The Church in the Public Square

The Church in the Public Square is a conference organised jointly between PCI’s Church and Society Committee and Union Theological College.

Following on from the last successful conference in January, the theme of the upcoming autumn conference is Equality, Freedom and Religion. It will be held on Thursday 9th October 2014 in Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast from 10 am to 3.30pm. Registration from 9.30am.

The equality agenda is important in building a just and equitable society. Yet this raises many very important issues which have scarcely been debated, never mind satisfactorily resolved. Whilst freedom of religious belief is widely accepted, there is much less consensus on the issue of freedom of religious expression and practice within a modern democracy. This is one of the core themes that will be explored at this day conference, with the help of our three key speakers.


Religious Freedom in a Secular Society  Professor Roger Twigg, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Warwick

Faith in Human Rights and Equality       Professor Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University, Belfast

Facing Equality – What’s the Story?         Dr Michael Wardlow, Equality Commission for Northern Ireland 


To register, please visit  or telephone 028 9041 7203.


Conference fee, including lunch, £20. Full-time students £12.

Pre-Term Lectures


KSOliphint-2013[1]Our Pre-term Conference and Induction Days for all new students at Union College will be held on 22-24 September. This is an important time for those commencing studies at Union as well as for returning students.

Our guest lecturer this year will be Dr Scott Oliphint, Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Dr Oliphint will be giving four lectures on Tuesday 23 September and Wednesday 24 September. We have some space available for visitors, and if you would like to attend these lectures, please give us a ring on 028 9020 5080 to book a place. There will be no charge!

Here’s the schedule for Dr Oliphint’s lectures:

Tuesday 23 September

1.45pm – 2.30pm         “Always Ready”: An Introduction to Apologetics

Coffee break

3.00pm – 3.45 pm          “Set Christ Apart as Lord”

Wednesday 24 September

1.45pm -2.30pm         “Proof and Persuasion”

Coffee Break

3.00pm-3.45pm          “Walk in Wisdom”


Learning to talk


Image from openclipart

I was involved in an online conversation in a secular public forum last week and, after a bit of chat with a few folks, received a pretty vitriolic response from a new poster. He accused me of being deliberately provocative and (to paraphrase) too smarmy for my own good. I hadn’t realised that my posts were open to that interpretation and I apologised. To be fair to him, he also apologised for going over the top. A couple of days later, another contributer accused me of being deliberately and unnecessarily provocative. I hadn’t intended this at all.

Within a few days of joining the conversation, I realised that I was doing something badly wrong. I’m still not sure but I can see at least four problems. First, these conversations were a new form of communication for me and I hadn’t learned the language ot its etiquette. I’m used to communicating in the lecture room and pulpit and, of course in all the normal casual situations of life, face to face, but in a world where the reader only has black words on a white screen, all of the subtleties of personal communication are missing. I hope I’m getting it now and I’m starting to appreciate the value of emoticons, which I’d always looked down on.

Second, I didn’t realise that, being a stranger to the other contributers, they know nothing about me or how I talk, my sense of humour, my general use of language. I’ve realised afresh that all communication is done in the context of the relationship that exists between the partners. Hopefully as we get to know each other we’ll get to understand each other better.

Third, have I become so centred on the Christian community that I’ve lost the ability to communicate well with non-Christians about spiritual things? Could it be that I’m too familiar with spiritual jargon and even sentence structures that are ‘baptised’ that I really do come across badly to non-Christians?

Fourth, could it be that, in general, I don’t communicate what I think I’m communicating. Do I need to remember the aphorism that what I say is not nearly as important as what people hear?

Just to confirm – this post is not meant to be smarmy, pretentious, self-serving, angry, bitter, ‘clever’, insulting, morbidly self-analytical etc, etc. But it is meant to invite a moment’s thougth about how well, or badly, we communicate. If I only knew how to insert a wee round smiley thingy at this point…

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie


St Pauls Order of Service
St Pauls Order of Service

Quite by accident, I attended part of the ‘Sung Eucharist to Commemorate the Hundredth Anniversary of the Outbreak of World War 1.’ The invited guests filled perhaps a quarter of St Paul’s Cathedral in London with interested spectators taking up perhaps another quarter. Passers-by, like myself, came in and out, most paying little attention to what was happening at the front. I arrived perhaps ten minutes into the service but it was only out of a sense of discipline and a desire to at least try genuinely to worship, that I stayed for about half an hour. It was simply terrible. It had a certain grandeur, solemnity and even, to those with ears to hear, beauty in the music, to the aesthete, it may have been magnifique.

