Rt Rev Dr Charles McMullen, the outgoing Presbyterian Moderator reflects on his year in the spotlight. He said that he feels a genuine sadness that his year in office is coming to an end. He also confided that on his election, back in February 2018, he had talked himself into the role by saying that it would be a ‘career break’ from his congregation for a year. However he soon discovered that it wasn’t!
Dr McMullen was speaking to this month’s Presbyterian Herald in advance of this year’s General Assembly, which opens on 3rd June 2019. That will be when Rev William Henry of Maze Presbyterian Church will succeed him as Moderator for 2019/2020.
It was on his successor’s selection, by the denomination’s presbyteries this February, that he realised that his year in office was moving to a close. The sadness that he felt as a result, he says, was an indication as to how much he had actually enjoyed his year in office.
At the same time, Dr McMullen admits to being personally stretched by the role, as it had been more challenging and intense than he had imagined. It had also been a time when he had been inspired and excited by what he had seen of the work of the Church across Ireland and overseas.
“Each day has been special, encouraging and different. I have met all kinds of people and experienced such hospitality, realising that there is such a tremendous heart in our Church. That is one word that I would want to emphasise as I step down, this whole idea of ‘heart’, and the overall heart of our denomination is good.”
“There is a great love, a great commitment, a great dedication and desire to serve the Lord across our congregations, a vibrant beating heart… This year has given me a renewed passion for the local church and how it is not on its own, but part of a bigger family. It has also shown me and reinforced the overall importance of relationships,” he said.
He also acknowledged that in many ways it had been a difficult year for the Church, especially in the immediate aftermath of last year’s General Assembly, with the headlines and general reaction to some of the decisions that members had taken that week. As he began his 300-plus engagements, which included preaching in different congregations most Sundays, he said that he encountered both ‘support and heartache’ over what had happened.
“Initially when I was elected I might have talked myself into this role by saying it would be a career break from my congregation for a year, I soon discovered that it wasn’t. As Moderator you try always to listen and weigh things up, and one of the phrases I found myself using in those early days was ‘on the one hand / on the other’.
“As a Church it is vitally important that we state what we believe in accordance with the Scriptures, but we must also stress the importance of having a pastoral heart and throughout the year perhaps God has given me the grace to respond to the challenges as I have tried to set the tone, always being gentle and consensual,” he said.
The Moderator’s theme for the year was ‘Building Relationships, Christ’s love compels us.’
Part of that has been wrapped up in his theme for the year, ‘Building Relationships, Christ’s love compels us’, which has been a constant presence. The theme had come to him on the night of his election. “Two words struck me ‘building relationships’. As soon as I believe I was given those words, it was as if God said to me ‘this is right, but it will not be altogether easy…this is very much for the long-haul.’ Throughout the General Assembly and the ensuring year, bearing in mind I believe that God gave me this theme and said that it would be for the long haul, it became all the more vital and all the more imperative,” he said.
It has been a ‘life changing’ year in office.
While some of the work has attracted positive headlines, such as the church leader’s initiative to bring Northern Ireland’s politicians together last September, and attending the State Reception for Pope Francis in Dublin – where he did eight TV and radio interviews in the space of 12 hours – much of what Dr McMullen has been quietly engaged in hasn’t attracted so much attention – yet has, in his own words, been ‘life changing’, especially his overseas tour of Jordan last August.
“We went to Jordan to encourage colleagues connected with PCI and it was there that we came face-to-face with Christianity and the rawness of faith in a kind of way that was simply amazing. In refugee camps we met brothers and sisters in Christ, who had experienced persecution in other parts of the Middle East, people who had put their needs on the line to serve Jesus. For me, it put a lot into perspective,” he said.
But it wasn’t just in Jordan that he discovered people making a real difference in demonstrating Christ’s love to others. Throughout his four week-long presbytery tours, his visits most Sundays to local congregations, touring the denomination’s homes and support units and seeing Presbyterians showing leadership in business, have all given him an incredible bird’s eye view of life in PCI, which he also said had left him “in awe” of his ministerial colleagues.
“As time has gone on I have had a renewed passion for the Church of Jesus Christ. We live in a society that is fractured and broken, but the local Christian community of God’s people is very much the hope of the world, something that I have witnessed across our Presbyterian denomination and farther afield.”
Dr McMullen said that he had been inspired by people across the denomination, “from the exuberance of a thousand teenagers committed to Christ at last year’s ‘Making A Difference’ event in Coleraine, to being so blessed by the long years of Christian witness of the centenarians I have met, and so many faithful people in between.”
Rt Rev Dr Charles McMullen is the 173rd person to hold the office
The 173rd person to hold the office since 1840 and the 5th Moderator to come from Bangor also said that he had seen the year as a ‘marathon sprint’ and that he will keep praying that the Lord will get him safely over the line.
“There will be a certain amount of relief, but it will be tinged with genuine sadness that it has come to an end. But I have run the race, supported so steadfastly by Barbara, by the prayers of many and the awesome power of the Holy Spirit. As a parish minister first and foremost, I will look forward to returning to West, but with memories of an unbelievable year,” he said.
On the opening Night of the General Assembly Dr McMullen will give a fuller review of his year to those gathered in the Assembly Hall. For those unable to attend, the Opening Night will be streamed live on the PCI website. It will also be broadcast live on BBC Radio Ulster 1341 Medium Wave.
The live stream will continue throughout the General Assembly, which closes on Friday 7th June 2019 You can also follow the debates on Twitter @pciassembly using the hashtag #PCIGA19