“Reconfiguring the relationship between the church and wider society”

Norman Hamilton going down the stairsSpeaking on Friday afternoon, Dr Norman Hamilton – the outgoing moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland – called for “the reconfiguring of the proper relationship between the church and wider society”, while the moderator designate Dr Ivan Patterson said he “would welcome” the invitation of Cardinal Brady to the opening night of the General Assembly.

After twelve months in the role, Norman Hamilton has seen a lot of church and state: chairing boards and committees; acting as the denomination’s chief public face in Ireland, the UK and abroad; attending seven engagements with the Royal Family and three with President McAleese. But he says that:

… it is important to try to redefine – to reshape – the relationship of the church with the state. I think the models of a previous generation have long since passed their sell by date and that we need to find a proper mutually helpful, challenging relationship.

The four church leaders (Catholic and Anglican archbishops of Armagh, Methodist President and the Presbyterian Moderator) made many joint statements during the Troubles in the aftermath of atrocities and political events. Their togetherness was symbolic that the acts were not being done in the name of religion and were intended to be calming.

Should the four main church leaders continue today to make statements to a society that increasingly feels that it is not represented by those four denominations – never mind any? Should there be a fifth person, a humanist?

I am very uncertain about the value of statements from the four church leaders to be honest.

Some of the latest initiatives by the Taoiseach out of the Lisbon Treaty do involve other faiths and indeed do involve humanists. And I was at the first meeting of that group convened by the Taoiseach only a couple of weeks ago.

That is what I mean by a reconfiguration of the relationship. Those of us who are Christians and want to promote a Christian and biblical worldview need to realise that we are in a society that no longer accepts that as given or takes it for granted.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s motto is Ardens sed Virens – “burning but alive” or “burning but flourishing”. Is the denomination flourishing?

Some bits are flourishing and some bits are struggling. Our structures are struggling to cope with the realities of an increasingly secular changing world. Certainly the much more overtly critical emphasis in wider society is bringing challenge at local levels that we haven’t faced in the past. That’s what I meant earlier about the reconfiguring of the proper relationship between the church and wider society.

Both in his work in North Belfast and over the last year as moderator, Norman Hamilton will have conversed with many politicians. What was his assessment of the maturity of our local political process?

I was seriously disappointed by the level of internecine warfare over the budget … That seriously troubled me. But I do think that that penny has probably dropped with the new Executive and they do understand the need not so much to hide their differences but to actually ensure that they are seen to be rowing the boat in the same direction, pulling in the same direction. I would be hopeful that they would do it together but slightly fearful that from time to time we will be mentored negatively.

Cohesion, sharing and integration was a theme throughout Norman Hamilton’s year. He even appeared at the SDLP’s conference as part of their Shared Society panel debate. Has he seen any tangible progress?

There hasn’t been a lot of tangible progress in policy terms in the north. The widespread disaffection with the previous Executive’s papers showed that.

However the visit of the Queen and the welcome given to her by President McAleese and the Irish people I think has changed the dynamics of that. And perhaps in the North we have some catch up to do with what we saw modelled in the Republic.

Around many issues, including the gender of moderators – of which he says “I would love to see a woman who was moderator, but I suspect that’s a wee while away” – what makes PCI so conservative and slow to change?

It does seem to me that temperamentally we are conservative, with a small ‘c’. We are conservative about everything. And therefore we are conservative about our theology, we are conservative about what we do, what is acceptable. There’s just an in-built conservatism in our DNA and I think that has been accentuated by the Troubles. The need to be protective of who we are and what we stand for. That will change, but I still think it’s a long process.

The opening night of the General Assembly takes place on Monday night at 7pm in Church House, Fisherwick Place, Belfast. Tickets aren’t required and anyone is welcome to attend. (Belfast Lord Mayor Niall Ó Donnghaile is taking up his invitation and will be joined for the first time by representatives from sporting organisations including the GAA, IFA and Irish Rugby Football Union.

The incoming moderator Dr Ivan Patterson, has spent the last twenty years working as minister of the Presbyterian congregation in Newcastle (a town which he describes as “really a restaurant town nowadays”). When I spoke to him on Friday afternoon, he welcomed the greater inclusion of civil society at the opening event.

I can’t actually speak for the General Assembly, but as a personal opinion – locally at least – I don’t see that anybody should be told not to come in. And I think it’s good to allow people to see that you’re human, that this is how we do things, this is what we’re about, do you want to engage with us?

Given that approach, does it sit oddly with him that somebody like Cardinal Brady – who he’ll meet regularly during the year – would not be invited to the opening of the General Assembly?

