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.

Melvyn, David and Willie

06b27c0f9f2824fcb5d1d7e5d1431b8aa6e958fdI’m enjoying reading Lord Melvyn Bragg’s book on the King James Version of the Bible, The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011.

In the opening chapter he says that two of the greatest speeches in the House of Commons were by Christians and rifted with the King James Bible. Those were by Winston Churchill in 1940 just after the outbreak of the Second World War, and by William Wilberforce when he made his first speech  for the ending of the slave trade in 1789.

But significantly Lord Bragg goes on to report that this parliamentary tradition is not dead, by quoting the contribution of two Northern Ireland MPs. He says that on 9 December 2009, my local MP, David Simpson, demanded a debate, calling on the government to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible. Mr Simpson said,

“The great Winston Churchill noted that the scholars who produced it had forged an enduring link, literary and religious, between the English-speaking people of the world. It is not only our literature and language that has been influenced by the King James Bible. It has had an extraordinary beneficial influence upon political and constitutional affairs. It was the Bible of Milton and the Protectorate, later it was the Bible of the Glorious Revolution, which gave us constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. It was the Bible of Whitefield and the Wesleys, that saved the realm from the brutality and blood of the French Revolution. It was the Bible carried by the founding fathers of the United States that helped to force that land and give the world that great democratic powerhouse ….

Hospitals were built and charities created as a result of its influence. The hungry were fed, the sick nursed, the poor given shelter … lives that lay in ruins were made whole and souls that were held in bondage were set at liberty.”

Bragg says that the anthem was taken up by other speakers, most notably Dr William McCrea, MP for South Antrim, who quoted from John Wesley:

“Oh, give me that Book! At any price give me the Book of God. Let me be a man of one Book.”

Dr McCrea continued,

“It has been burned but there is not the smell of fire about it. It has been buried but no man has ever kept it in the grave …This book sets men free…”

One wouldn’t have expected Lord Bragg to be quoting David Simpson and William McCrea, or even for those three gentlemen to be in agreement on many matters. But that in itself proves the worth of the Book which they all admire and commend.

On being thankful

Even though there was a huge vote in favour of accepting the PMS rescue package, I have received some emails and phone calls from those who continue to be unhappy about the resolution. The more I think about it, the more thankful I am for what has been achieved. Other savers in Ireland have lost 80% and 90% of their savings, as this story from the Irish Times illustrates.

BANK OF Ireland, Irish Life & Permanent and EBS have joined AIB in announcing plans to impose losses of as much as 90 per cent on junior bondholders.

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said the move to “burn” the junior, or subordinated, bondholders was in line with Government policy to achieve “appropriate” contributions to the recapitalisation of the banks from investors.

“These financial institutions are remaining solvent due to the ongoing overwhelming financial support of the State. Without this support, subordinated bondholders’ entire investment would have been irrecoverable,” he said.

The offers propose bigger haircuts on bondholders than had been expected by market analysts. Continue reading “On being thankful”