Opening Night

Rt Rev Dr Ivan Patterson
Rt Rev Dr Ivan Patterson

Last night was the opening night of this year’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The in-coming Moderator is Dr Ivan Patterson, minister of Newcastle Presbyterian Church in Co Down. In his opening address, he outlined his theme for the year, “The Word is Life”, picking up on the 400th anniversary of the King James version of the Bible and highlighting the life-giving and life-transforming nature of the message of the Bible. It’s a great theme, and Dr Patterson will be a blessing to our church as he expounds this theme throughout the year.

There were some changes to the format of the opening service this year, and the chat afterwards among the ex-moderators and visitors at the reception was that while some of the changes were good, not everything was as good as it might have been. Here are some of the points that were made:

  • As in recent years, there were a significant number of empty seats in the beautiful, re-furbished and air-conditioned Assembly Hall. We need to get the message out to people, and especially to younger people, that there is space and that this is an important event for our church. But, then again, what young person under 25 is going to opt for a two-hour church service on a Monday night?
  • The Memorial Record of those ministers who died during the year was left out of the opening service and will be read at the Communion Service on Tuesday. The reading of the Memorial Record was traditionally a sombre moment in the service, but it was an important link with the on-going work of the church, and a reminder that we stand in a great tradition of Christian service and ministry.
  • The ex-Moderators were no longer seated on the platform but had prominent seats at either side at the front. Generally this was thought to be a good move. And instead of the whole contingent of ex-moderators processing out to bring in the new Moderator, that task was given to Donald Patton and myself as the two most recent (and most mobile?) incumbents. That probably saved us a few seconds in the timing of service overall, but some thought that it deprived the service of a significant piece of Presbyterian pageantry.
  • It took 70 minutes before we reached the point of welcoming the new Moderator. While the reflections of the out-going Moderator are a key part of the opening night, everyone really wants to see and hear from the “new man”. We should have got to that point more quickly.
  • The out-going Moderator’s comments on the key characteristics of healthy churches were very helpful.
  • The failure of the out-going Moderator’s excellent DVD on mission to play properly made the arrangements appear amateurish, and the inevitable hesitation and re-arrangement must have sounded strange to a radio audience.
  • The innovative blend of singing and Bible reading might have been better. I was sitting close to the piano and couldn’t hear the Bible reading clearly. The introductions to the congregational singings were a bit complex and many members of the congregation were unclear when they were meant to join in and didn’t start singing until the music was well into the first line of the hymn. But once they got going, they sang very well.
  • The service had been running for 95 minutes before the incoming Moderator was able to address the Assembly with an excellent word. Not only were the non-Presbyterian visitors, as well as seasoned Assembly-goers, beginning to wilt by that stage, but Dr Patterson seemed a little rushed and I felt he had more good stuff to say.

Having said all that, maybe I was talking to too many grumpy old men after the service. However, it is a great evening for the Presbyterian Church to showcase itself, and the fact that it still gets radio and media coverage means that we should do our best to impress. As both Norman and Ivan said, we need to do more to connect with the real world. That doesn’t mean that we should necessarily abandon all tradition. The Royal Wedding is the recent proof that there is still a market and a spiritual appetite for traditional worship done well.

15 Replies to “Opening Night”

  1. Stafford

    Interesting to hear your insights into the opening night. I was among a small number of under 25’s present on Monday evening. My thoughts aren’t dissimilar to your own. Personally I felt that the removal of some of the pageantry from the proceedings were a positive move.

    I thought the first half of the night was excellent – as someone tweeted last night, it was much ‘less stuffy’ than previous years. A very relaxed and friendly feel to the evening. The ‘Bridgebuilders’ and the piper were excellent parts of the evening.

    Whilst I could listen to Norman all night, it definitely took too long to get to the election of Ivan. 2 sections of reflections, while both short and excellent, lengthened the night.

    While the concept of blending the reading and music was good, the sound levels were poor, and the Congregation found it hard to follow. The second half was much messier. However in saying that, the Congregation found it hard to even keep up with the opening traditional praise, so we can’t simply put it down to a contemporary approach. The vocalists who were to lead the Congregation were hardly audible.

    All-in-all, I welcome the attempts to blend contemporary style into the opening night. Whilst the second half was a little messy, perhaps it was down to audio levels as much as anything else. As an under 25, last night was certainly much more engaging than in previous years, particularly the opening half.

  2. Stafford,

    I don’t know if it was a problem with my radio (the only one in the house that still plays Medium Wave!) but the Radio Ulster coverage appeared to drop off around 7.45, never to return.