My feeling on this would be – and I’ve no idea how the church is going to go on this – but especially at an opening night, the service is our service. And there’s no sense in which anyone’s being compromised – the only person who’s probably being compromised would be the archbishop if he comes. So I don’t really have a problem with it and I would welcome it. Although I did read somewhere in a report that maybe we should actually be thinking about others because we don’t invite the Baptists, we don’t invite the Reformed Presbyterians.

Ivan Patterson’s theme for the year is “Word is Life” which he describes as “discovering God through his Word, and trying to expose people to what Christ was saying to us and what he expects of us in the world”.

I think we are fairly largely “post-Christian”, in the sense that even some of the Christians are almost post-Christian, because for many people it is really something they do rather than something they know about.

He encourages business-owners in his congregation to get involved in the Chamber of Commerce and other local initiatives so “they can go and bring not necessarily a preaching role but to be some kind of salt and light that the New Testament talks about”.

Radio Ulster normally broadcasts the opening night on Medium Wave with a wry commentary from Bert Tosh and William Crawley, and there’s always a chance that PCI may stream it on their website.

You can read more about the interviews with outgoing moderator Dr Norman Hamilton and moderator designate Dr Ivan Patterson over on Alan in Belfast.

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  • Fearglic

    as an atheist i feel all this church business is just people trying to gain (social) power over others.

  • Turgon

    Norman Hamilton has been one of the most outspoken moderators in years. He has been extremely fond of the media spotlight and has at times seemed to decide on his involvement on issues largely on the basis of the potential media attention he personally could get out of them.

    Nowhere was this better demonstrated than his practically sprinting off to Londonderry when the Bloody Sunday enquiry was released. Hamilton had no track record of involvement with the families fight for justice, he had neve made any commnet on it. However, once the opportunity to get into the media spotlight came: there was Hamilton.

    In contrast when the Claudy report came out (I think some Presbyterians were killed at Claudy) Hamilton was too busy on a visit overseas to go to Claudy. It was announced on the Presbyterian Church website that he would meet the Claudy families but it later transpired that that was only as part of a general visit to the Northwest. indeed it is still unclear whether he ever met the Claudy families: there was certainly no attempt to gain media attention for any meeting.

    In the above interview Hamilton is very keen to say how he would like Presbyterianism to move.

    His castigation of the executive over certain things is interesting and it should be remembered that unlike him they are directly and democratically elected.

    It is also interesting that he seems to be quite fond of calling Northern Ireland “the north” which is far from a neutral term. Maybe he picked that up from his meeting with Adams where he sat silent whilst Adams lectured him.

    The new moderator Ivan Patterson may be more of a standard moderator. Most instructive I felt was that no only did he feel welcoming the Catholic archbishop appropriate but also pointed out that Baptists and Reformed Presbyterians would be welcome. Often the PCI has been extremely dismissive of the smaller Protestant denominations – probably because many formerly active Presbyterians are now in their membership.

    Most hopeful of all the comments from Patterson however was this “I can’t actually speak for the General Assembly”

    That is a vital fact. The moderator is not leader of the church, he is not the leader of the general assembly. He cannot speak for the Presbyterian Church. He is there to chair the general assembly and he also opens churches and halls and visits assorted hundred year olds. That is his function not to be a quasi leading prelate of the church. The moderator is no more powerful than any other elder and even elders are not especially powerful. That is a central tenant of the priesthood of all believers. Hopefully unlike Hamilton Dr. Patterson will remember that.

  • Turgon

    As an additional aside. Anyone who objects to calling Ian Paisley Dr. should also object to the term being applied to a Presbyterian moderator. The doctorates they hold are honorary. Indeed Paisley has produced some theological commentaries which are highly regarded within mainstream conservative evangelical circles. Hence, his honorary doctorate has maybe at least a bit of justification.

    My doctorate on the other hand was earned under the supervision of Professor McQuillan at the South Aist Ards Bible an’ Caterin’ College though I also have Professor McWilliams to thank.

  • HeinzGuderian

    One day the sun will burn itself out,and life in our Solar System will cease to exist !
    Eventually ALL the stars in the universe will burn themselves out,and space will be a vast,lifeless void.
    For a fraction of a nanosecond in time,we are alive.
    We argue the toss over whos god is better.
    We fight over pieces of dirt.

    Enjoy it while your here folks………..your a long time dead !!!

  • Drumlins Rock

    I think this “invite to the General Assembly” is a bit over hyped, it used to be very limited to a small number of civic leaders and a small number of “sister churches” ie. denominations with a very close working relationship. Anyone is free to attend.
    As for churches place in society, it shouldn’t be “special” but neither should they be ignored, for any organisation that has an affiliation of roughly 15% of the population in the case of PCI & CoI and over 40% in case of RCC, has a clear mandate to speak on certain issues, just like all voluntary/ sporting/ professional/ union/ groups.
    However as Turgon said, the moderator only speaks for the church one week in the year, and then only after it has been agreed!