The words of Scripture and the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer obviously meant something to me, but, overall, what I saw and heard was culturally and spiritually so distant from me that it was punishingly boring and spiritually deadening… and I’m supposed to be, at least to some degree, an insider. I later discovered that Communion had been celebrated and that the service had ended with the metrical version of Ps. 100, to ‘Old One Hundredth’, so maybe things would have come closer to my understanding of magnifique.  But, of course, it would only have been an improvement for me: a Christian; an educated, middle class Presbyterian… almost sixty years old.

In all that we do in the Church of Jesus Christ we must beware of being magnifique but having nothing to do with la guerre (spirituelle). In the context of what the service was commemorating there was an awful poignancy and a dreadful irony. To replace la guerre with la folie comes perilously close to ‘having a form of godliness but denying its power’ (2Tim.3:5).

Lord, keep us from ignoring the battle cry of the Mighty Warrior (Zeph.1:14) and settling for the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The most persecuted people in the world?

The Belfast Telegraph carried an article on Monday, which had first appeared in the Independent on Sunday, claiming that recently published research has shown that Christians are the most persecuted people in the world. The debate surrounding this claim has been very interesting with arguments about statistics, suggestions that ‘you reap what you sow’ and arguing about the definition of persecution taking up much space.The picture (left) with the article was of Meriam Ebrahim, recently released from prison in Sudan, meeting the Pope.

Here are seven reflections that, I believe, are beyond dispute:

1. Christians are being persecuted and martyred around the world.

2. Undoubtedly Christians have been involved in persecution of other religious groups but the volume and intensity of Christian persecution of other religious groups pales in comparison with persecution being visited on Christians

3. Persecution for one’s faith and hostility for other social reasons are often intertwined.

4. Western interference and support for various insurgents has led to a very significant increase in Christians being persecuted, most notably in the Middle East.

5. We must distinguish between opposition and persecution. We have every right to oppose what we believe to be wrong. Just as Christians will argue against, say, Islam, so Muslims and others have every right to argue against Christians but opposition should be peaceful, reasoned and principled.

6. Christians cannot look for help from Western or historically Christianised governments… unless such help will be politically advantageous to these governments! In contrast, it is likely that principled people in other religions and of no religion may be allies against unfair treatment.

7. The historically privileged position of the Church in the ‘West’ is coming to an end. Opposition will increase, possibly also persecution. As we, in the West, come to the same position that many other Christians have been in for generations, we will need to learn from them, from both their faithfulness and their failures.

Coming onto our turf?

I’ve recently come across two innovations in which secular society is ‘trespassing’ on ‘our turf’.

Sunday Assembly (  Mystery worshipper report at ) describes itself as, ‘all the best bits of church but with no religion, and awesome pop songs.’ It claims to be what Christians do on a Sunday but with all the definitively Christian aspects removed. In some places it seems to be popular but it’s too soon to know whether or not it will become a permanent fixture. A local assembly has met a few times in Belfast (Black Box, 3pm – 5pm) but I don’t know if it’s on every Sunday or even if it still meets.

Where do I begin to offer some comments? At the minute I’ll make do with a few fairly random thoughts:

1. There is something of a backhanded compliment here; they see that we have something special and they want to imitate it.

2. Christian Sunday worship is both the core and shop window of the church; Sunday Assembly is neither of these. Its core philosophy is trite and consequently there is nothing of substance on display.

3. Christian Sunday worship is an expression of Christian community, which is also expressed in many other ways, throughout the week.  Sunday Assembly is not or, at least, not yet.

4. Christian Sunday worship is not primarily for enjoyment. Sometimes it can and ought to be disturbing and painful. I could be wrong, but Sunday Assembly shows no sign of being able to retain folk who don’t enjoy it.

Christians are criticised for things like cliqueishness, considering themselves better than others and unthinking fundamentalism. There is not the remotest chance of Sunday Assembly avoiding the very same things.


Death Cafes ( ) are not therapy or counselling groups. They are not necessarily for people who have been bereaved although this is by far the largest constituency and they are certainly not for freaky people who want to be morbidly punk. The aim of Death Cafe is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.

Christians have always done more than talk about death, we even ‘celebrate’ the death of Jesus, by drinking ersatz blood, which must sound pretty morbid to outsiders. We have good reason to look forward to death and it is that which lies beyond death that gives direction and, to some degree, form to our lives. Death Cafe is well meaning and I have no doubt that folk may benefit from going along. If the movement does take off, what about a Christian Death Cafe? It would need to be handled with extreme sensitivity but might be worthwhile.

