Part XXV: Is creative planting possible within Irish Presbyterian structures?

Due to the complex and troubled history of Ireland, denominational labels can carry negative connotations, so that any move by the PCI to become truly missional and break new ground in terms of planting is not only going to have to deal with issues of self-identity, but also issues of perception from within the majority population. Referring to the Plantation and Cromwellian periods of the seventeenth century, Keith McCrory reminds us: “These early associations with what were regarded as hostile occupational forces have influenced, and continue to influence, how our denomination’s ministry is received within the indigenous population today.” John Dunlop, however, sees signs of hope that attitudes are softening in this regard: “Irish Catholicism is changing. It is becoming more open and more friendly to Presbyterians….A Presbyterian church is not any longer a place to be shunned at all costs. No longer do Catholics stand outside a Protestant church for a funeral.”

Funeral of Irish President Douglas Hyde (a Protestant) in 1949.  His Catholic colleagues and friends were instructed by their church not to attend but to join the procession outside

It is interesting to observe even regional differences with regard to the perception of the Presbyterian name. Of the two recent Presbyterian plants in the Republic of Ireland, the one in Maynooth (a historical bastion of Catholicism and the site of the world-famous training college for Catholic priests) chose to call itself Maynooth Community Church, while the one in Donabate (a newly developed north Dublin suburb with a religiously and ethnically mixed population) chose to retain the name Presbyterian, as they believed it carried greater credibility than more generic titles.

Perhaps the best summary of the PCI’s attitude toward planting and mission throughout its history is in a series of short articles by Alistair Kennedy, who also co-chaired the denomination’s Strategy for Mission Committee in the mid-1990s. He acknowledges that while the denomination’s “default mode” has tended to be to work among its own people, there have been significant moments when the vision has broadened, and church planting has always been a part of this. He explains that church planting “…has been aimed mainly at making disciples of the Ulster Scots in their wanderings but also at times has represented significant mission amongst the other people of Ireland. Mission in Ireland has for Presbyterians almost always meant the planting of new congregations.”

In charting the planting of the rival Secession synod in the eighteenth century, Kennedy challenges some traditional interpretations. The Seceders capitalized on doctrinal uncertainty and unpopular political moves within the main Synod, and yet extended Presbyterian coverage in areas of rapid population growth. Kennedy suggests that the popular idea of the Seceders unnecessarily duplicating and planting on their neighbors’ doorstep is in reality much more nuanced. “What in today’s much reduced rural population seems to be duplication may well in the eighteenth century have been a correct response to the steady increase in population.” Particularly when one bears in mind that for internal and financial reasons, planting by the existing church had reduced to almost a trickle – what he refers to as “75 years of inaction.”  He refers to the Seceder period as “a free market” for Presbyterianism, and looking at the plethora of new churches today, he observes: “Today there is a much more powerful ‘free market for churches’ causing a hemorrhage of people from the Presbyterian Church. We have much to learn from the flexibility of the Seceder period in Church planting.”

The Union of the two synods in 1840 led to “Presbyterianism’s greatest period of advancement outside Ulster,” (40% of those planted in the 1850s were outside of Ulster).  He  attributes this to “the impact of the Missionary Synod in Dublin (1833), the home mission efforts of the (newly) united Church and the vision amongst the Divinity students.” Sadly, however, of the sixteen congregations mentioned by Kennedy as examples, only four are still in existence. Two of these are united with the Methodists, and two number less than a dozen families.

Nevertheless, Kennedy’s articles illustrate that there was flexibility in previous Presbyterian planting practice that could have implications for the very different situation today. Rather than congregations always being planted by the denomination: “Previously, new congregations had arisen from local activity. Sometimes it happened spontaneously as people began to meet together in a home or barn and then applied to the local Presbytery. At other times it was through the initiative of wealthy Presbyterians, individual Ministers, congregations or Presbyteries. However, from 1928 onwards the process was institutionalized.”

He urges the contemporary PCI to recover some of this flexibility:  “The gathered Church fellowship is going to succeed the traditional Presbyterian model of the baptized community…Church planting is not optional, rather it is fundamental to Presbyterian mission…There may not be much geographic space uncovered by Presbyterian congregations in the Province of Ulster today but there is much “social space” where we are not present and unparalleled opportunities in other areas of Ireland where there are awakened people in search of a reformed church.”

The church’s vision must, he says, continue to spread beyond its traditional base: “We must be impressed by the sense of mission our forefathers had in their dogged and successful work of following the Ulster Scots and their descendants, even to the remotest parts, to disciple them for Christ.” However, he points out, present trends would suggest that today’s congregations will need to “survive and adapt to meet the needs of newly converted pagans rather than provide rites for degenerate Puritans.”

It is not surprising then that in urging such creativity, Kennedy concludes his series with a call for the church to examine alternative means of funding and personnel to resource these new communities – including the need to look seriously at bivocational planters. We need, he writes in his final article, “an outburst of evangelism and social witness in the many areas of social space that we fail to see because we have the geographic space so neatly sewn up in our parish system.” This may mean “…the planting of new Church fellowships. Such fellowships would begin as very small units which will need less than fully ordained ministries to establish and shepherd them.”

Although the great Presbyterian population shifts are gone, that cannot mean an end to church planting. Rather, he urges, “What is needed is a different kind of church planting in which we encourage growth from the grass roots rather than drop massive resources from the top. We must empower local people by partnership rather than turn them into clients, perhaps by use of tentmaking missionary elders.” Nor should the denomination be afraid of failure, or heap unrealistic expectations on those who are merely trying to find new ways of being faithful to the gospel in a new context.

He states: “Some of these new starts will fail, some will stagger along and a few will grow like wildfire. We need within our denominational structures to learn to live with small units as normal and not expect each “congregation” to be of the size to support the full panoply of salaried Minister, Manse, Church buildings, central assessments, etc…. Their reception as full congregations will necessitate the Assembly giving them space to be different… We will have to recognize that inside our overall Presbyterian family and within the same theological system there are different ways of being Reformed, some of which do not descend directly from the Ulster-Scots tradition. This is particularly important if we are to take on board the reality that to be a Scots-Irish ethnic Church is no longer a sufficient ecclesiological base for mission – if we take our God given mission seriously in this island. The possibility of a real growth of new fellowships consisting of people coming from an ‘Irish” base is a reality today. If we are serious about being the Church of Christ in Ireland than we can no more expect such people to become Ulster-Scots type Presbyterians than Paul expected Gentiles to become Jews…. Mistakes will no doubt be made… but we need the freedom to make mistakes so that we may discover what God honors with success.

So, Kennedy argues, this is not just a practical consideration but also a theological one – “to be a Scots-Irish ethnic Church is no longer a sufficient ecclesiological base for mission.” Have the Presbyterians diminished the understanding of what it means to be Reformed, and even diminished the gospel itself by holding too tightly to structures and polities from a bygone era?


One comment

  1. Great article Monty. Large swathes of Ireland have little or no Presbyterian presence in geographical terms. (Connaught and Munster for instance with Leinster ahead on points! ) A good starting point to address this elephant in the room is to look at the location of training of budding ministers and the subsequent apprenticeship locations assigned them. If Church House looks at the reasons why there are so few applicants for ministry from these regions and addresses the findings without prejudice then we may see the PCI doing the job of mission it was given so long ago. PCI has so much to give to all of Ireland.

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