The word ‘Presbyterian’ comes from the word ‘presbuteros’ in the Greek New Testament, meaning a presbyter or elder, and describes the form of government and organization of what became known as the Reformed Church. Irish Presbyterianism has its origins in Scottish migration to Ulster in the early 17th century. The first Presbytery was formed in 1642 by chaplains of a Scottish army which had come to Ireland because of an Irish Catholic rebellion. In spite of this and later Catholic uprisings and the hostility of the established Anglican Church, Presbyterianism put down strong roots in Ireland before the end of the 17th century.
In the 18th century it was weakened by emigration to colonial America and by division over subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which encouraged Scottish Covenanters and Seceders to form congregations and Presbyteries in Ulster. The restoration of subscription in 1835 led to a union with the Seceders to form the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1840.
Reformers such as Calvin and Knox believed that oversight should be provided, not by individual bishops, but by councils of presbyters (elders). Therefore they replaced the hierarchical structure of church government with a series of councils under a general assembly as the supreme governing body. A feature of these councils was the participation of elders who were not ministers of word and sacrament, but essentially laymen, although later they underwent a form of ordination.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland today
Today the Presbyterian Church has over 540 congregations in 19 Presbyteries throughout Ireland with just under 230,000 members. There are over 400 ministers in active service, including men and women.
The Church serves the whole of Ireland, north and south, although the spread is uneven throughout the island. In the Republic of Ireland the majority are to be found in the border counties of Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan and in and around the Dublin city area. In Northern Ireland Presbyterians are chiefly in the north and east of the country. This uneven distribution was a result of the Ulster Plantation in the early 17th century.
The opening paragraph of the Church’s Mission Statement, agreed in 1992, declares:
“The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, as a Reformed church within the wider body of Christ, is grounded in the Scriptures and exists to love and honour God through faith in His Son and by the power of His Spirit, and to enable her members to play their part in fulfilling God’s mission to our world.”
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is governed by an annual General Assembly, usually held during the first full week in June. With more than 1300 delegates, every minister, including every retired minister, is a member and every congregation is represented by a ruling elder.
The Assembly makes the rules and decides policies for the Church and supervises the work of nearly 90 Commissions, Boards and Committees.
The Moderator, elected annually, presides over meetings of the Assembly and is the Church’s chief public representative. The Moderator does not decide policy or direct the Church.
The Clerk of the General Assembly is the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and has overall responsibility for the administration of its activities.
The Kirk Session is the spiritual governing body in each congregation. This is made up of the teaching elder (minister) and ruling elders – men and women who have been chosen by vote of their congregations.
Each Session appoints a representative elder to join with the minister in forming one of the 19 Presbyteries.
Services can vary from traditional to quite contemporary depending on the congregation but the preaching of the Word of God is central, in a setting of prayer and praise. All ages are welcome at worship and provision for young children and babies is a priority for most congregations.
During the service there will be Bible readings, prayers, singing and an address (or sermon), usually given by the minister of the congregation. Some congregations hold an additional service on a Sunday evening.
The life of a congregation focuses on the Sunday worship service with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Communion) being celebrated typically four times a year, although in many churches more frequently than this. Almost all congregations hold a Sunday School for children with many also having a Children’s Church. Often on Sundays after the evening service there is a Youth Fellowship at which teenagers gather for discussion and/or Bible study.
During the week there are more organized youth activities such as Boys’ Brigade, Girls’ Brigade or Youth Club. Activities for older members include Bowling Club, Presbyterian Women (PW), Bible Study groups in members’ homes, and Mums & Tots groups, among others.
Wider Work of the Church
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland supports a number of mission projects both at home and abroad through the Board of Mission in Ireland and the Board of Mission Overseas.
New churches are being planted, notably in the urban areas where congregations in Maynooth and Donabate have begun in recent years. While demographic changes may mean that some churches in Belfast have closed, new church planting initiatives have also been started in Belfast. People of many different nationalities have enhanced the life of Presbyterian congregations across Ireland. The denomination is constantly seeking new and fresh ways to demonstrate the presence of Christ in the increasingly diverse land that is modern Ireland, north and south.
Currently PCI is supporting 40 adults (and their families) who are engaged in mission in varying ways and serving in 10 countries in the Americas, in Africa, in Asia and in Europe. In addition, approximately 140 PCI members from 70 congregations in 18 Presbyteries are serving with around 30 independent mission agencies in over 55 countries worldwide.
Through the Board of Social Witness the Church provides 6 residential homes and 1 nursing home as well as 2 sheltered housing projects. PCI is also involved in prison, hospital, school and university chaplaincies. Other services include the provision of accommodation and support for ex–offenders and facilities to help those dependent on alcohol and drugs.
The Board of Youth and Children’s Ministry is committed to the nurture, empowerment and development of children, young people and young adults through an integrated denominational programme of ministry which places them at the centre of life in the Church.
This ministry is continually being developed in response to the needs of our denomination, the changing needs of children, young people and young adults and the context in which they live.
Through Youth and Children’s Ministry the SPUD Youth Assembly (Speaking, Participating, Understanding, Deciding) has been established with the main aim of enabling young people to have a meaningful opportunity to be involved in decision–making at a denominational and a local level.
How to find out more
Much more information about the Presbyterian Church in Ireland can be found on the website: www.presbyterianireland.org