Both of these endeavours remind me of an article, possibly by Matthew Parris, that claimed that everyone should act as if Christianity was true. Romans 1:20ff says, For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.Although they claimed to be wise, they became foolsand exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Glimpses of truth remain but they are overlain with much sinful folly. Are glimpses such as the Sunday Assembly and Death Cafe the best places to start our evangelism?

General Assemblies and Same Sex Marriage

Now that the season of Presbyterian General Assemblies is over for another year, it’s interesting to note how some of them addressed the vexed issue of same sex marriage. These decisions have major implications for members of these churches and they are causing considerable anxiety among those who hold to a traditional, biblical position. It also has implications for other denominations like the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in terms of their fraternal relations with these churches.

The Church of Scotland General Assembly seemed to affirm two opposite and mutually exclusive positions. It insisted that the church’s traditional policy – that sex should take place only within heterosexual marriage – remains intact, but it said that liberal congregations will be able to opt out to recruit ministers in gay relationships. That decision still needs to be legally drafted and presbyteries consulted before next year’s Assembly. But if and when this year’s decision is enacted, the church’s insistence that nothing substantial has changed will become impossible to sustain.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has continued on its liberalising trajectory of recent years. The delegates at this year’s General Assembly  voted by 317 (61%) to 238 (39%) to allow ordained clergy to conduct same-sex weddings, and also approved an amendment to the denomination’s constitution to define marriage as between “two people” rather than “a man and a woman.” While the change to allow same-sex wedding ceremonies goes into effect immediately, it applies only to the 19 states that have legalized same-sex relationships as “marriage.” A similar move was voted down last year, although the denomination did vote in 2011 to allow the ordination of clergy who are practicing homosexuals. However, until the vote this year PCUSA ministers technically faced discipline for blessing same-sex partnerships. The decision to amend the PCUSA constitution still requires the approval of a majority of the denomination’s 172 presbyteries, but many commentators seem convinced that the departure of many conservative churches from the PCUSA, as well as the amendment’s landslide victory at the General Assembly, make approval seem likely.

The United Reformed Church failed to reach agreement on becoming the largest Church in the UK to hold same-sex weddings. Its General Assembly, which met in Cardiff, failed to persuade some delegates to drop their opposition to proposals on same-sex marriage. General Secretary Rev John Proctor said a “clear majority” was in favour, but the Church needed “full consensus”. The Church allows civil partnership ceremonies within its buildings. “A clear majority of members of Assembly expressed the view that local congregations should be permitted to offer same-sex marriage to those who seek that opportunity,” Mr Proctor said of the debate. “However, because our decision-making process is based on the seeking of full consensus, Assembly was unable to reach agreement.” The meeting passed a resolution inviting synods and local congregations to discuss the issue further and to report back by the end of March next year.

So for many individuals and congregations, the question is: “Should I leave or should I stay?”

Back in June 2002, the synod of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster authorized its bishop to produce a service for blessing same-sex unions, to be used in any parish of the diocese that requests it. A number of synod members walked out to protest the decision. They declared themselves out of communion with the bishop and the synod, and they appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Anglican primates and bishops for help. Well-known theologian Dr Jim Packer was one of those who walked out. Many people asked him why. His answer, in an article in Christianity Today, although specifically relevant to Anglicans, gives guidance to any Christians who are troubled by developments in their church or denomination. I have included the article in full below the fold.

Continue reading “General Assemblies and Same Sex Marriage”

Ashers Baking Company: ‘Gay cake’ row could end up in court

Three quick, off the top of the head, questions that, I recognise, need to be thought through in more detail.

1. This picture promotes ‘Gay marriage’. The important word is ‘promotes’. While, legally, we are obliged to recognise that the UK accepts gay marriage, are we under obligation to promote it? We accept the right of Muslims to worship without being oppressed but we are not obliged to promote Islam. We accept that people should not be discriminated against because of the colour of their skin but we are not obliged to promote any particular organisation that supports racial equality. We accept the existence of a wide range of political parties but we are not obliged to promote any. Is it important to maintain the distinction between acceptance and promotion?

2. If I understand the situation correctly, Ashers did not refuse to fulfil the order because the customer was homosexual, indeed, I don’t know if he or she was. They refused to assist in promoting  a cause; they did not refuse to serve a customer because of his or her sexual orientation. Is it not reasonable to refuse to promote a cause with which one is not in sympathy?

