gone about its business in the country where he had lived. It was about Christians, themselves poor, and living among the poor, who were working out from day to day what it meant to call Jesus Lord and to make that lordship a living reality in their communities.
I don’t know how we have got to the point in the Western world where it is assumed that theology is irrelevant to the real needs of the real world. Theology and the church are often portrayed as remote and irrelevant. But they are not. The fact is that the practical life and work of the church reaches out into numerous areas of ordinary life, unobtrusively and without any great fanfare.
The Government’s own statistics show that the solid majority of those who give their time, money and energy to voluntary service in their local communities, those who work with older people, people with disabilities, the dying and the very young, are practicing Christians. Many of them will say that they are not very good Christians. They are aware of their own failures and there are many things in the Bible that they don’t understand. But something in the lifeblood of the church has stirred them to offer help where help is needed, and they do it gladly. And they find such strong personal fulfillment in doing so that it keeps them coming back for more.
I want to acknowledge those people whom we have met this year who have a passion for Christ and a compassion for people:
the skilled teachers in Coleraine and Omagh who work so patiently with children who have special needs;
the prison officer in Magilligan who is committed to seeing the young men under his care set in a different direction in life;
the carers in the nursing homes in Castlederg and Bangor who are kind and loving and gentle with their elderly friends;
the teachers in Limavady and Aughnacloy and Fivemiletown who do everything they can to provide a great educational environment for their young people;
the youth workers in Newcastle and Kilkeel and Newtownabbey who are passionate about sharing Jesus with teenagers;
the amazing people in Dundonald who provide such love and support to those who are profoundly disabled;
the police officers in Fermanagh who address the problem of alcohol abuse among teenagers with such care and courtesy;
the agricultural merchants from County Wexford and from County Tyrone who gave so generously to the Appeal for Haiti.
The list goes on and on, of Christian people, committed to Jesus Christ, who have a compassion for people. And I haven’t even mentioned Ethiopia and the work of Tearfund and Christian Aid! This denomination to which we belong makes a significant and powerful positive contribution to the life of this society and this world. Don’t let anyone say that the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is not responding to the needs of real people living in the real world.
I want to thank the church particularly for its tremendous response to both the World Development Appeal at Christmas and to the Moderator’s Appeal for Haiti. Those appeals raised over £1.5 million. In a time of economic recession, that is a wonderful amount of money.
What is it that drives this action? What is that gives energy and enthusiasm to Sunday School teachers, and BB and GB officers, and youth club leaders, and English language class helpers, and those who make meals for older people? It is this passion for Jesus Christ. It is a desire to see his Name honoured and loved and adored.
Of course the world at large, and sadly some within the church too, may well sneer at the “do-gooder”, and sometimes the sneering may be earned. Blundering self-righteousness is always possible and must be avoided. But the abuse doesn’t invalidate the use.
Christians who are passionate about Jesus Christ know that God is not honoured when the church stands aloof, secure in its own holiness and looks down on the rest of the world as unspiritual, unchristian or ungodly. Much of what goes on in the world is ungodly and unchristian, just as it sometimes is within the church itself. But because we are committed to the Gospel of grace, we look for opportunities in the world, so that we can rejoice with its joy, weep with its grief, and above all bring love and comfort and healing and hope to those who are in greatest need. We are ready to get our hands dirtied by getting involved with people who need the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
When Paul wrote to the Philippians he was clear as to what their priorities ought to be. It’s really a word for every Kirk Session which has struggled with putting together a mission plan this past year. He said, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
And that must remain a priority for our church. We must be gospel-centred, bringing the hope and love and joy of Christ through our words and through our actions. Yes, we are to preach and speak and share this gospel clearly through our words; but we are also to allow that gospel to change and transform our lives so that there is a congruence and a coherence between what we say and how we live.
Perhaps you will allow me one other observation from my year, and I was interested to note that the retiring Moderator of the Church of Scotland made the same observation after his year in office. It is that young people and young adults are conspicuous by their absence in many congregations.