  3. I absolutely accept that things could have been better last night – they always can! But I am a bit taken aback at the minimal level of comment on the ministry content of the evening – for example – no mention of the testimony of John Dempster nor the courage, grace and ministry of the singers and musicians from Bridgebuilders.

    The opening night audience is a very diverse one indeed – and that makes it an exceedingly difficult one to connect with in toto. Civic and political leaders of all kinds; people of strong faith and those with little or none; media analysts dissecting every comment; people in their homes or own their own seeking uplift and encouragement; people in far away places via the internet; and our own presbyterian family and visitors from other churches. And then there are people whom we are trying to interest in the work and witness of our church – those of no faith persuasion whatsoever; the young; the disillusioned; the lapsed….. and on top of that the service is the vehicle whereby we constitute ourselevs as a court of the church and go through the technicalities of formally electing the Moderator.

    Instead of concentrating so much on the packaging of the service, maybe we would do well to try to figure out exactly who the service is for and who it is NOT for; what we are trying to do and what we are NOT trying to do. I have lots of thoughts on this – but will keep them to myself at least at this moment in time – and see what others think!

    Some thoughtful, constructive and gracious discussion on this could be of real help!

  4. Hmmm!Sounds as if the occasion was more of a smouldering bush rather than a burning one.So the ‘Memorial Record’has been shunted to the Tuesday morning? An excellent move,given that the vast majority of the wider church will not be there.This is an absolute disgrace. It reflects poorly on the organisers and smacks of modernising in all its worst senses.So much for the ‘great cloud of witnesses.’

    I defend Neal’s right to his view that ‘the removal of some of the pageantry was a positive move.’But ex Moderators are not ‘pageantry ,’but people.People standing together, representing the people of God.Why does the church keep forgetting people?

    As for the DVD debacle… anyone involved in communication would know this was a bad idea as they seldom work when you want them to.But a DVD does seem a strange choice of medium for the wireless! And I wasn’t aware that one could read the bible innovatively – but not being able to hear it being read may fall into that catagory.

    Finally,it taking seventy minutes before the ‘new man’could be welcomed.
    This was not a surprise, because having heard so little of the ‘old man,’during his year,I guess he wanted to pack as much as possible into his last day!

  5. Norman, I hope you don’t mind a reply. You write:

    “maybe we would do well to try to figure out exactly who the service is for…”

    But the answer to that is easy, and it is always the same – God.

  6. I see the GAA were meant to be invited. I wonder when some of our men and women will start to take an active interest in the GAA for the sake of the Gospel?

    As for the pageantry – whatever happened to us being seen as fools for the sake of Christ? (1 Cor 1).

    Thanks for the post Stafford.

  7. Could there really be any mystery to why seats are empty and the average age higher, given that some of the facets of the service being discussed here include whether to parade the moderator in and out of the building, when we should read off lists of old ministers who have died, and whether 7200 of these excruciating seconds is too long?

  8. I’m wondering if DVD-gate was caused by that typical Presbyterian problem of just turning up a few minutes before the service and expecting the audio-visual team to be able to cope with whatever you throw at them, without having had any chance whatsoever to check whether or not it works on the equipment provided?

    Many congregations are utterly appalling at this type of thing. In no other setting would a band just turn up and expect everything to work and sound good without a sound check or rehearsal, so why do we do this in such an amateurish way in churches? (And of course, it’s always the operator who unfairly gets the blame…)

  9. Interesting post Stafford,
    I do take your point about the number of young people and even young adults who would attend such a pageant. Though, I have to say that many of these young people are the same people who feel uncomfortable with the more traditional worship practices that such meetings usually have evident. In some ways I am concerned that many Presbyterians feel disconnected with the Assembly. As a communicant for over 20 years now, I do not feel invited to things like this and feel that the message needs to ring out through all churches is : that our church wants its people to join together to celebrate our shared faith on special occasions. Is this because people feel that Assembly is just for the Ministers or those intending to be such?

