Rev. Hanko is missionary to Northern Ireland.
Our family arrived in Northern Ireland, appropriately, on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1993. Now that we have been here nearly two years, we have been asked to write about the work we are doing and about our experiences living and working in another country.
But first of all a little geography. Most people living outside the United Kingdom do not realize that the island of Ireland is not all one country, nor do they know that Northern Ireland, with England, Scotland, and Wales, make up the United Kingdom, or Great Britain. The larger (southern and western) part of the island is an independent country, the Republic of Ireland, or Eire. Northern Ireland, the northeastern part of the island, is the only part still under British rule.
The island is, from very ancient times, divided into four provinces: Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connacht. Six of the original nine counties of the old province of Ulster make up what is known today as Northern Ireland, and so Northern Ireland is still often called Ulster. Three counties are now part of Eire. The six remaining counties (clockwise from the north) are Antrim, Down, Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone, and Londonderry. We live near the center of County Antrim, in the northeastern part of Northern Ireland, not far from the shores of Lough (lake) Neagh, the largest body of fresh water in the British Isles.
The division of the island into two parts reflects the present political troubles here. This is the thing we are asked about most often. The Republic of Ireland is largely Roman Catholic, and in the view of the northerners is dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. Northern Ireland is predominantly Protestant, and for this reason the majority in Northern Ireland do not want to be part of the Republic.
There are many shades of political opinion, however. We have found that there are especially four groups: those who want a united Ireland and who view the British as trespassers even in Northern Ireland; those who want to remain under British rule; a very small group who dislike both the British and the Republican south and who want an independent Ulster; and those on both sides of the border who do not care what happens as long as the fighting and terrorism stop.
We make every effort to avoid putting in our “two cents worth.” Unlike many American politicians who visit here, we do not feel that we are qualified to make judgments about the political situation. It would be a bit presumptuous for us as visitors to do so anyway. More important, though, it is not the business of a minister to make political commentary. His business is the preaching of the gospel, and that is what we are here to do. To turn aside from that calling would be to reject the very reason for our coming.
What we have experienced is that the gospel transcends all these earthly, temporal differences. Just as the gospel transcends differences of culture and color, so it transcends these differences also. In our own fellowship the precious truths of the gospel of grace have brought together and united people of very different backgrounds and political views.
The Covenant Reformed Fellowship
Our work of preaching the gospel centers in the Covenant Reformed Fellowship (CRF). The Covenant Reformed Fellowship is a group of about nine families and several individuals worshiping together. The CRY includes many children, young people, and “singles” who also take an active part in the life of the Fellowship. In all this God has blessed us abundantly and proved to us His covenant faithfulness. Those who have visited us know that we are a “fellowship” in more than name.
One difficulty that we face is the fact that the members of the CRF are rather scattered. That they are willing to come a long distance for the meetings shows their commitment, but the distance makes it difficult to have meetings and other activities, especially on the Lord’s Day. It is also difficult for members who do not live in Ballymena to be a living witness there for the truths of God’s Word. For that reason it is a long-term goal of the CRF to have not only a congregation in Ballymena where we now meet, but other congregations in other parts of the Province. We have come to see that a local church is a very important part of the spiritual life of the members and of the witness of the church.
The CRF meets twice for worship on the Lord’s Day and has a midweek Bible study and prayer meeting. There are five Bible history and Bible doctrine classes taught during the week for the children and young people, and we try, especial
lly during the summer, to have as many other activities as possible for the whole CRF. In its meetings the CRF uses a different Psalm book than do the Protestant Reformed Churches. They use the Scottish Metrical Psalms, and these are sung without instrumental accompaniment. In almost every other respect the worship services would be like those in the PRC. In the catechism classes not only the Heidelberg Catechism, but also the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms are used.
We meet in an upstairs room (which is very biblical), rented from a local Sunday School in the north Antrim town of Ballymena. In many ways this meeting place is less than adequate for our needs. Not only is it very small and of difficult access, but it is used by other groups as well and is above the local pigeon club (which is not very biblical and sometimes causes problems). Not having a place of our own makes it more difficult to maintain close fellowship among the scattered members of the CRF.
To promote the CRF in Ballymena we advertise our worship services, hold frequent special meetings in the Town Hall, and have an annual week of evangelistic gospel meetings. At present we are holding once a month, in the Town Hall, in place of our regular Bible study, a special Bible study on the book of Revelation. We have not only advertised this but are preparing and handing out at each meeting installments of a carefully prepared study guide for the book.
Especially by means of our annual gospel meetings we are trying to reach not only those who go to church but also that larger part of the population who are unsaved and who have no church affiliation at all. This is an area, however, where much more needs to be done. It would be good, I believe, to do more door-to-door visitation and to have, at least during the warmer months, some open-air meetings in Ballymena. The fact that the town has just, finished, erecting a new “stand” in the town center is an added incentive to have some of these meetings.
The principal goals of the CRF itself are twofold.
First, and most importantly, the CRF wants to be organized as a church. When this will take place is not yet clear, though progress is being made. A constitution has been prepared which would serve as a basis for organizing; the decision to organize on the basis of the Three Forms of Unity and the Westminster Standards has been made; and we have even been registered with the government as a charity. The most difficult part still remains—determining when we are spiritually ready to make this important step, and when we have enough committed people to form a church and enough qualified men to serve as elders and deacons. We hope that our parent church, Hudsonville PRC, will be able to help us with these more important matters.
Second, the CRF wishes to obtain a meeting place of its own. It has been difficult, though, to find something. Ballymena is prospering economically and there are not many suitable buildings or building sites available.
