International

The Church in Ireland: An interview with Trevor Johnston

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Trevor, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for the ACR. You’ve had a long association with evangelicals in Australia, particularly in Sydney. Do you mind giving a brief history of your personal affiliation?

My own connection stretches back to 1995 and a Proclamation Trust conference for theological students. Several of us from Ireland travelled to hear Dick Lucas, David Wells, Jim Packer and Peter Jensen. For me, this was a moment of personal reformation. The year before, the (charismatic) Toronto Blessing had significantly impacted the youth and church movements in Northern Ireland, causing much confusion. Yet many of us—mostly because of little theological training or thought—were acting on instinct when identifying it as seriously wrong. Peter Jensen spoke on the true ministry of the Holy Spirit. This was revolutionary for us. It had clarity, scholarship, biblical faithfulness—and that came from the ordained principal of an Anglican theological college! We had never seen anything like it before. And since the Aussies and Irish share a similar dislike of the ‘Poms’, we got on very well in the context of an English conference too!  

This relationship continued through my time in the Church of Ireland Theological College. We invited Peter Jensen to lecture for a day on the doctrine of revelation. That was a hugely significant time of personal reformation for many ordinands and others, just like it was for me back in ’95. We then invited Peter Adam to do a similar day; again, hugely helpful. This connection continued through Phillip Jensen’s influence as he shaped the leaders of our group of fledgling young confessional Anglicans.  

In 2004, I was appointed Anglican chaplain to the University of Ulster and, in preparation, visited Sydney for six weeks. Our family enjoyed hospitality in Bishopscourt, we spent time with Col Marshall, Philip Jensen, Paul Grimmond, and we visited MYC, UniChurch etc. As a result, Col Marshall spent six months in Ireland, establishing the MTS work here, which I have helped to lead. These links have now come together through GAFCON, which combines all of these various aspects (planting, training, recruiting, deep theological thinking).  

In fact, there’s quite a historic link between Irish evangelicals and the Diocese of Sydney stretching back over a century, which shows our relationship to be a two-way street. TC Hammond, a former Principal of Moore Theological College, was himself a fiery Irish preacher and theologian. In recent times, these links have been rekindled somewhat through folk like Peter Orr, Cameron Jones, Dave Jensen and CMS missionary Erin Moorcroft (Sligo). How valuable are these links to evangelicals in Ireland?  

TC Hammond’s brilliance was never recognised in the Church of Ireland, to our shame. It was partly a result of people fearing him—he was a fierce and skilled debater of Roman Catholics in ‘the controversy’ debates in Dublin and around Ireland—and partly down to a dislike of his confessionalism and Anglican Protestantism by a church hierarchy that didn’t value either. 

Sydney Anglicans have a lot of what we don’t have, so these current links are very significant. These are some of the things I see in Sydney that I pray we might have more of here in Ireland:

  • your solidly confessionally driven, faithful, shaped-by-biblical-theology, high-level theological education which serves the gospel and the Church
  • your ethos of challenging men and women to consider full-time, financially dependent gospel ministry
  • your apprenticeship model of training (through MTS)
  • your willingness to plant churches and the models that you’ve typified
  • your doctrine of the church that enables you to meet gospel needs in whatever community in which you find yourself, adaptably. 

The value of the Irish-Australia link was exemplified in the past in the person of Clive West. Can you give background to this?

For many of us, Clive exemplified all of the above. He displayed a solid commitment to historic and classical Anglican evangelicalism. Clive was a friend of Dick Lucas and Philip Jensen, introducing both to Ireland in the mid-80s. He testified to the fact that he came into contact with them too late on in his ministry and he was determined that the next generation would benefit and learn from them much earlier on. Above all he showed consistent courage in standing for biblical truth, when many of his generation drifted or lost sharpness of focus.

I did my apprenticeship with him (though this was before the days of MTS Ireland and we never called it an ‘apprenticeship’—he just instinctively trained me in the areas of conviction, character and competency). I witnessed his training and investment in the next generation. He and his wife Margaret were a formidable team. Today, there are those from each generation and decade who testify to the Wests’ care and challenge.

Clive personified the reformed pastor and for him ministry was the regular, consecutive expository proclamation of the word, with prayer. Training for the next generation in the word was paramount for him. He worked towards the reformation of the Church of Ireland through Synod and the Liturgical Advisory Committee. We loved him dearly and miss him. He’d have been thrilled to have seen the links with Sydney develop.

How is Clive’s legacy continued today?

I am his successor as rector at All Saints’ Church in the university area of Belfast. Prior to the first GAFCON he said to me, “bring some of GAFCON back here”. His vision was for a return to the basic Christianity of confessional Anglicanism in the Church of Ireland. For years it had been weakened through its theological college as well as various other movements and innovations that reduced commitment to the gospel and the word of God.

A number of us are seeking to realise this vision and are continuing to reach the next generation so that the Bible and its exposition is our heartbeat in training and ministry. We have established the Clive West Memorial Trust (westtrust.co.uk) to support financially those training at the world’s best theological colleges and to enable an annual lecture. Dr Ashley Null, Dr Mark Thompson and Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali have given the lectures to date and we are very encouraged by the interest and support shown so far.

What are the biggest kinds of challenges that face evangelicals in Ireland today? Does the North-South divide complicate things?

The Republic of Ireland is the least evangelised part of this island, and in fact the entire English-speaking Western world. This is in contrast to Northern Ireland where there are a number of large churches. There is significant overall decline in the denominations on the island, but the Church of Ireland in the south is feeling this most acutely. The age profile is old, the reach is small and the major urban centres lack any kind of strong ministry.

