“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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