Losing my religion

No not really but this is my last week as a member of the Presbyterian Church (we are starting to go to another church). If this is too close to a personal testimony please avoid it but I was inspired by this to think about the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, its place in NI culture and its future. It will largely centre on Coleraine and East Belfast Presbyteries (especially Coleraine) as they are the ones I know but the issues are very likely to be generalise-able. For the religious amongst you my apologies in advance for not mentioning the power of the Holy Spirit and His ability to save souls and cause church growth: this is a blog about religion and not a religious blog.The PCI is the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland and the second largest on the island (after the Church of Ireland). In common with most of the mainstream denominations the PCI has seen a decline in numbers, currently its membership is about 300,000 (it was 336,000 in 1991 and over 400,000 in 1971). The PCI has for as long as I have known it been pretty obsessed with its numerical decline and innumerable suggestions have been made as to how to arrest this problem.

One of the PCI’s problems of course is that it is a very broad church. Some parts of it (largely within Belfast) are liberal, sometimes with a strong ecumenical tendency, whereas other parts (predominantly, though not exclusively outside Belfast and especially North Antrim and East / South Londonderry) are highly evangelical and indeed fundamentalist. These two groups and many in between coexist in relative harmony though their concerns regarding things like church growth (or arrest of decline) often diverge.

Much of the loss of membership (both active and passive) has come from the general reduction in religious observance within Ireland both north and south. This has afflicted all churches, though the Roman Catholic Church may be somewhat more immune at least in terms of keeping people as nominal members. Many Protestants who were once semi or non-practising Presbyterians have simply stopped attending church. Various attempts have been made to bring such people back into the fold with modifications to services, a decrease in formality and other things which have been feared to be “elitist.” Of course a problem which the liberal wing have had is that their frequent opposition to the Orange Order and general mistrust of harder line unionist politics have played poorly with many of those whom they are trying to persuade back into church. On the other side the more fundamentalist wing have caused themselves problems (for right or wrong reasons) by for example refusing to baptise infants of parents who do not attend church. This refusal no matter how biblical it may be has frequently caused resentment within whole families and has resulted in many more than the parents in question not attending church. The compromise position which some ministers have adopted of having a dedication may also be problematic as it seems to be a second class baptism.

Another problem, which particularly affects the fundamentalist wing, is the profusion of smaller fundamentalist churches, which have grown up in the last fifty years. Not only the Free Presbyterians but many other small denominations and indeed individual churches with no specific denominational tag have sprung up and taken significant numbers of what were once the most active and committed Presbyterians.

Sometimes the Presbyterian Church’s response to the challenges it faces has been extremely naïve and indeed incompetent. I can well remember some 20 years ago the Coleraine Presbytery’s response to the unsurprising revelation that some of its young people were going to Portrush night clubs and obtaining drugs: the church put on a single party in the Cloonavin Rooms owned by Coleraine Borough Council somehow wondering if that would help.

The youth work, once the jewel in the Presbyterian Church’s crown has in general suffered badly. Whereas once every church had an extensive programme of youth work many (including my old home church) have lost their youth fellowship for want of leaders willing to give up Sunday evenings.

The youth work itself was also occasionally problematic as there was a tendency especially in the more conservative churches for the most hard line and uber-fundamentalist view to be seen as the most holy. In my own Youth Fellowship the sorts of people brought to speak (without the minister’s knowledge or permission) tended to be the ones who denied that the wine in The Bible could have been alcoholic (odd considering the injunctions against getting drunk). Other favourite issues included the inevitability of The Rapture occurring before the year 2000 and showing the frankly terrifying Thief in the Night videos (incidentally rated 15, not that that stopped our leaders showing them to 12 year olds).

The church has also frequently been foolish in its strategies for managing decline. In an organisation, which is supposedly democratic to a fault, the amalgamation of the Presbyterian Women’s Organisation (always joking referred to by me and my mates as a secret loyalist terrorist organisation: the Protestant Warriors Association) and the Young Women’s Group was forced through. My mother (a PWA leader) recounts attending a meeting where a most earnest central leadership bod went on about how amalgamation was clearly God’s will rather than being honest and say it was due to falling numbers. As one now retired minister once warned me: Be very wary when anyone tells you what God’s will is for you as they may be setting themselves up as a mediator between you and God as that offends against the Priesthood of all Believers and is specifically one of Protestantism’s most fundamental criticisms of Roman Catholicism.

Of course in the midst of this decline there are small pockets of growth. Kilkenny Presbyterian Church was down to less than a dozen members but its elders refused to give in and close the church: now it has over 150 at most services. In the Coleraine Presbytery Hazelbank Presbyterian Church was opened on the western edge of the town in 1973 and largely through the utter determination, hard work and overwhelming holiness of Rev. Sam Millar (now retired) and his late wife it now has over 300 families. These churches are, however, a minority and the slow gradual dwindling of the denomination continues with Church House seeming to have little in the way of ideas to arrest this decline.

I of course now feel rather guilty as the Presbyterian Church has just lost one more family; I fear it will not be the only one this week.