Heat and Light

I have been back to normal pastoral and preaching duties for one month now, and it has been good, yet challenging, to get back to the disciplines of preparation for preaching and pastoral visitation. There is something about pastoral ministry that is both very demanding and also most rewarding.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards

I have been reading a wee bit of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) again. He was probably America’s greatest theologian, although many would argue he was not as comprehensive or as balanced in his theological writings and reflections as, say, the English Puritan, John Owen (1616-1683).

Edwards’ sermon on John 5:35, “He was a burning and shining light”, and entitled “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister”, is particularly helpful in emphasising the need for a minister to be characterised by both heat and light. Even though written many years ago, there is a contemporary relevance to what he says. This applies particularly to preaching.

Light refers to the content of a sermon, heat to its delivery. If a preacher has light without heat, he may please his audience with entertaining sermons or (more likely) he may bore them with academic and accurate sermons. But he will not reach their hearts. If a preacher has heat without light, he may excite and arouse the emotions of his audience, but any change in their lives will be short term because he will not reach their hearts either. So a good sermon must contain both heat and light. It must be a clear and illuminating exposition of Scripture, but it also needs to be warm, powerful and fervent.

Continue reading “Heat and Light”

The Prime Minister’s Pledge

When David Cameron visited Northern Ireland during the election campaign, he addressed the issue of the beleagured Presbyterian Mutual Society, and the distress that has been experienced by so many savers. In clear and unambiguous language, he made a pledge to the PMS savers:


“This is all about a simple value, building a society where we reward those who do the right thing. Last year we saw the Prime Minister betraying those who had done the right thing, when he boasted that “not one British saver has lost a single penny” in the banking crisis. He should try telling that to investors in the PMS who worked hard, saved hard – and then saw their money disappear. Are they not British, did they not lose money, why has he forgotten about them? So I give you this pledge. “If I am Prime Minister, a Conservative and Unionist Government will work with the Executive here to ensure a just and fair resolution of the PMS. It’s about saying we’re all in this together, you’ve done the right thing, and you deserve for that to be recognized and rewarded.”

When I met with the Secretary of State following the election, and just before the opening night of our General Assembly, Mr Paterson invited me to quote the Prime Minister’s commitment to the General Assembly and to assure the Presbyterian community that the new Government remained stedfast in its determination to deliver on this pledge.

This pledge not only sets out the goal – a just and fair settlement – but also the benchmark for measuring its achievement – that PMS savers, like other British savers, should not lose one penny.

I was impressed by the Secretary of State’s straightforward approach when I met him, and I fully expect the Government to deliver on its pledge. Any solution which would leave all savers without early access to 100% of their savings would fail the litmus test of justice. It would perpetuate the cruel anxiety and uncertainty with which savers, many of them elderly, have lived for the past 21 months.

The failure of the PMS was a local manifestation of a national and global phenomenon. It occurred during the awful autumn and winter of 2008-09 and it was, in part, caused by the actions the Government took to respond to other financial failures. PMS savers are not seeking exceptional treatment, but simply the removal of the discriminatory treatment which has rescued all other British savers but which has left them bereft of their savings.

Precisely how all savers will be given access to their savings is a matter for the Government. We wish the members of the Ministerial Working Group well as, over the rest of the summer, they and their officials address the various options available to them.

It seems that all the issues surrounding the PMS collapse have been exhaustively analysed. What is now needed is a solution. Mr Cameron’s pledge has cleared the way for that to happen at long last.

PMS update

It’s over six weeks since we met the Secretary of State about the PMS crisis, and this is the report of the first meeting of the Ministerial Working Group which was promised and which took place today. Here is the press release from the Northern Ireland Office:

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson today chaired a meeting with Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and Sammy Wilson to assess progress to date in seeking a resolution for the thousands of members of the Presbyterian Mutual Society who have been unable to access their investments since the Society entered administration in 2008.

Northern Ireland Minister Hugo Swire and Mark Hoban, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, also attended this first meeting of the Ministerial Working Group on PMS which was reconvened at the request of the Prime Minister in an effort to find a fair and just resolution for PMS members.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Paterson said: “Both before and since the General Election, the Prime Minister and I have been firm in our commitment to finding a fair and just resolution to this crisis.

“We are fully aware of the urgency of this matter.

“The meeting confirms the will which exists both in Government and in the Northern Ireland Executive to work together in seeking a solution.

“There is no easy answer, but I am keen to consider all available options to ensure PMS members are treated fairly.

“We have identified several courses of action which will be pursued with urgency over the summer, and we are all clear that it will be important for PMS members that we reach a conclusion as quickly as possible after that.

“We will meet again at the beginning of September”.

Why a Confession of Faith?

The question often raised in churches that hold a confession of faith as a subordinate standard is Why? Why do we need a confession of faith? Are confessions of faith not simply engines of division?

In a recently re-published book, The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy, Ian Hamilton, minister of Cambridge Presbyterian Church, concludes with a very interesting chapter on why the church needs a confession of faith. Continue reading “Why a Confession of Faith?”

Navan Fort

img_0369My young American friend, Justin, was passing through for a couple of days and we decided to visit Navan Fort as an interesting historic site not too far away from where we live. Navan Fort is a large circular earthwork on the summit of a drumlin just outside Armagh. It is thought to be the site of a pagan sanctuary. The impressive earthwork encloses two monuments on the hilltop, a ring barrow (Iron Age burial site) and a large mound.

In the Ulster Cycle of early Irish mythological tales, Emain was portrayed as the headquarters and sacred place of a military dynasty, the Red Branch Knights, ruled by Conchobar mac Nessa who was advised by the druid Cathbad and championed by CuChulainn, the Hound of Ulster.

Emain is one of a small number of sites identified as a prehistoric provincial capital in early sources. The others include Tara, Co Meath (Meath, the ‘middle’ province), Knockaulin, Co Kildare (Leinster) and Cruachan, Co Roscommon (Connacht). While some of the lore associated with these places may be medieval literary invention, archaeological excavations have revealed ceremonial structures of Iron Age date in these monuments which are very similar to each other.

Justin learns how to defend himself from an Irish warrior with a spear. Maybe PSNI will take the course before next Twelfth at Ardoyne?
Justin learns how to defend himself from an Irish warrior with a spear. Maybe PSNI will take the course before next Twelfth at Ardoyne?

The visitors’ centre at Navan Fort included a multi-media exhibition that we found very complex and which was not at all child-friendly. The explanation was given at a level most suitable for someone pursuing post-graduate research into Irish mythology.

A more engaging explanation was made by some actors who depicted life in the Iron Age, including a demonstration of their fighting strategy as well as their cooking skills. They claimed that all visitors were welcome, but were particularly suspicious of anyone from Connacht. Justin is from Philadelphia (they had never heard of it) and another family were from Minnesota (also unheard of), although a woman who came from Newry was recognisable as coming from the Gap of the North.

Clearly Navan Fort is an important archaeological site, reminding us of our pagan past, and how that  for many centuries we were a community of warring tribes with a well-developed religious and spiritual life. The deliberate burning of the pagan sanctuary at Navan still remains something of a mystery. I came away thinking that in one sense not much has changed in Ulster in two centuries, and wishing that the Gospel brought by St Patrick had resulted in a deeper and more profound transformation of this island.