The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland is gaining increasing attention in the British evangelical scene. Unlike other Reformed and Presbyterian bodies, however, it is relatively unknown outside its own territory.
The current state of the church was well illustrated at its recent annual Synod, held in June in Belfast. Delegates met in an atmosphere of challenge and renewal. The denomination currently has 36 congregations, one-third of which have no regular pastor. All but a handful of these congregations are located in Northern Ireland.
The church has a clear vision for mission in the Republic too — the work in Galway, for example, is outgrowing its current building — but, as with many other evangelical denominations in Ireland, church-planting and mission are limited by a lack of qualified manpower.
Reformed Theological College
The Synod discussed various issues that were of concern to its delegates. A proposal to relocate the Church’s Reformed Theological College brought many appreciative comments on the value of the college’s ministry. It is currently based in the heart of Belfast’s university district, allowing local students and others to attend classes alongside ministerial students.
Its faculty is noted for its evangelicalism, scholarship and warm piety. Each of its lecturers are, currently, serving ministers, and all of its teaching is conducted with a view to pastoral application. This is evident in recent books written by Professors Edward Donnelly, Fred Leahy and David McKay, all of whom are on the teaching staff. Many guest students have trained in the college for ministerial work outside the denomination: perhaps the most famous is Rev. Ian Paisley.
The Synod demonstrated a clear commitment to scrutinise its traditions in the light of Scripture. Delegates received a petition on head coverings, but declined to pass any binding comments on the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11. Instead, they continued the existing policy of allowing a variety of interpretations of that passage.
The debate about the revision of the Psalter was potentially controversial too. The Church is in the process of translating a new Psalter, which might replace the traditional metrical version of the psalms first published in 1650. This debate was notable for the loving and humble manner in which it was conducted.
One of the saddest issues before the Synod was the current difficulty among sister churches in Scotland. Sharing so many distinctives with the historic Free Church of Scotland, the denomination was compelled to offer some response to the division among those with whom it has so long been in close fellowship.
Delegates from both the Free Church and the Free Church (Continuing) were present, and the Synod listened attentively and appreciatively to their reports of God’s blessing upon and conversions within their respective bodies. Nevertheless, after a year-long investigation, the Synod voted to withdraw fraternal relations from both bodies. It is expected that it will reconsider opening fraternal relations with the Free Church (Continuing) in two years’ time.
The sadness of this decision could not eclipse the Church’s vision of the greatness of God and the certainty that his kingdom will prevail. An indicator of its missionary vision is that the new Moderator, Rev. Malcolm Ball, is a missionary in Nantes. He welcomed Rev. Stuart Olyott as guest preacher.
The final psalm sung was Psalm 72. Amid the changing circumstances of human life ‘His name for ever shall endure’ (Psalm 72:17). Christ’s church on earth will always face difficulties, but his kingdom will certainly triumph.