  • Turgon

    Drumlin’s Rock,
    Thank you I agree entirely.

    One interesting observation I have is that overall the Presbyterian Church is conservative and evangelical. When a conservative evangelical is the moderator he almost always sticks fairly rigidly to the line that he is not leader of the church and does not speak for the church despite the fact that his views would fairly closely reflect that of the church’s membership.

    On the other hand when a liberal is moderator he tends to be much more fond of “speaking for the church” and indeed presenting himself as the leader of the church. That is in spite of the fact that he will not reflect the views of the church membership anything like as closely as the conservatives who refute the suggestion that they speak for the church.

    Also the conservative moderators seem much more tolerant of people holding views different to their own than the liberals. Sort of the opposite of what one would expect.

  • So having critiqued the different styles of moderator (and come to agreement!) what about the subject of the post?

    Would you happily see all church leaders step back from big civic pronouncements? Or be less available/visible in moments of civic crisis?

    If Presbyterians and Methodists and Catholics and Baptists want to offer society alternatives – that fit their biblical worldview – should they do it at a grass roots level, relationally within the communities they serve rather than from the 10.30pm news bulletins?

  • Drumlins Rock

    “should they do it at a grass roots level, relationally within the communities they serve rather than from the 10.30pm news bulletins?”

    Duh, what do you think they are doing 99.99% of the time? could do it much better of course, but are by far still the largest sector of civic society, and should have a voice when necessary.

    However I do agree such a voice should be used sparingly, and dare I say rarely is the figurehead the best person to express it.

  • > Duh, what do you think they are doing 99.99% of the time?

    Depends on the congregation, but some of the time they’re not that well engaged in civil society.

  • Turgon

    Alan,
    Far be it from me to intrude into you and DR’s discussion but in the country areas frequently the Presbyterian Church is civic society: organising most children and young peoples’ activities both secular and religious; women’s organisations; mothers and toddlers; older people’s events; sporting and social organisations.

    Indeed the only thing they do not run tends to be the men’s organisations which is usually the Orange Order.

    There is a difference especially in the country between engaging in civic society which the church does extremely well and engaging in quasi politics which most congregations and their minister’s avoid. Some of the members may be active in politics but the view is that that is separate from the church.

    In contrast some (and only some) of the more liberal predominantly middle class Belfast congregations are overtly involved in what might be described as liberal politics, indeed some seem to try to encourage their congregation to be the Alliance Party at prayer. Those congregations and their ministers seem to be much more than averagely interested in the media spotlight and get much more media attention than they numerically merit.

  • ThomasMourne

    So these Moderator fellas are Christian but the sort of Christian that are not very happy at having other types of Christian at their ‘dos’.

    Don’t suppose they invite Jews either. Which would rule out Jesus if he happened to reappear at the door of the General Assembly.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Thomas, can you not read? EVERYONE is welcome to go tomorrow night. A small number of invites are given to representatives of civic groups and other religious groups with a close relationship.

  • youngpolitico

    The problem I have (as a committed Christian) with the church leaders is that they seem more interested in being media consultants than church leaders.

    So they spend most of their time running from social committee to social committee, from government official to government official before releasing a statement talking about something or other that has little to no connection to the church. Meanwhile their churches are closing and numbers dwindling.

  • The Raven

    Only a small addendum:

    “His castigation of the executive over certain things is interesting and it should be remembered that unlike him they are directly and democratically elected”…

    ….by 54% of the electorate.

  • > ….by 54% of the electorate.

    By the 54% of the electorate who bothered to vote. So actually by around 30% of the population!

  • The Raven

    Absolutely, Alan. It seems to be a point which is fleetingly referenced and quickly passed over most commentators…

  • Turgon

    Young politico,
    That is a very fair point. I think some of the minstream church leaders do get asked for media comment and probably feel that they should engage with the media. That is not a big problem.

    However, some of these churchmen seem especially fond of the media spotlight: and actively seek it out (Hamilton is a prime example). They may like the kudos and I sometimes wonder if some like the fees which they can get for going on assorted programmes; better still if they can end up as presenters etc. of religious and social affairs programmes.

    In my experience the ministers etc. of the smaller denominations are often very media shy as are most of the mainstream churches ministers but there is a certain set of “media celebrity” minister.

    The moderator I knew best was Harry Allen who was an utterly godly and gracious man. He did his year as moderator and then vanished back to where he wanted to be: Garvagh. I suspect that some like Hamilton will continue to try to lurk about the media stage for as long as they can. What is happening to their church whilst they are doing this is an interesting question.