Methodism in North Belfast.

[An article in  the Methodist Newsletter]

“Seeking only the Glory of God and the extending of His Kingdom, and after much thought and prayer, we resolve that apart from those areas in which deep differences of conviction compel us to act separately, we shall seek to co-operate and work together in every possible way, showing a complete respect for each other’s position and seeing the local arrangements in the wider context of inter Church relations in Ireland”.

No, this quotation is not from some recent agreement or scheme in the North Belfast area since the Covenant between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church in Ireland was agreed by the two bodies last year. It is part of the preamble to an Agreement made between representatives of both Churches in October, 1969 and it was in connection with work in the Glencairn Estate in the Ballygomartin area of the city of Belfast.

The Agreement was primarily concerned with the legal matters affecting the building in which the joint work would be carried out, The Church of Ireland would provide and own the Church building and the Methodist Church would act similarly with regard to the Church Hall, described in the document as a Youth Centre. However, the Agreement covered much more than these legal points. It was provided that there would be separate morning services and a joint evening service to be conducted alternately according to the usages of each Church. Provision was made for appropriate local leadership of the joint Church with representatives of St Mark’s Church, Ligoniel and of the local Methodist Circuit. And the practical matters of running expenses and maintenance were also covered in the document.

So much for the bare facts of the Agreement. What has happened in practice over the 33 years since the Agreement was signed?

There have been some changes, of course, as the work evolved. Since 1969 there has not been any formal variation of the official terms of the Agreement but there has been a steady growth in the warmth and depth of fellowship and co-operation at local level. At an early stage there was drawn up and approved by representatives of both denominations an agreed common form of service and the morning services have long since ceased to be held separately. Instead, like the evening services, they are conducted on alternate Sundays by ministers, lay readers and local preachers representing the respective denominations. The interpersonal relations between the clergy and laity are excellent and there is complete co-operation to meet the particular requirement of one or other of the partner Churches. An example of this occurred a few years ago when the time of the morning service was brought forward to facilitate the Methodist preachers who were planned to take a second service on the Circuit on the same morning.

Although the Methodist component of the joint congregation has always been numerically weaker there has always been a willingness on the part of the Church of Ireland clergy to treat them in the same way as their own parishioners and this happy state of affairs has developed even more in recent years. A practical example in this connection is the fact that for the past few years the loose offerings over the Christmas period have been sent to our Child Care Society and this was done on the initiative of the Church of Ireland staff.

The present staffing of the Church of Ireland consists of the Revd. Ken Houston who is an Auxiliary Minister (and whose day job is that of Professor of Mathematics in the University of Ulster !! ) and Captain Scott McDonald of the Church Army, who is responsible for the day-to-day running of the Parish. The Methodist input is made by the Revd. David Mullan, the Revd. Colin Meneely and Local Preachers Norman Coates, Marion Nelson and Wesley Sterling.

The people who laid the foundation of the joint work at Glencairn intended to meet a local need but their vision and willingness to press on with the scheme at a time long before there was a general awareness in the two Churches of the desirability of such co-operation are an example to the Churches of today when there are so many shared problems that are more likely to yield to joint approaches than to individual efforts. The new Covenant cleared the way for further schemes of co-operation. It would be very sad if such opportunities were missed.

NR Coates

March 2003