  10. 1. The service was WAY too long.
    2. Starting the service, as Norman did, is patronising and treats adults like children. “Good evening” … (reply) … “Let’s try that again, you can do better than that …”
    3. Norman told people to catch up with the Queen and Pres McAleese. Whjy didn’t he lead by example and invite a Catholic bishop to sit in the gallery with the other church guests from the Anglican, Methodist churches etc.
    4. Why was Norman wearing half a robe? Either wear one, or don’t; but don’t wear half a robe, norman – it looks daft.
    5. I disagree with Stafford on the memorial role. It was always a form of clericalism. We don’t do a memorial role for elders. Why only ministers? Stopping a service to read out obituaries is an odd thing at the best of times.
    6. The parading moderators look silly. It’s not a graduation ceremony, it’s a church. Why the dressing up in academic robes? Are you all frustrated university lecturers?
    7. The music was an improvement on previous years but the reciting of the Bible was inaudible to me too.
    8. Time for a revolution guys. Norman’s changes were just awkward tinkering. Next year, can we have a service that is about the worship of God rather than such a focus on one man, or another.
    9. The sermons. Norman tried to have two reflections instead of one sermon. Instead he gave two sermons and stole the show. Or tried to. The content of the sermons was at best unadventurous. After a year in office, heard myself think, hasn’t he got more to tell us than this? Pedestrian.

    Sorry if this seems a little negative. It’s an honest response.

  11. I thought the first Bible reading from Isaiah 40 was excellent. We need to get better at how we read the Bible out loud – it is meant to be spoken. It has been suggested that reading silently ‘into yourself’ only came about in the Enlightenment. So often I hear Bible readings sounding as if they are read straight off the page with no thought as to how it sounds to the hearer. The second Bible reading didn’t work so well which was unfortunate. I do have sympathy for those involved in the technical side of things. When it goes well they are often unnoticed and unthanked. When it goes badly they are first to get the blame.

    As to who the service is for, I suggest that yes, the service is for the glory of God and an act of worship to Him but also specifically for the Presbyterian Church in Ireland that they may be able to direct their worship to God and also receive both a challenge and encouragement from those who speak from God’s word. If the world is watching or listening then that is what it should see and hear – Christ’s church doing what God intends. I believe that did happen but I am sure there is also room for improvement. I would suggest that simplifying the praise time a little would help. It has been said to me that one of the best things about the opening night is the sound of all those voices raised in praise to our God.

  12. @D.A.
    There speaks the voice of an AV team member! I thought it was only me that had problems with people turning up 3 minutes before the service and handing you a pen drive with with some bizarrely encoded video 🙂

  13. Interesting post and comments. I think we should congratulate Norman for making an attempt to “move forward” and “become relevant”! Turning round a super tanker takes time and I would encourage the new Mod to take Normans bold steps and build on them next year.

    Also let’s lay off the tech folks. This sort of thing always happens with new equipment. I’m sure some people struggled to roll their scrolls properly when they were introduced back in the early days of PCI!

    Also what’s the story with wearing of academic hoods at such events? I’m sure our reformation fathers would be turning in their graves (so to speak- knowing that they will be dancing in glory- well maybe just tapping their feet!). Such garments put the emphasis on the man- the total opposite of what the Geneva gown was implemented for. (While I’m at it I think the gowns now have the very effect they were trying to combat all those years ago!)

    On a final note, perhaps we should invite Pippa Middleton to the assembly next year. That I’m sure would help to bolster numbers at the opening night and bring in some of that royal pageantry!!!

  14. I have to say when i watched the Opening night on the web i was a bit disappointed. Can we have less processions and singing and gadetry and more time for the incoming moderator to actually introduce his theme for the year. It was a very good theme this year but i think he could have said alot more! After all if the Word is Life, then it would have been a really good idea to have more of it so that everyone who was listening would have got a better understing of it? and who knows, maybe it would have been used by God to change people and draw them to Christ.

  15. I was on of the few under 25s present at Opening Night and I have to say this year I was a wee bit disappointed. I have been attending Opening Night since I was 16 missing only the 2010 Service due to a prior engagement (7 Opening Nights in all).

    There were a few items which I have to say I really did miss, the most notable being the memorial roll which I felt was a suitable and fitting tribute to the Ministers of our Church who spent their lives in the service of God and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

    I also missed the processions of the former Moderators in and out with the New Moderator and an appropriate processional (“I was glad” feeling) hymn at that point. It certainlty added to the dignity and ceremonial side of the evening when it happened and I think our Church is sometimes too quick with dispensing with “formailty” to please the perceived opinion of the youth.

    I think overall the service was quite long. The 100th Psalm was a rousing start to the evening though by the benediction the Psalm set to the Old Hundreth Tune really did die a death due to the odd tempo of such a well known tune. Also on a musical note it is better to have hymn we all know and can sing so as everyone is singing of the same hymn sheet.

    The DVD saga a good example of the flaws of depending on technology and I am sure the BBC listeners wondered what was going on.

    I think Mr. Hamilton spoke well but that it is the case that Opening Night is really a chance to get the measure of our new Moderator.

    I hope that come next year the Service will be back in a recognisable form and that we can again enjoy the Opening Night we are all used to.

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