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.