Belfast Telegraph

Why no individual is ever greater than their Church

By Alf McCreary

This week's retirement of Pastor James McConnell after some 57 years in the Whitewell Ministries raises the question as to what happens to institutions once the main figure has gone.

This applies to all Churches but also to secular institutions as well. The Conservative party took a long time to recover from the departure of Margaret Thatcher, and, whatever you think of Tony Blair, the current Labour party under the stewardship of Ed Miliband is a shadow of its former self. The same applies to soccer, where Manchester United took many years to get over the departure of Sir Matt Busby, and, following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the current team is a shambles.

No one is suggesting that the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle will implode like Manchester United, and I am sure that Pastor David Purse and his associates will carry on the long tradition of the Church.

Nevertheless, the impact of major figures in every phase of Church life begs the question as to how long their influence will last.

In the early Church, this lingered for a long time and if you include the major figures like the Gospel writers, St Paul and many others, their influence is still of paramount importance today.

So too is the reputation, at least, of some of the national saints like Patrick of Ireland and George of England. Patrick has left a wonderful record of his life in his humble Confessio, but I wonder how many of the saints' lives would fare under the merciless attention of today's media and social media.

I also wonder why the names of some leading Church figures in our times are remembered, and others are not. It is widely held that two of the most outstanding figures in the Anglican Church were Archbishops Temple and Ramsey.

Nearer to home, Lord Eames is widely regarded as one of the most significant Primates in the recent history of the Church of Ireland. Indeed there was a period during the Troubles when the serving church heads of Eames, Cardinal Daly, the Rev Dr Eric Gallagher and the Rev Dr John Dunlop were the most able, politically gifted and street-wise leaders to have served at the same time.

Lower down the scale there is a wide variation in parish ministry. Incumbent longevity is not encouraged by the Methodists who rotate their ministers regularly, while the Roman Catholic Church moves its priests and curates with startling swiftness, and sometimes overnight.

However, this speed of appointment is not matched by the Catholic hierarchy which can take a long time to appoint its Bishops and higher figures, some of whom have stayed after the normal retiring age of 75.

The Presbyterians' method of appointing a new minister can take a long time, and on rare occasions it may take years.

In the Church of Ireland, a minister can stay in a parish as long as she or he desires, barring misbehaviour. However, an incumbent can be plucked out very quickly to higher office.

Perhaps the moral of all this is to recognise the reality of life, retirement, frailty and death, and to conclude that, however big or small a leading Church figure may be in his or her day, no individual is bigger than the church itself.

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