In Presbyterian Church bureaucratic terms, I have been verbally informed I am no longer a communicant member of the mainstream Irish Presbyterian Church.
Although one cleric has told me I am a communicant member, another has told me he cannot find written proof I am a communicant member, and a third cleric told me I had been ‘struck off’ in the early years of the new millennium! I guess that’s the Presbyterian equivalent of excommunication! So take your pick of Irish Presbyterian red tape!
My perception of this bureaucratic mess - did certain people wait until my father was in his grave before deciding to ‘airbrush’ me out of Irish Presbyterianism?
Maybe my late father and I should not have pointed out to the Presbyterian Church how refusing the sacrament of baptism to children who have become ‘born again’ Christians because of their parents’ lifestyle runs contrary to Scripture? Some Presbyterians would deny this is the case and that we didn’t read the rules properly.
One of my favourite Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns is called ‘The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.’ I’ll be aged 60 in September, and the title of that famous movie best sums up my personal spiritual journey through Irish Presbyterianism over the past 59 years.
As delegates meet in Belfast this week from the denomination’s churches across Ireland north and south, Irish Presbyterianism perhaps finds itself facing some of the most difficult challenges since the row over its membership of the World Council of Churches in the 1970s.
Last year’s General Assembly ended amid controversy and tears, and the challenge from June 2018 was how Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant denomination could heal itself in time for the 2019 General Assembly, or perhaps during this week of meetings and services.
My own spiritual journey within Irish Presbyterianism has been very mixed. What has been good has been tremendous; what has been bad has been nightmarish; and what has been ugly has been unbelievable.
My late father was Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, the former minister of Clough Presbyterian Church in Co Antrim, a dedicated evangelical preacher, a former UUP MLA, and past First Citizen of Ballymena. He died on 5th September, 2018, and I miss him terribly. Indeed, as I write this column, many tears are still being shed.
But in another way, I am glad he is not here is see the theological mess which the denomination to which he devoted so many years of his life has gotten itself into. I have spoken privately to other Presbyterian ministers’ sons who share my opinion.
But let’s be positive - Irish Presbyterianism at its best is a staunch spiritual bedrock and contains some of the most Godly and dedicated people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.
I have so many good memories of my time in Irish Presbyterianism. They include:
➤The great evangelical missions and crusades, especially that terrific united mission in Co Antrim between Clough and Killymurris Presbyterian Churches in 1972 during which I became a ‘born again’ Christian on 9th January 1972.➤As a Presbyterian minister’s son, I loved the quaint rural Victorian manse which was my home.
➤My dad’s evangelical sermons which always were a source of great spiritual inspiration to me throughout my life. Indeed, there have been so many great evangelical Presbyterian preachers - too numerous to mention in this column - that I have had the pleasure of listening to and who have given me top-notch Biblical and spiritual guidance over the years.
➤The thoroughly enjoyable social occasions, especially my times in the 1st Clough and 1st Ballymena Boys’ Brigade companies.
➤The annual Sunday school excursions to Portrush on the train, along with singing in the Sunday school choir on Children’s Day, and the hilariously funny church soirees.
➤Seeing so many of my chums become ‘born again’ believers.
➤Listening to the exploits of retired Presbyterian missionary to Africa, Nancy Alexander, who sat beside me in church.
➤The special service which Clough church put on to mark my dad’s 50th anniversary of his ordination.
➤The surprise 80th birthday cake which Clough church presented to my dad during the congregation’s 350th anniversary commemorations.
➤The invaluable spiritual guidance I received in Presbyterian Sunday school and Bible class.
➤The equally terrific guidance which I gained from the Handling The Word course, which I completed with the North Belfast Presbytery at Whitehouse Presbyterian Church in March 2018.
➤The pall bearers from the Kirk Session of Clough church who carried my dad’s coffin at his funeral service on 8th September 2018, which saw his final wish totally fulfilled.
This is just a sample of the high points in my spiritual journey with Presbyterianism. When I think of these, it is hard to imagine the bitterness which erupted at last year’s General Assembly over a number of theological issues.
But Presbyterianism can also have a very dark side as a so-called Christian denomination. During my personal spiritual journey, there have been a few:
➤A Presbyterian elder punching me in the face, reducing me to tears as a young Christian to make an example out of me in front of my chums simply because I was the minister’s son.
➤Having to plan very carefully how I got from my dad’s car to my church pew without being beaten up by thugs who wanted to make an example out of me - again, simply because I was the minister’s son.
➤Having to leave the manse, my BB company, my youth fellowship, my youth club and live in a dingy farm house simply because I was the minister’s son; at the age of 18, my Utopian upbringing as Presbyterian minister’s son ended abruptly.
➤Having to be prescribed anti-depressants in my teens because of the stress from the persecution of being a Presbyterian minister’s son.
And there was also the downright ugly:
➤The thug who gave me a kicking in the church hall for simply being the minister’s son, leaving me collapsed in back agony and tears in my dad’s minister’s room.
➤Ensuring that I did not find myself alone at the church in case I got a second beating.
➤The Presbyterian elder who once boasted - ‘don’t give to the freewill offering and we will starve them out!’
➤Having to put friendships on hold to avoid those chums being targeted by a thug who despised me simply for being the Presbyterian minister’s son.
➤Being physically sick before attending Sunday worship because of the physical and verbal abuse I was getting as a minister’s son.
➤The foul-mouthed graffiti daubed on the manse in the form of a poster.
I recall in September 1978 shortly before I left to start my journalist training, I made my dad a promise that while he was alive, I would never write or broadcast about the bad and ugly experiences I had endured as a Presbyterian minister’s son.
After becoming a ‘born again’ believer in 1972, I had always believed God wanted me to follow in dad’s footsteps and go into the Christian ministry.
But the bad and ugly experiences had too much of an impact on me and I sought solace instead in journalism. Dad and mum had done their utmost to protect me as best they could from my prosecutors. For 40 years, I honoured that promise to my dad.
Dad has passed into glory, and technically - on paper - according to some Presbyterians, I am no longer a Presbyterian! So the time has come to speak about the bad and the ugly, as well as encourage the Presbyterian Church to get back to the days when people could themselves enjoy the spiritual blessings I have had as a communicant Presbyterian.
As delegates debate the various issues this week in Belfast, they should keep uppermost in their minds - What Would Jesus Do?
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com