by Michael N. Jagessar
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) in its long history has met only six times in Derry-Londonderry, with the last occasion of meeting here being 80 years ago (1933). Melanie Smith and I were delighted to be part of this gathering (representing the URC), given as well the history of conflict in Derry-Londonderry. With most of my knowledge of Northern Ireland gleaned through reading, I was delighted to be given a brilliant and fair overview of an insider perspective by the Revd Michael Barry. Michael collected us at Belfast International airport and drove us to Derry-Londonderry. The history lesson continued on our walk around a well preserved city wall (one of the best preserved in Ireland and the whole of Europe) as the whole GA processed from our place of meeting (Millennium Forum) to the magnificent first Derry Presbyterian Church for worship.
Sun stayed with us throughout the days of the GA, and it was a delight to enjoy the flavour of UK’s city of culture where, as an outsider, I had to be reminded that this was once a place of intense conflict. Buzzing with activity, warmly greeted by people on the streets, always finding helpful and friendly conversation partners for direction or a good eating place, one would not imagine that this was where you had the mass exodus of Presbyterians from the West Bank of the river Foyle – moving from cityside to riverside. The now famous Peace Bridge stands as both a real and metaphorical bridge between this divide. Every morning just around six, I managed to walk across the Peace Bridge as an opportunity for contemplation, exercise and simply to delight in the gift of each new day blessed with a wonderful sunrise.
Monday (June 3rd) was a light day with a Civic Reception hosted by the Mayor of Derry-Londonderry followed by the constitution of GA, election of the moderator and speeches by both the outgoing moderator (Revd Roy Patton) and the incoming moderator (Revd Rob Craig). The outgoing moderator called on members of the PCI to grasp the opportunity to make an impact on Ireland and beyond, for God still desires to do a new thing. He reminded all that it is “God who is doing the doing” that involves the church, but that it is not about the Church. It is about God who calls. And this call “is not to dwell on the past but to be open to the new thing that God is doing”. The incoming moderator challenged the PCI to become “a place of transformation’ (both inside and outside the church) where all can be challenged and changed for the better, “having encountered the living God” through the worship and in the lives of the people they meet within the Church.
Over the three days (June 4-6), the key discussions and debates highlighted some of the ways in which the PCI is already a place of transformation and where there is the need to work more intentionally to become transformed and transforming. These included reports of Presbyteries, the Youth Assembly, Presbyterian Women, the Structures Review Panel, the General Board, Boards of mission in Ireland, Mission Overseas, Social Witness, Christian Training, Youth and Children Ministry, and Finance. While the context(s) of the PCI differ(s) from that of Churches in England, Scotland and Wales, some of issues and challenges around finances, human sexuality, new shapes to ministries, theological relevance, interpreting of Scriptures, and a depleting membership mirror a similar story as that of churches across the UK. As regards the latter, an interesting piece of information is that the PCI is growing in the Republic of Ireland (to 1930 membership levels) with the intentional ministry among migrant Christians.
It is evident from the various reports to GA that the PCI is very much engaged in some exciting initiatives that are missional as they face the challenges of being “church” today. From the luxury of observing, I was struck, however, by the overwhelmingly male (and perhaps ordained) dominated nature of the gathering and proceedings. Women and young people were present but not necessarily in any ‘representative’ roles. This, along with the non-inclusive use of language, was noted by a couple women speakers. Clearly this ought to become one of those ‘places’ where transformation is urgently needed
We were warmly received and generously treated by our host and by all those we met and engaged with in conversations. I must say that as one of the only two Black persons (the other was from a partner church in Malawi) present throughout the GA, I had much work to do in explaining that I am moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church – a denomination across England, Scotland and Wales. The idea that a person looking like me can be a moderator of a church in the UK may have given my colleagues ‘too much to chew on’. Living as transformed and transforming people and becoming places of transformation is certainly a costly adventure!