The Reformed Presbyterian Church emerged from the crucible of persecution in 17th Century Scotland. The Covenanters of that time, though struggling as a minority against a ruthlessly tyrannical government, nevertheless did not lose their vision of a national, united and reformed church in the British Isles, under the authority of Christ the head and king of the church. The ‘National Covenant of Scotland’ and the ‘Solemn League and Covenant of England, Ireland and Scotland’ were intended to bring about this uniformity, but persecution and division ended any practical implementation of their dream.
However the successors of those Covenanters never gave up their aspirations. Today the Reformed Presbyterian Church can be found worshipping witnessing in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Sudan and the United States of America. These bodies still hold to the headship of Christ over the nations and over Church. There are other denominations and fellowships in Ireland, Scotland, North America and even Cyprus, which in a large part also owe their origins to Reformed Presbyterianism.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ireland
The Irish Church today still holds to the descending obligation of those 17th Century Covenants, as well as adhering to the Westminster Standards, the denomination’s summary of Biblical doctrine and practice. The Reformed Presbyterian Church is Calvinistic in its theology, Presbyterian in its government and follows the simplicity of the synagogue in its worship rather than the complexity of the Temple which has been fulfilled in Christ. In that sense she is possibly more aware of the Christian Church’s indebtedness to its Hebrew heritage than many contemporary Christians and she still highly values the ‘Older Testament’ of God’s self-revelation, recognising that the idea of Christ’s covenant is the glue that cements both Testaments in an unbreakable bond.
None of this should be taken to imply that the Reformed Presbyterian Church lives in the past. She honours the past and learns from it, but she is aware of the need for on-going witness and reformation in line with the biblical principles referred to above. To mention but three examples:
- The Church engages in various kinds of missionary, evangelistic and social work.
- As with the Reformers, she encourages the use of Bibles and Psalters in contemporary English – the ‘vulgar language’ (Westminster Confession of Faith 1:8) that is the language commonly spoken by the people.
- The Church also takes a keen interest in all matters which affect the spiritual and moral life of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The Reformed Presbyterian Church is a small family of like-minded believers – but it still has the big vision of its founders. The 17th Century Covenanters had an influence on the Reformed branch of Christianity which exceeded what might be expected considering their comparatively small numbers, (their contribution to the Westminster Assembly is a case in point). We, their modern successors, must have no less an influence. The Reformed Presbyterian Church does not claim to be perfect. We do not have all the truth and we can learn from others, but surely the modern Christian Church still needs the principles we espouse. She still needs to acknowledge her Saviour and Lord in all His Kingly fullness.
The Denomination today
There are at present 37 congregations, 5 in counties Monaghan and Donegal and the remainder in Northern Ireland. These total approximately 2,500 communicant members, with up to 1,500 covenant children and adherents in addition. This is a stronger community than bare numbers might suggest, as most of those belonging to the church show a high level of commitment. In contrast to some larger bodies, there are few nominal members.
The distribution of Reformed Presbyterians (still often called Covenanters) has generally followed the pattern of the original Scots settlement, with most congregations in counties Antrim, Londonderry and Down. For much of her history, therefore, the church has been rural in membership and orientation. This has been changing in recent years, with significant numerical growth in the Greater Belfast area resulting in the formation of several new congregations. A recovery of confidence in the relevance of the church’s message is leading to a more active and fruitful church expansion programme.
Church buildings are typically simple in design, with a central pulpit, under which is a communion table, symbolising the supreme importance of the Word of God. A widespread building programme has done a great deal to improve the range of classroom, hall and kitchen facilities.