In the end, this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly was less headline-grabbing than the recent Church of Ireland Synod. However the outgoing and incoming moderators did tackle some good issues in their addresses on Monday evening.
Last weekend I wrote a short opinion piece to accompany Thursday morning’s News Letter coverage of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
As a distraction from the referendum posts, I reproduce it here. Given that this is Slugger, no doubt, whether you’re Presbyterian or not – in fact, whether you value organised religion or personal faith of not – you’ll have opinions!
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When Rev Dr Alastair Dunlop became Presbyterian Moderator in June 2001 he chose “People Matter to God” as his theme. Ten years later and the familiar strapline that encapsulates the heart of the Gospel still reverberates around congregations.
General Assembly is dominated by internal denominational administration, reports from boards and committees, appointments, messages from sister denominations around the world and a lot of strong tea and coffee.
This week of introspection will be reported in the press as long debates on money (strategies to maximise congregational giving), sex (discussions around homosexuality and same-sex marriage are never far away) and maybe even the length of ministers’ annual leave.
Is that what I as a Presbyterian want to be known for? No.
I want Presbyterians to be known for loving the poor: the poor in health, poor in wealth, poor in spirit, poor in self-esteem, poor in literacy and numeracy. Jesus’ ministry was dominated by his interaction with the poor, reaching out his hand to walk with those who were less fortunate.
Whether in Derry, Dublin, Delhi or Durban, Presbyterians should be known for their habit of looking beyond themselves and their own comfort and making a positive difference right round the world.
I want Presbyterians to be more inclusive. Irish history shows that Presbyterians tend to turn up on both sides of a fight. Not all Presbyterians signed the Ulster Covenant. Presbyterians haven’t been universally loyal to the British monarch.
While the default perception is that most Presbyterians are unionist – and the more liberal ones vote Alliance – this assumption must be broken. People with diverse opinions on border, identity or language issues need to be given space and indeed welcomed. And there needs to be a constant reminder that it is the Presbyterian Church of all Ireland.
I want Presbyterians to be more aware of their own hang-ups and sinfulness and less condemnatory of others. Presbyterians should prop their doors wide open and be known more for our grace than our judgmentalism.
The very point at which parents take the initiative and approach a minister to ask for their infant to be blessed should be a chance to welcome people into the setting of a loving congregation, rather than an opportunity to get out a checklist and see if they qualify for God’s blessing.
I want Presbyterians to have the freedom and power to challenge structures which perpetrate injustice: politicians who fail to stand up for the rights of all; businesses and corporations which discriminate and exploit.
Bill Hybels said: “We never lock eyes with someone who doesn’t matter to God”.
Presbyterians should lock eyes with greater numbers of people, and let their eyes search our souls. That should be the mark of Presbyterians in the months and years ahead.