Sunday, 28 June 2009

PCI, PMS and Sectarianism

The responses I have received from people associated with the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) concerning the previous post (published in the Newsletter, 26/06/09), have been most encouraging. Readers have said that in this letter, I have hit the nail right on the head, and encouraged me to send in more letters.

But given the Clerk of the Assembly's position on the connection between these two bodies, namely, that there is no legal connection between it and the Presbyterian Mutual Society (PMS), no one can criticise me for writing critically about the PMS. What is surprising is that ONLY members of PCI can avail of the financial services of that private club!

Now, if there is no connection between these two distinct bodies, how did so many members of PCI get to know about it? Was it promoted by the Methodist church in Ireland, or the CoI, or the Baptist and Congregational churches? Did the Plymouth Brethren, the Pentecostalists, the Roman Catholics and the Free Presbyterians, the Reformed Presbyterians and any other kind of Presbyterian body encourage their members to save and invest in this money club? It's very unlikely indeed.

As well as the official organ of that church advertising the PMS, PCI ministers were a chief means of gathering investors and savers (for they had both kinds availing of their services, as a cursory look at the paying-in frequency will disclose) for this private and exclusive society. Perhaps it is now time for PCI investors/savers in the PMS to pay these ministers a visit and ask them what they think they were doing? They knew this was a closed shop, hence a sectarian, society that disallowed EVERY other potential investor/saver using its services. While a minister within this denomination, at no time did I ever promote this club, or encourage anyone to save or invest their money in it, a policy decision of which I am particularly glad at this time.

Now they want EVERY tax payer to bail out this private club, while denying EVERY tax-payer the right to join it. Only when the PMS, if it survives this crash, allows people from any and every background to invest in, save with, and borrow from it, ought taxpayers to expected to help it at this time.

Of course I feel deeply for all those good people who, in faith, put their savings into this society, many of them for their retirement, many for weddings, and many for the education of their children. My heart goes out especially to those who genuinely cannot afford to lose such sums of money. They believed, until the fall of PMS, that it was a part of their church/denomination, that is, until the Assembly Clerk informed them otherwise. Were the ministers who encouraged saving in PMS also deceived by the senior managers of their church? Did they know exactly what the relationship was, and refused to tell their members the whole truth? Was the fact that it claimed the name PRESBYTERIAN sufficient for them to trust it? Is 'Presbyterian' synonymous with honesty, truthfulness and integrity? How quick otherwise discerning PCI members and elders were to trust that Presbyterian financial club, while they distrusted virtually everything else their own church stood for!

In Northern Ireland, sectarianism has blighted our society for many decades, and still does. The PEACE III programme has as its focal point addressing sectarianism and racism. While the PMS could not be described as racist, it can most certainly be described as sectarian. Will the government now help reinforce what is a sectarian society, on the one hand, while requiring the rest of us to create a project that actually paralyses the onward march of sectarianism, on the other?

It is really ironic and hypocritical that a financial organisation that is inextricably linked to a 'Christian' denomination can be the means of concretising sectarianism, while many of that church's ministers are to be found among those who decry sectarianism! As is usually the case, PCI is continuing to send our very confusing messages to a lost and bewildered world, the trumpet making an uncertain sound. PCI and its associated organisations would need to take a long hard look at themselves in the light of Scripture, and embark on a radical reformation of that denomination, now that Reformed Christians are celebrating the birth of John Calvin on 10th July 1509.

PMS, the Government and Sectarianism

If sectarianism may be defined as ‘a rigid adherence to a particular sect, party or denomination, in such a way as to exclude all others,’ then the Presbyterian Mutual Society (PMS) is an example of a sectarian organisation. I say this because (1) only members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) can save in it; (2) only members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland can invest their money in it; (3) only members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland can borrow from it; (4) only members of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland can be involved in the running of it.

I am Presbyterian by upbringing and conviction, but because I am not a member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland , I could not, if I wanted to, avail of any of the financial services that PMS offered. That makes the society exclusivist, and perhaps even sectarian, adopting an “ourselves alone” attitude. No one outside this religious grouping can have any part in its operations.

This is not to say that I have no feelings for the sense of betrayal that many PCI members feel, or even for the hurt caused by Dr Donald Watts, Clerk of Assembly, when he publicly distanced himself and the denomination from the PMS in its difficulties. The deception by their church has caused them much hurt.

But if the UK government is going to find ways of bailing out this exclusivist and private club, then it must do the same for all other exclusivist and private clubs. Equality of treatment demands no less.

Indeed, given that the entire PEACE III funding scheme is designed to combat sectarianism, and applicant groups must adhere to this aspiration, the government, if it bails out the PMS, is again sending out mixed messages that cause confusion. It supports anti-sectarianism through the PEACE III programme, on the one hand, and it funds an essentially sectarian organisation/club, on the other.

Just what is the government’s true position on sectarianism, in light of the above points? Answers please...