For too long, we in the north of Ireland have ignored this great gospel need on our doorstep. Of course there are sectarian, cultural and historical reasons for it, but to our shame we have allowed these to blind us to this great evangelistic challenge. The Republic of Ireland has now come of age as a Western European nation, rejoicing in having thrown off the shackles of its Roman Catholic heritage. We saw this clearly in the referendums on abortion (2018) and same-gender marriage (2015). For the southern Irish, God is now seen as redundant and unnecessary.

Northern Ireland is facing huge challenges and my worry is that we have relied too long on an assumed orthodoxy, which has no real grounding in the word of God. The churches, although large, are not necessarily teaching, training and equipping the next generation. There is much assumed evangelicalism.

On the other hand, have you seen any encouraging signs in the Church of Ireland recently?

By God’s grace there are pockets where great things are happening, with vibrant churches that are teaching the Bible, trusting Christ, and raising up ministers and other gospel workers. A huge encouragement has been in the number of people in their late teens and twenties beginning to understand and love confessionally reformed Anglicanism. We are praying that God will raise up from this number the next generation of gospel workers who will train, plant churches and selflessly serve in ministry.

Yet, there are significant swathes of the Church of Ireland that are revisionist in their approach to the questions of human sexuality. The official teaching of the church remains that marriage is between one man and one woman but there are many (bishops, clergy and laity) who are trying to change this teaching and in 2017 a motion, defeated by around 10-15 per cent, sought to push against this traditional teaching.

At the 2018 General Synod the bishops said that there is no appetite for further discussion on the issue, rather than saying that same-sex marriage is against God and his word. At least one of their own number is actively promoting revision on this issue in his own diocese. This duplicity is our major fear. Some have commended the Scottish Episcopal Church, suggesting that it may provide a potential model to follow. Several Irish bishops have not spoken unambiguously in their understanding that life begins at conception and have both tacitly and explicitly supported the lifting of restrictions around abortion. So, alongside the great encouragements, there are worrying trends and discouragements. GAFCON Ireland has the work of renewal and revival as its raison d’etre.

The uniqueness of Jesus Christ is perhaps our next challenge, especially with increasing multi-culturalism on our island. Moreover, we have not had a significant number of people heading towards cross-cultural mission for a long, long time. This, I think, is a fairly precise indicator of the health and vibrancy of the Church of Ireland.

GAFCON Ireland was launched in the past month, and Archbishop Peter Jensen spoke. Can you tell us about some highlights from this launch? What have been some of the encouragements or challenges?

We established ourselves in 2016, and publicly launched in 2018 with over 400 present; it was a tremendous event. Archbishops Greg Venables, Peter Jensen and Ali Baba Lamido (Nigeria) spoke, with Vaughan Roberts teaching through Titus. We were encouraged to be faithful (that was the conference title) and the challenge was to be 100 per cent so. Peter’s address was historic and seminal. We were all fired by his challenge to serve the gospel, without reservation or hesitation, for the next generation.

Our major challenges going forward are internal and relational. Opposition to GAFCON is not primarily from those who are liberal; rather we are finding that fellow evangelicals are opposing GAFCON Ireland’s establishment and citing various reasons, though many of us feel this is coming from a variety of sub-texts. It seems that maybe issues around a theology of headship, charismatic theology and even personal ambition are causing these reactions. Some of our council have received significant criticism from close friends. That has been very surprising and sad.

How important is GAFCON Ireland to the current and future situation of the Church of Ireland?

The two major foci of our work going forward are in the areas of training and planting. We have our training focus through ‘Theology Ireland’ (TI), a three-week programme in which Dr Peter Orr (from Moore) gave a condensed version of his Biblical Theology primary course. There was great excitement as the Bible’s overarching storyline became apparent. TI will run again in 2019 along the same lines and there will be a centre in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Dr Mark Thompson, Dr Ashley Null, Dr Gerald Bray are amongst those who have agreed to act as advisers as we consider next steps in relation to theological education.

In terms of planting, where a faithful Anglican gospel witness exists, GAFCON Ireland will seek to offer support and (if requested) resources. This will bring the backing of the international movement to the local situation. In the absence of a faithful witness, we will seek to plant a gospel work.

What kind of international role is there for the Church of Ireland via GAFCON?

I think we have more to gain from GAFCON than to give! But if we can contribute anything it will be along the lines of encouragement and participation in the various networks being established at the Jerusalem conference. We will gain from the courage and clarity shown by the leadership. Archbishop Okoh (Nigeria) met with two of us, stared at us and asked, “Have you counted the cost, my brothers?”. Pray that we have. I am on the Panel of Assistors for the Primates’ Council and the Irish rep on the church planting network. I think our contribution will be to bring confidence to the international movement as our branch consolidates into the future.

Finally, what can we be doing here in Australia to continue to help our brothers and sisters in Ireland?

Pray for our work, that we would remain faithful under various pressures and ask that God would make his gospel known in the cities and rural areas of our great island. We’d appreciate your continued interest, partnership and support (even financial). As we’ve outlined, there has been a steady stream of gospel workers come to Ireland over this past decade and we would love that to continue. Training is our biggest weakness, so we’re glad to be able to share in the many rich resources you have in that area (especially MTS apprenticeships, including the recruitment stream, and Moore Theological College).  

Thank you for your interest and for all that you have given and continue to give us in Ireland. Please keep going! We give thanks to God for you.

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