3. If it transpires that refusal to bake this particular cake is actually illegal, have we come to a defining moment at which the Church must decide whether to follow the demands of UK law or to act in a way that, we believe, promotes human flourishing? If the choice is to be made, its consequences will have to be accepted. The end of Christendom is not to be mourned but this, and similar recent events, indicate what the future may hold for the Church. Are Christians in the UK willing to listen to, and learn from, brothers and sisters in other parts of the world where being socially unacceptable and seriously legally constrained have always been the norm.

And a final tangentially related thought: In the discussions surrounding Orange parades, a number of folk have said that protests must be peaceful. I fully agree. They have also said that there is no room for civil disobedience – I’m not so sure about that. Civil disobedience has a long and honoured place in Christian history, but it has to be done peacefully and lovingly. Perhaps Christians supporting a bakery might show others how it should be done.

As with all of my posts, this comes as my personal opinion, not that of UTC.

Reading and Writing

pic. (c) The Guardian

Around this time of year I regularly field variations on the question, ‘Are you just on holiday now, what do you do during the summer?’

My answer’s always pretty much the same, ‘This is the time of year when I get to do two things I’ve been waiting to do since September: read and write.’

Of course, it’s not that I don’t read and write during the teaching term, much of my working time is spent doing one or the other. But in the summer months I can leave behind reading student essays, journals and exams, board reports and so on. I have finished writing feedback comments, committee minutes, references and the like. Now I get to read what I want to read, not what I have to read; I get to write what I want to write, not what I have to write. Actually, this sort of reading and writing is essential for me, it’s part of my job and it’s part of my spiritual development as well.

Everyone who is involved in Christian ministry, whether full-time or part-time, salaried or voluntary, ought to be devoting time to reading widely; learning from the wisdom of their peers and from the experienced wisdom of older Christians; Christians from different cultures; Christians from different traditions and Christians from different centuries. Summer is a great time to do this.

pic (c) Carleton College

Writing also is very valuable. The discipline of choosing words and recording them on paper or electronically slows down our thinking, forces us to greater depth of reflection and can draw out an honesty that is all too easy to skip over if we just ‘think’. Writing helps us to order our thoughts. We can write and rewrite, adding and subtracting until what lies before us is a true reflection of who we are. By the way, you can’t really blog or tweet, use Facebook or other social media like this – they are too public, too easy to manipulate. In social media you present the image that you want others to see, not the real you. Why not try keeping a diary or journal, writing poetry or short stories, just for yourself, that no-one but you and the Lord will ever see. Write reviews of tv programmes or films. Have a go at, ‘A description of my favourite room in the house and what I feel when I look round it.’

So read well, write well and have a great summer.

A tragedy but not a lottery

Artist, Nicola Russell, who,lives with incurable cancer (picture – Belfast Telegraph)

What a tragedy that Nicola Russell and others who live with cancer must also live with the knowledge that, in Northern Ireland, they cannot have access to drugs that could improve and extend their lives. Their pain is increased by knowing that, in other parts of the UK, the NHS would pay for this treatment. The Belfast Telegraph (24th June), along with many others, call this situation a ‘postcode lottery.’ But this is entirely misleading. It gives the impression that NHS treatment is some sort of game of chance. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Local NHS Trusts and those in power in local government have limited budgets and must make terrible decisions. Every pound spent on a cancer drug could also be spent on the salary of a geriatric nurse or on support for children with serious mental health problems or on hip operations or on… Denying a patient any of these becomes a tragedy when a geriatric patient dies in a hospital bed and isn’t discovered for three hours or a child takes his own life or an elderly woman falls down stairs to her death. Each was denied care because of the ‘postcode lottery’ that denied them life-saving treatment.

The Church has no political power but we can support both our Christian brothers and sisters and the many others who work in the NHS and in local government who make and who live with the consequences of dreadfully difficult and complex decisions. We can pray but we can do more. We can contribute to the decision making process, bringing the wisdom and compassion of Christ to the debates so that money does not simply follow those who shout loudest or who have the most effective lobbyists, or whose cause is the ‘flavour of the month’ in the media, butwill be forgotten when someone else’s tragedy sells more advertising space (am I a bit too cynical here? Maybe so)

So, think theologically about how we should care for the weak, write to your local politician, listen to the nurse who sits next you in the pew, or commit yourself to caring for someone in your congregation who suffers as Nicola Russell and many others do.