Alfred Place Baptist Church

Another visit to Northern Ireland

September 21st

ANOTHER VISIT TO NORTHERN IRELAND

 A visit to Northern Ireland is generally a delight. I have also failed miserably in some meetings there over the years. Those memories cannot be expunged, but I am asked back, and the warm spirituality of Ulster Christians is worth sampling as often as possible. There is a lot of gospel in the Province. It has the greatest concentration of evangelical Christianity on the continent; it is the Korea of Europe.

 I first was driven two hours from Belfast City Airport to Fermanagh to preach for two evenings in Stonepark Baptist Church situated in the countryside around Brookeborough. This was the first of four brand new buildings I visited. By the end of the year the last penny will be paid on this fine new church, and it is designed for further expansion if necessary. The pastor is Harry Dowds and we have known each other for years, but this was the first time I was to spend any time in his company. Coming from a Christian home he was converted as a little boy and was always involved in the church and Christian outreach. Visiting Switzerland as a delegate to a conference on children’s evangelism the conferees were taken on a Saturday excursion to see Mont Blanc near Chamonix on the Italian-Swiss border. What an impressive mountain it is, almost 16,000 feet high. While there he was overwhelmed with the scene; it was as if the Lord were saying to him, “I made all this, and then I came to earth and gave my life for you. What are doing for me?” His father sought to temper his zeal on his return home urging him to wait and test his call, but within a year or two he was in Bible College and then in itinerant children’s evangelism before a call eventually came to the pastoral ministry. We had a delightful day together.

 Harry drove me first to John Gowan’s extraordinary GowanBooks shop in the middle of the fields of Springfield near Enniskillen (www.gowanbooks.com). It must be amongst the top three secondhand and antiquarian Christian book shops in Europe. It is a kind of depressing experience seeing 50,000 sound books which one will never have time to read, and which one does not have enough money to purchase, and yet they are there, preserved from mildew, on offer to an inquiring world. There is one wall of antiquarian books, splendid first editions of Reformer and Puritan works. This year gracious John Gow purchased a copy not of the first edition of the Westminster Standards, but of a pre-first edition, a few hundred copies of which were printed and given to the members of the Westminster Assembly. This rare volume has gone to a good home in the USA where it will be treasured and where others will be able to consult it.

 Also for sale on the shop’s counter was the newly published set of seven volumes of the 1859 Revival in Ireland. It is a loving production of the Whitefield Seminary in Ulster. 400 copies have been printed and it gathers together for the first time all the leading histories and discussions of the theology, preaching and phenomena of that awakening which in all the world surely had most impact on the Province. The set will cost £140.

 On we went around Lough Erne towards Donegal Bay stopping at Belleek on the Irish state border, briefly going in and out of the Republic en route, staying in Belleek to visit its famous pottery. We had a tour and talked to some of the 150 employees working there. From some of the women engaged in the delicate work of making tiny clay flowers there was no response. They did not speak English. Even the west of Ireland, amongst the most western parts of Europe, there are Lithuanians, and Latvians, and Poles, and Portuguese working in their thousands. There is a full time Christian worker evangelising and pastoring the Portuguese in one city in Ulster. The Belleek Pottery is now owned by an American and they have bought up other potteries and crystal manufacturers in Ireland and Stoke.

 On Saturday morning I was taken to Crumlin twenty miles west of Belfast near the vast Lough Neagh which is at the heart of the province. You would expect such a large lake to be a tourist centre, but hordes of black flies sadly keep any tourists from its shores. Two of our members, Mark and Nube Vogan and their children, home on furlough from Ecuador to study for another year in the Belfast Bible College, were in the congregation. This new building is paid for and the congregation are looking for a new pastor. On Saturday evening Andrew and Carolyn Roycroft took me to Tandragee to sit with seventy people in another newly built Baptist church pastored by an old acquaintance who had studied in the South Wales Bible College. The speaker that evening was John Blanchard. How strange that last Saturday I drove 24 miles from Aberystwyth to hear him speak in Lampeter and a week later on a different subject on the other side of the Irish Sea. 

I had come to Ulster at the invitation of Andrew Roycroft, pastor of the Armagh Baptist Church, to speak at his large new church for a few days. He was raised amidst the Plymouth brethren, but both he and his brother stumbled across the sovereignty of God and they have kept abreast with one another encouraging one another with their discoveries. How did he change his theology? He says, “I suppose the main influence was my beginning to read the Scriptures systematically for myself. First of all through the New Testament a number of times while at university, and then in later years by means of M’Cheyne’s yearly reading plan. I found that the dispensational teaching I had held to from childhood wasn’t visible on a plain reading of the Bible, and that great truths like divine election, the supreme sovereignty of God, the centrality of the cross as God’s only plan of salvation and so on were patently obvious. Iain Murray’s biography of Lloyd-Jones (Vol.1) was a bombshell to me in that while it didn’t deal directly with Plymouth Brethren convictions which I had previously held to, it did lead me to consider the Reformed Faith in a fre
sh way, and to find that many of the truths which I had come to via simple Scripture reading were held to and preached by others. This opened up to me the richness of Banner literature, and the combination of the monthly magazine and books such as John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied; Pink’s Sovereignty of God; and Iain Murray’s Forgotten Spurgeon to name but a few placed me firmly on this new and blessed road. I don’t think I’m very much further along it, but these things are forming and changing my short ministry so far, and are blessing me deeply in my own heart.”

