‘We need to enjoy God’ – Rt Rev Dr William Henry, newly elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
In his address at the Opening Night of this year’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland held in Assembly Buildings, Belfast (3rd June 2019), the denomination’s newly elected Moderator, Right Reverend Dr William Henry, has challenged the Church not to simply admire God from a distance, but to get up close and make a connection with him – and ‘enjoy God’.
He was addressing 800 church members, overseas guests and civic dignitaries during the opening service ahead of four days of debate by ministers and elders from the Church’s 500-plus congregations across Ireland. Meeting together in General Assembly they will discuss a diverse range of church-related matters and public issues.
During his address, in the historic setting of the Assembly Hall, Dr Henry unveiled his theme for his year in office – ‘Enjoying God’. Exploring his theme he said that for many Christians, because of the pressures and busyness of life and the daily routine of sameness, there was a tendency to simply admire God from a distance without “getting up close and really making a connection with him. It was exactly for that reason that I want to take as my theme for the year ‘Enjoying God’,” he said.
Speaking of one of the pieces of Scripture that was read during the service, Romans 5:1-5, the Moderator, who grew up in Mallusk in County Antrim said, “The flow of the passage, and the weight of the meaning is that to live life as you were intended, to get the most from life, you need to have a deep wellspring of joy. And that enjoyment of God comes from a vibrant transforming relationship with God…I believe that Christian joy gives us an entirely different way to get through life. The joy that God gives is so different it changes your life.”
Dr Henry explained that he believed the reason for this was that “Christian joy is not based on your circumstances…we can rejoice even in the negative experiences of life because we know God is working through these things – he’s doing something in us through it all. And it all culminates in hope. Now there’s a word for modern day living!”
With many young people in his growing County Antrim congregation, the Moderator has a passion for youth ministry. Quoting an essay by the American pastor, Dr Kevin DeYoung on reaching the next generation for God, the Moderator said that Dr DeYoung pointed out that you didn’t need to be ‘cool and trendy’ – “It’s to live like Jesus, to show them Jesus. To give them hope for the future.
“We need to grab them with passion, we need to win them with Love, we need to hold them with holiness and we need to challenge them with Truth. That must be a challenge to us to embody and to show the love of Jesus demonstrated in normal living. People will not give Christianity a second thought if it seems lifeless, rote and uninspiring. You cannot pass on what you do not feel yourself. That is why I feel so strongly about my theme for the year – ‘Enjoying God’.
Dr Henry continued, “It makes no difference whether your church building is old or new, whether it’s big or small, or whether whatever you do in it is formal or casual – you need a passion and a joy for Jesus. This joy is so different from anything that life offers and it’s this joy that should be seen in a Christian – and whenever Christians gather together – and it all points to the fact that Jesus is unique and is worth following. This is what the Presbyterian Church ought to be known for when they are talking about us.”
The Moderator said that it was a message of hope for everyone. “Inside the church. Outside the church. We are all the same flesh and blood. We face the same health uncertainties. Every one of us is on the same daily treadmill. We need hope to transform our present experience, and I believe this passage is telling us that this hope is found in enjoying God. I do believe the Gospel can transform life and our experiences.”
He continued by saying that he believed that the Gospel of Jesus Christ could transform what he described as the ‘failures of life’ and even there, people can still experience and enjoy God. In closing his address, Dr Henry said “…So even when we fail personally, in our actions and in our words, when we feel we as a church fail and have not communicated well enough the love of Jesus as we should, when we feel our politicians fail, when we feel our institutions fail – we remind ourselves God doesn’t fail.”
“In our hardship and struggles we look to see what it is that God has been aiming to do around us, through us and in us to put these things right. We need to make the step to enjoy God right now, right where we are and see where that leads us.”
During Assembly week, Dr Henry will preside over 26 sessions – the vast majority of which are open to the public – where members of Assembly will have the opportunity to discuss around 110 reports and consider over 100 resolutions that will set the direction for the life and ministry of the Church for the coming year and beyond.
Married to Nora, the father of three – who were all at the Opening Night service – is the denomination’s 174th Moderator since 1840, and the fifth to come from a congregation in the Lisburn area. Before he was formally nominated and elected Moderator, his predecessor, Dr Charles McMullen gave his address and reflected on his year in office.
Dr McMullen spoke of visiting many rural congregations across Ireland, describing them as having been “part of the backbone of Presbyterianism for generations and are still central to the community as they seek to respond to contemporary challenges. Wherever I have travelled, again and again I have been impressed by the faithfulness and dedication of God’s people…”
“As Barbara and I have sought to bless and encourage, we too have been so blessed and encouraged by our overall impression of a denomination in which there is a strong, beating heart,” he said.
He spoke about the renewed passion for the local church that he had gained and how it was the hope of the world, and how he found himself “simply in awe of my colleagues as I have experienced over and over again how ministers are leading and serving their people with transparent graciousness, servant-hearts and sacrificial love… while holding out faithfully before them, Sunday by Sunday, and week by week, the unchanging promises of the Word of God.”
Talking about Scripture, and what it teaches about marriage, Dr McMullen said, “It is our duty to uphold what the Scriptures teach, but to do so in a manner that is pastorally sensitive, does not turn our General Assembly into a series of case studies, or a place where we create a hierarchy of sin. In a rapidly changing and secularising Ireland, as the Bible reminds us, we need to speak the truth in love and not be perceived to be closing the door to those who would see our churches as a cold place, when we know that not to be the case.”
In a wide ranging address, that covered his overseas tour of Jordan and his visit to northern Greece to see how one small denomination is doing so much to help and support Syrian refugees, to the Church’s chaplains in the RAF, Army and prisons, the Minister of West Church in Bangor said, “As I have travelled around Ireland, I have experienced so many good news stories.”
“It has occurred to me that as a society we are bombarded by bad news stories and endless negativity. This is not to deny the brokenness of our political processes and the pain in so many lives. But as followers of Jesus Christ we have been given the wonderful privilege of telling a better story. It’s about fullness of life in Jesus Christ and that amazing adventure of faith that takes us out from clinging to the shorelines as we share him in word and in deed with others…”
He concluded by saying, “To know that we are loved by an everlasting love, that the local church is the hope of the world and to reach out to community as we share and demonstrate that better news story of Jesus Christ – what better story can there be than that!”
Business at this year’s General Assembly starts on Tuesday, 4th June at 10.30 am and concludes on Friday 7th June 2019. All are welcome. For full details visit the relevant PCI webpage here.