The statistics at the back of the Blue Book reveal that once again in 2009 our denomination declined. Last year, we lost 1,093 families, representing 4,326 people. There were 1,624 fewer people at communion in 2009 compared with 2008. And there were 755 fewer young people on the rolls of our Sunday Schools and Bible classes. And my observation is that many of those who are absent in our congregations are in the 15 to 25 age bracket.
That’s why I was interested to read the SPUD Youth Assembly report that has come to this Assembly. It says:
“Many of the young people in our churches are simply coming off the end of the youth ministry conveyor belt with nowhere to use their gifts and passion. Often the result is that this generation leaves the Presbyterian Church in favour of new, emerging churches. If young people and young adults feel sidelined, uninformed and unused, they become discontented, disempowered, and deskilled.”
I am not suggesting for a moment that we adopt the theology or practices of the emerging churches in order to retain our young people, but I am saying that it seems that our current youth ministry policy is not working, and that we are failing to integrate young people fully into the life and witness of our congregations. The SPUD report says that young people and young adults want to be part of our church. They want to be part of the team. But they feel sidelined. They feel that they have been left on the bench. They want to bridge the generational gap with older folks and be part of effective, strong and authentic Christian communities.
When I was minister in Carnmoney, we were among the first congregations to hire a full-time youth pastor, and today our denomination has committed many resources to similar posts. But we have to be honest enough and say that it isn’t working the way we want it to. In many congregations the age-group missing from the mainstream of congregational life in our evening services, our midweeks, and our prayer meetings are young people. They are not at the heart of our congregational life. There are exceptions, but by and large this has been our observation.
We send our children out of church when they are at primary school, and then we wonder why they don’t return when they are teenagers. It seems that we prefer to hire youth specialists in order to provide a separate programme of activities for our young people than make the necessary adjustments so that we can have genuinely inter-generational worship and fellowship. We need to stop just saying tritely that “young people are the church of today”, and then arranging everything just to suit those of us who are over 50. We need to show our children and young people that they really belong and that we love them and value them and are eager to be close to them.
In many places, even though the numbers in the congregation are declining, there are good numbers in uniformed organizations like BB and GB. But we are not translating those numbers into young adults who find their place within the life and fellowship of our church.
I was very moved by the recent comments of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin. He was reviewing the future of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, especially in the light of all the recent controversy. He said this:
“Our young people are among the most catechised in Europe but among the least evangelized… This immediately brings us to the deeper question about the level of understanding of the message of Jesus Christ which exists in our Catholic Church and in our society in Ireland today. What do we really know of the message of Jesus? The Irish Catholic tradition has greatly neglected the place of the scriptures. Catholics do not know the scriptures. They do not know how to use the scriptures. We do not take the time to encounter Jesus in the scriptures.”
What a powerful and radical analysis! I believe that there are Presbyterian and Protestant ministers all across this island who could say the same about the young people they encounter. They don’t know the Scriptures. They don’t know Christ. They have not been evangelized.
Whatever else we do with our children and young people, we need to ensure that they are presented with the gospel, and we need to work and pray with them so that they come to know Jesus Christ and to follow Him. For all our claims about being a Bible-based and Christ-centred church, can we say that our children are evangelized and taught the Bible so that come to know and love and follow Jesus Christ? Do they know the Scriptures and know how to use the Scriptures? Is the Christ of the Bible really central in our preaching and teaching? Are we senior people taking time to talk to our young people and to model before them a life of Christian discipleship?
I hope that this issue raised by the SPUD youth assembly doesn’t get shelved and filed, but that it is discussed in every congregation so that we can re-think our ministry to children and young people. Our covenant theology tells us that they are a real part of the life and fellowship of our church. If we continue as we are, we will age and decline as a denomination and the advancing work of the kingdom of Christ will simply pass us by. We just can’t afford to lose our young people.
I love this church. There is so much that is good about it. I love our reformed theology that exalts and magnifies our great and gracious Saviour. And it is because we love Jesus Christ, and are passionate about Him, that we want to show compassion to people. Thank you for the privilege you have given me in seeing that passion and compassion in action.