 I was able to preach in Andrew’ pulpit for the first time some of the sermons that I have given here in the past weeks mostly from the opening chapters of Genesis. So I spoke on God Created me, Sin Ruined me, Grace Restored me, and Christ is returning for me. I also gave two brief sketches of the lives of John Bunyan and A.W.Tozer. The size of the congregation (around 200 on Sunday morning), the godliness of many, and the attention given to the messages was encouraging as was fellowship with Andrew and Carolyn in their home. I also spoke at a wee fraternal on Monday morning on the 1904 revival in Wales.

 Tuesday morning the Free Presbyterian minister Ron Johnston had arranged for us to be taken around Stormont, the seat of the Parliament of Northern Ireland and of successive Northern Ireland assemblies and conventions. It is now the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly created under the Belfast Agreement, and also of the Executive Committee or power-sharing cabinet created under the Agreement, in which nationalists and unionists share power in a form of  ‘consociational’ democracy (beats me too). 

The original House of Commons of Northern Ireland was designed like the British parliament, with the government and opposition facing each other in parallel blue benches across a central aisle. Then the entire House of Commons chamber was destroyed by fire on 2 January 1995 which was blamed on an electrical fault in the wiring below the Speaker’s chair. Others alleged arson and noted how the destruction of the chamber allowed the creation of the modern less confrontational chamber used by the power-sharing Assembly, which has no echo of the earlier seating arrangement.

 When we entered Stormont we were met by Ian Paisley’s secretary. He took us into the visitors’ gallery where there was a ‘debate’ in progress. Debate? It was a man reading and reading a speech barely heeded by the forty members. Ian Paisley sat with his fellow MPs. He was actually reading his Bible, a Day by Day version, one that takes you through the whole Bible in a year. We heard one more speaker and then we left and went to the empty Senate chamber. This second house has red leather adversarial seats in two parallel blocks of benches, like the House of Lords, and it remains as it was originally designed. Irish damask linen hangs on the walls. We sat on the seats and were given a fine description of the place. This house has not been used as a parliamentary chamber in plenary session since the suspension of devolved government in 1972. The Senate chamber is now being used as the Northern Ireland Assembly’s main committee room, with the only changes since it was first built in 1932 being the installation of TV cameras and microphones and the painting The House Shall Divide of all the Northern Ireland Assembly members who had been elected in the first Assembly election in 1998. The artist lined the Democratic Unionists prominently all along the front because, he said, they were the only party who did not ask to be put there.

 The Stormont building itself has changed little over the years, even though the parliaments meeting inside it have. To camouflage it during World War II the building’s white Portland stone was painted with supposedly removable "paint" made of bitumen and cow manure. However, after the war, removing the paint proved an enormous difficulty, with the paint having scarred the stonework. It took seven years to remove the "paint", and the exterior facade has never regained its original white color. While most traces of it were removed from the facades (though having done damage that can be seen up close) some of the remains of the paint survive in the inner courtyards and unseen parts of the place.

In the 1990s, Sinn Féin suggested that a new parliament building for Northern Ireland should be erected, saying that the building at Stormont was too controversial and too associated with unionist rule to be used by a power-sharing assembly. However no-one else supported the demand and the new assembly and executive was installed there as its permanent home, but Sinn Fein members shun the meetings. None of them were sitting in the chamber when I was there, and the future of the Assembly is very uncertain. They are supposed to come to agreement for power sharing in six weeks’ time, but that is highly unlikely and then the London government will close it down.

On 3 December 2005, the Great Hall was used for the funeral service of former Northern Ireland and Manchester United footballer George Best. The building was selected for the funeral as it is in the only grounds in Belfast suitable to accommodate the large number of members of the public who wished to attend the funeral. Approximately 25,000 people gathered in the grounds, with thousands more lining the cortege route. It was the first time since World War II that the building has been used for a non-governmental or non-political purpose. Its future will be a home for civil servants if the parliament is terminated.

Dr Ian Paisley came around to visit us and so I met him for the first time; he is a few inches shorter than me. He looks much better than he did at the beginning of the year. His wife
is now a member of the House of Lords in London. We had a brief chat together standing in the doorway of the Senate and some photographs. He is taking a week’s mission during September at the opening of the new Free Presbyterian Church building in Ballymena. We ate in the Stormont restaurant with all the elected members and the bodyguards of some. There were numbers of fine Christians there. It was a fascinating day.

Security was so tight flying home. I foolishly left my toilet bag in my hand luggage and immediately my after shave, ointments and toothpaste were all confiscated. I also had to take off my belt and shoes to be X-rayed – just as in the USA.

I have begun a series of sermons on Romans 14, 15 and 16 on Sunday evenings (while continuing on Noah and his flood in the mornings). The students return to begin the University term September 25, and they will cheer me up and on and stimulate extra diligence in preparation during the next eight months. I wonder how many keen first year students will be here this semester? We must all find kindled within our hearts a flame of sacred love.

Geoff Thomas