Of all the Presbyterian Moderator’s official duties, one of the most rewarding (and often tiring) responsibilities is the week-long tours of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s (PCI) regional presbyteries. Each Moderator makes four such tours and the recent tour of the Presbytery of North Belfast, by Rt Rev Dr David Bruce, began in Rosemary Presbyterian Church. It is the first tour of his second term in office and will conclude when Dr Bruce preaches in Carnmoney Central, an outreach of Carnmoney Presbyterian Church in the south of the city.
By convention, Presbytery Tours take place in February and March, October and November. Unlike his predecessors, Dr Bruce is the first Moderator in nearly 130 years to serve two terms and has already undertaken four presbytery tours. Due to the Covid restrictions in place at that time, each tour was heavily scaled back, involving livestream preaching, virtual coffee mornings and prayer meetings with ministers, and pre-recorded sermons.
Speaking before he preached in Rosemary Presbyterian, Dr Bruce said, “I am very pleased to say that my tour of our North Belfast Presbytery this week will be very much in keeping with pre-pandemic presbytery tours. The organisers have been very careful to keep in mind the various Covid mitigations that we must still adhere to, but I am pleased to say there isn’t a virtual meeting in sight!
“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. They are very much pastoral visits and after such difficult times I very much want to encourage the Church in all that they do and acknowledge the work that they are doing in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. In my previous tours, I was not able to do that in person, but I am looking forward to doing just that face-to-face throughout the week.”
Dr Bruce continued, “There is a very strong history of PCI’s community engagement in the north of the city, often in areas where people are neglected or marginalised, those who suffer with addictions, ex-offenders and refugees, for example. Along with my wife Zoë, I am looking forward to seeing the work that the Church does in these important areas, and preaching on one of the most devastating of Psalms, Psalm 13, and the message of hope that it ultimately brings.”
The Presbytery of North Belfast is one of the three presbyteries in the city of Belfast. Its 20 congregations range in size from 58 to 885 families, making up a local Presbyterian community of just under 10,000 people. Stretching from the Shankill Road across Ballysillan to New Mossley and Glengormley to Rathcoole, the Presbytery heads back down the Shore Road to Whiteabbey and Sinclair Seamen’s Presbyterian Church in the docks. The Presbytery forms part of the Belfast City Council and the Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council areas.
Throughout the week, there is strong focus on education and young people, with the Moderator taking three assemblies at Mossgrove Primary School on Tuesday and a morning spent with the principal and teachers of Glengormley High School on Friday. He will also take part in a Q&A with Sixth Formers. Yesterday evening, at Whiteabbey Presbyterian, he attended a youth event where young people from local Presbyterian churches got a flavour of the man and the office over pizzas together at a ‘Meet the Mod’ event.
On Monday, Dr Bruce visited the ‘Blue Houses’ in Ballysillan, the headquarters of Youth for Christ to find out about their work. He will also take a tour of the new Ulster University campus with the university’s Presbyterian Chaplain, Rev Cheryl Meban on Thursday. Weather dependent, he will visit a local skateboard park under the M3 flyover with the minister of Sinclair Seaman’s Presbyterian Church.
Speaking about this week’s tour, Clerk of the North Belfast Presbytery, Trevor Long OBE, said, “We are encouraged to have the Moderator with us at this time and I know that all our ministers, and those looking after our congregations who don’t currently have a minister, are looking forward to meeting Dr Bruce. This will take place during three separate meetings for coffee, fellowship and prayer. He will also attend a mid-week prayer meeting at the historic Sinclair Seaman’s.”
Mr Long continued, “North Belfast like everywhere else has found the last 19 months very difficult. Add to this the challenges of falling attendances at church, amalgamations of congregations and the need to reach out to younger people who know little or nothing of the Gospel. There is also the growing number of those now making Northern Ireland their new home and we want to love and welcome them. David and Zoë’s time with us will be a big help in focusing on these issues, drawing attention to some of the great work that is being done in the Presbytery.
“We are also looking forward to him leading devotions at our Presbytery Meeting on Tuesday. He will also carry on a tradition of presenting, on behalf of the Presbytery, small tokens of appreciation to three students who are currently studying to become PCI ministers and under the care of the Presbytery,” he said.
The tour will also include a visit to the North Belfast Food Bank that is managed by members of Rosemary Presbyterian Church and run out of its church halls on the North Circular Road. Dr Bruce will also visit Thompson House, which provides supported housing to ex-offenders and Carlisle House, PCI’s residential substance misuse treatment centre, all of which are run by the church centrally. He will also spend time at the International Meeting Point off Carlisle circus. The drop in exists to meet the practical and spiritual needs of migrants and asylum seekers in the north of the city providing Parent’s and Tot’s Group, and English classes.
Part of the project is the Op Shop, which opened in 2019 in response to the number of young migrant and local families looking for quality nearly new children and baby clothes, and other essential items. A joint initiative of the Presbytery and PCI’s Council for Mission in Ireland, the Moderator will visit staff and volunteers, which includes his wife Zoë, who is a volunteer there.
“We have come through difficult times, and in many respects we are not quite there yet, but many people in our Church have gone that extra mile, and then some, over these last 19 months. This Presbytery tour will be a time to listen to their experiences and an opportunity to thank those who have carried on pastoring their people in such unprecedented times. I want to thank our ministers personally and everyone who has contributed to the wellbeing of others over this last while. It will be a busy week, which I am very much looking forward to,” Dr Bruce said.
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