This week will see a special moment for the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, when Rt Rev Dr David Bruce will preach in Wellington Presbyterian Church, the Ballymena congregation where he was the ordained assistant minister over 30 years ago.
From 1985-1987 Dr Bruce assisted the minister there before being called to serve as the minister of two Dublin congregations. While it will not be an in-person service, due to the current Covid-19 restrictions, it will be livestreamed across the Presbytery of Ballymena, as part of the Moderator’s virtual tour of one of PCI’s 19 regional presbyteries, which is taking place this week.
“Presbytery tours are primarily about encouraging the local church and for the Moderator to get ‘out and about’, seeing first-hand the work that congregations are doing in the community on the ground,” Dr Bruce said.
“Each Moderator does four tours, during their term of office and each one, which is organised by the local presbytery, normally involves between 15 and 30 engagements over the course of the week. Beginning and ending on a Sunday, they are essentially an opportunity for us to meet and thank those who contribute to the life of the church and community life in a wider context.”
Six years ago, Dr Ian McNie undertook a tour of the Presbytery. He visited six congregations, which included a mid-week Gospel Rally and a United Service. Dr McNie had two breakfast meetings with ministers and Ballymena town centre traders, visited schools and also met farmers at the town’s livestock mart. By necessity Dr Bruce’s tour will be very different.
Speaking in advance of this week’s tour, Dr Bruce said, “Yes it will be different, and like my three previous tours it will be a mainly ‘virtual tour’, but I am really looking forward to it all the same. We have scheduled four online meetings with ministers, where we will have some time to pray together and talk. I am exceptionally thankful to all my brothers and sisters in Christ across our denomination, who have carried on pastoring their people and sharing the Gospel in such unprecedented times and want to thank our ministers personally in the Presbytery of Ballymena for what they have done and continue to do. Listening to their experiences over this last while, and seeing how they are, will be an important part of my tour.”
Dr Bruce continued, “I have also pre-recorded a message based on 1 Corinthians 1:9 on the subject of ‘True Fellowship’ for a virtual mid-week rally that will also be taking place. Then, of course, I will be back in the pulpit and preaching from Wellington, alongside Rev Alistair Bates, which I am really looking forward to. It will be my first time back preaching there since 2009.”
The Presbytery of Ballymena is made up of 31 congregations that range in size from 39 to 735 families, making up a local Presbyterian community of just under 20,000 individuals. Bounded by the North Channel on the east Antrim coast, the Presbytery extends southwards to Eskylane, then west to Tamlaght O’ Crilly, in County Londonderry, and northwards to Rasharkin, through Clough and Newtowncrommelin to Cushendall. The Presbytery also takes in the nine glens that make up the famous Glens of Antrim.
Speaking about this week’s tour, Clerk of the Presbytery, Rev Joseph Andrews, minister of Ballee Presbyterian Church, said in a statement, “This Moderator’s tour will be radically different from any which we have ever hosted before. Normally the Moderator would preach in 4 congregations and attend the Stated meeting of Presbytery. He would meet a wide range of people and undertake a busy schedule of visits and meetings involving industrial, agricultural, commercial, community and healthcare settings. He would meet with the Mayor of the Borough and see at first hand, various activities in local congregations.
“This time the Moderator will meet virtually with four groups of ministers, speak at a virtual Midweek Rally, which will be available on YouTube on Wednesday, 3rd March and Thursday, 4th March. He will also take part in a live streamed service from Wellington congregation on Sunday 7th March.”
Mr Andrews continued, “It is disappointing that the 2021 Tour has had to be remodelled, especially as Dr Bruce served as Assistant Minister in Wellington Street congregation from 1985 to 1987, but in common with the wider Church, Ballymena Presbytery wishes to protect all its people at this time and prays for a successful roll out of the vaccination programme and, in time, a return to a more normal pattern of Church life.”
The Clerk of Presbytery concluded by saying, “I would take this opportunity, on behalf of Presbytery, to thank all our people, in all 31 congregations, for their responsible behaviour and their continued interest in, and support for, the ongoing work of the Church over the past year. It has been encouraging to see how congregations have imaginatively made use of the opportunities available to continue to declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“As a Presbytery we have been mindful of those who have experienced bereavement, whose health has suffered, whose family life has been disrupted, or who have faced redundancy or financial hardship, and assure them all that they are remembered in prayer at every meeting of the Presbytery Standing Commission,” Mr Andrews said.