As he counts down his last few days as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI), Rt Rev Dr William Henry, has said that it has been a ‘sheer privilege’ to have served in a year that pushed him outside of his comfort zone, a year that also came with a unique set of challenges. Going around the Church, he says that was ‘inspired’ by what he saw on the ground.
For the 51-year-old minister of Maze Presbyterian Church and the 174th person to hold the office, Dr Henry discovered that the life of a modern Moderator was busy, if not intense: four week-long regional presbytery tours, a 14-day overseas tour of Kenya, internal meetings, regular meetings with Ireland’s Church Leaders, meetings with political leaders, media interviews, preaching most Sundays, often twice – and all with a young family.
“It has pushed me outside my comfort zone,” Dr William Henry admits. “I’m naturally quite shy and reserved, and that’s not who a Moderator is. You have to get out there, you have to speak and do the things that you are called to do,” he said.
“Looking back, it is that sheer sense of privilege to have been in this position that impacts me most. Knowing that God gifted you for each moment, it is that sense that it is God who has done this, enabled you to cope, which is truly humbling, because it is so full on. I am so thankful for the support of my family, and the prayers of God’s people, especially when I’ve been way outside my comfort zone. They have sustained me, something that I have been very much aware of,” he said.
For each Moderator their year in office is busy, which means they need to leave their congregations to focus on the role. Each Moderator also has to face challenges to varying degrees, but for Dr Henry, the youngest in living memory, it came with a unique set of challenges, a young family and the Coronavirus pandemic.
“You are doing plenty all week, but it is at the weekend that you are particularly busy, so that was challenging at times.” Talking of his children, Bethany, Megan and Connor (who were 21, 18, and 14 respectively when he took up office) he says that they all did ‘Moderator Duty’, “but I was very conscious of not pulling them out of the church family, where they are well planted.” Dr Henry did, however, pay for his children to accompany him and his wife Nora on his overseas tour of Kenya in February, primarily to encourage PCI’s Global Mission Workers there and meet with PCI’s partner church, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.
Three weeks after he returned, and with a quarter of his year still to serve, PCI announced that all congregational activities, including Sunday services, were to cease, due to the unfolding Coronavirus emergency.
“While we have all been affected by the pandemic, my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones across our island and those who have battled against the virus. They have been in my thoughts and prayers, just as those who continue to go that extra mile in providing daily, routine care for them in our hospitals and care homes. It has been incredible and as a Church we thank God for their selfless service and sacrifice,” he said.
As Dr Henry last spoke in a congregation on Sunday 15 March 2020, he said that he has been asked if he feels if he has ‘missed out’ in some way, because of the Covid emergency. “We have all had to make adjustments and live with changed times. Your diary is full, you know exactly what you are doing, and then suddenly 12 weeks or more are wiped.” But just like the 9 months before it, Dr Henry says he has been busy, if not busier, but in a very different way, like the 11 weekly pre-recorded services he has done, with the last one going out this Sunday.
“I was anxious for those ministers who didn’t have the capability to put on an online service. I wanted to take the pressure off them and do something for the whole denomination, providing a bit of normality, perhaps. At the same time, uppermost in my mind was the sense of identity, of being a Presbyterian family who couldn’t meet together and I wanted to give expression to that in the midst of everything,” he explained.
Since the lockdown, Dr Henry says that meetings have increased. When Ireland’s main Church Leaders would have met once every two months, they video conference nearly every two weeks. Dr Henry has taken part in online meetings with the Taoiseach, the First Minister and deputy First Ministers, and church leaders from across Britain and Ireland. But something he has valued most, was the opportunity to call his colleagues – all 400-plus of them.
“It took time, 5 to 6 days a week, never less than 4½ hours a day to call over 400 ministers. It was an opportunity to hear what was going on, listening to their struggles, encouraging them and praying with them. That personal contact with each of my colleagues was time consuming and something a Moderator doesn’t get to do, but was time well spent,” he said.
Pre-lockdown, Dr Henry said that he also really valued seeing what the church was doing quietly on the ground. “We can get a bit myopic at times, measuring success in terms of budgets, buildings and the number of people in the pews. Getting out there, however, and seeing ordinary Christians being involved in their communities, understanding the impact that they have in business, public service, or in voluntary work was amazing.
“So many people who have made that personal connection between the Bible and ordinary life, and what it means to live out the gospel, scattering its message as they outwork their faith in Jesus Christ as good citizens, and to see that first hand, was just so encouraging,” he said.
As he prepares to hand over to Rev David Bruce on 1 June, Dr Henry reflected on the connections that he made. “In what I have seen throughout my year, I am pleased to say that I still see PCI being used by God, and young people are a vital part in His mission, and we need to make sure they can find appropriate avenues to grow in their giftings.”
At the same time, Dr Henry said that his year in office reinforced in him the importance of evangelism and making the gospel relevant in a changing world. “While we can get cosy as a church, this year I have been inspired by what I have seen on the ground, which has reminded me of the utter importance of evangelism – sharing the message of Jesus. It is a transformative message that meets people where they are. It is an unchanging message, but in a changing world, and we often struggle to bridge that gap. We need to remind ourselves how we make the gospel come alive in the changing context in which we minister,” he said.
You will be able to hear Dr Henry’s outgoing address as Moderator and his review of his year in office at the live streaming of Rev David Bruce’s installation as Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, live on the PCI website, at 7pm on Monday 1 June 2020.