Great Britain and Eire
The CRF does not only look to itself, however. We firmly believe that it is our calling as much as possible, to give a witness first in Northern Ireland, then in Great Britain and Eire. We believe this to be our calling because most of Great Britain and Eire (except for some areas of Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland) now belong to what one modem writer has described as a “post-Christian world.” Especially in England and Wales the spiritual condition of the, nation is desperate. Those from America who have been in the New England States will have an idea of what things are like here.
Our witness is limited in some ways by a lack of manpower. “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest that he will send forth labourers into his harvest” (Matt. 9:38). We do all we can, primarily through the British Reformed Fellowship, an organization whose stated purpose is:
(a) To promote a knowledge of the Reformed faith in the British Isles.
(b) To organize meetings, conferences, preaching services, and other activities in order to further the Reformed faith and to give practical expression to the unity enjoyed by Christians of Reformed persuasion.
(c) To encourage the formation of groups in different areas of the country who will seek to promote the Reformed faith on a local level.
Last year the BRF organized conferences and meetings in Lewes in the south of England; in Wrexham, Wales; in London; and in Portadown, Northern Ireland; and through a week-long family conference in Galashiels in the south of Scotland. Those who attended the family conference from the USA will know that the conference met all the goals of the BRF. These and other endeavors of the BRF are fully supported by the CRF.
The CRF, however, holds its own meetings, especially in Northem Ireland. Nineteen of these were held last year, including an open-air meeting in Portrush and a week of gospel meetings in Ballymena. We would like to have more of the meetings that are held especially for those who are unsaved—the open-air and gospel meetings.
Besides all these meetings, good Christian reading is another means of more widely promoting the truth. We send out or distribute both the Standard Bearer and the Beacon Lights. Every family in the Fellowship gets both (does every family in your church get them?) and so do many others. We also send out thousands of pamphlets, mostly those that are printed by the various PR Churches, but also some that we print ourselves. We publish and send a biweekly study sheet as well. This is now being sent to nearly 500 addresses around Britain and Ireland and has been a most effective means of making contact with those of like precious faith, and of teaching the Reformed faith to others.
By all these means we hope and pray that the Lord will rebuild His church where it, is fallen into spiritual decay and that He will strengthen “that which remains.” We covet your prayers in all these endeavors both for ourselves the CRF, and for the whole cause and covenant of Jesus Christ in these Isles.
What have we learned?
Born and raised in the Protestant Reformed Churches, we are now learning “in practice” that God has His people in every nation under heaven and that He preserves everywhere a remnant according to the election of grace.
What is more important, we are learning that we still have much to learn. We are learning, for example, that there are other traditions and other “ways of doing things”; that our way is not always the best way here, especially in things indifferent; and that we are here not only to teach but also to learn. Because of this, the two years in Northern Ireland have been years of great spiritual growth, not only for me, but for my family as well.
This also applies to evangelism work. One of the main lessons in that aspect of our work seems to be that things which would not work well in the cause of the gospel in one place do work well in others.For that reason we must learn to listen to those who live here. Their ideas are often more practical and fruitful than our own, exactly because they have lived here all their lives.
Nevertheless, it is still very evident that the main thing is to preach and teach the gospel according to the Word of God. It is wonderful to see the gospel attracting and holding men, women, and children, and to see that after so many ages it continues to be a balm to weary souls, the bread of life to the hungry, and light to those who sit in the shadow of death.
It is especially heartening to see what interest such truths as the doctrines of particular grace and of the covenant have aroused. We may sometimes take these truths for granted in the Protestant Reformed Churches, but they have proved themselves again to be part of that rich heritage of truth that should never be neglected. We have even experienced, we believe, a little of what our founding fathers went through in their struggle for the doctrines of particular grace. Our preaching and teaching these truths throughout the British Isles have aroused a veritable storm of controversy.
So we learn, too, that the work we are called to do here is part of the great battle of faith. How easy it is to forget that! In the battle, as always, we have found that our warfare is not only against wrong teaching and practice without, but also against our own weakness and sins. How quickly they rise up against us! Pray that in this battle the weapons of our warfare may not be carnal, but spiritual, and mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds, the casting down of imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God (II Cor. 10:4).
On a more practical note, we have seen what a great threat Roman Catholicism still is to the cause of the truth. If there are any who think that the references to the errors of Roman Catholicism in our Three Forms of Unity are outdated, they should live here for a time, where the dark shadow of resurgent Romanism lies not only over Northern Ireland and Britain, but over all of Europe. Living here, it is not at all difficult to believe that Rome is the Antichrist spoken of by the Word of God.
On the other hand, we also understand better two things the Bible speaks of: Jesus’ concern for the scattered sheep, and Paul’s stirred up spirit in Athens. Living in the world of the PRC, where we have everything even our own Christian schools, we sometimes forget that there are those who have virtually nothing.
There are Christians here (and in many parts of the USA as well) who have none of the many blessings we take for granted—no church, no Christian fellowship, no gospel ministry. We often hear complaints such as the following:
We find your ‘News’ a great encouragement, as we have virtually no truly reformed fellowship in our area. Sometimes we feel we are striving for a faith unknown to those around us.
We pray that God will prosper your work in Ulster and that it may spread farther afield to the mainland. Our land desperately needs such sound Scriptural churches.
I am an old woman over 80. There is an old woman beside me dying of cancer and another old woman over 80 living with a son who is bad with his nerves and people like us never see the face of any Christian worker… Go ye into all the world. Go tell old and young the truth that Jesus saves.
Likewise, our limited experience with open-air preaching has helped us understand why Paul’s spirit was stirred when he was in Athens (Acts 17:16). To see so many people walking by, heedless and thinking only of this present world, helps one to preach the gospel with urgency, and to pray earnestly that God would save many from spiritual darkness.
We hope that all this will not only give you a better understanding of the work that the Covenant Reformed Fellowship is doing, but that it will make you more fervent in prayer for the Lord’s work here and everywhere.