Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Norristown, Pennsylvania.
The name of the Covenant Reformed Fellowship is not new to the readers of The Standard Bearer. Synod of 1988 decided to send a delegation to Larne to help the saints there. Rev. Kamps and Prof. Engelsma went and the report of their visit is found in the December 15, 1988 issue. It gives a brief history of the fellowship, and details of the visits and work of the delegates.
Synod also decided to instruct the Committee for Contact “to secure the labors of one of our ministers to work in Larne and to pursue, if possible, other contacts in the British Isles, for a period of 6-9 months.”
In January 1989 the Committee for Contact asked me to go, and shortly afterward the elders of the PRC in Norristown gave their permission. Though the congregation in Norristown had just been organized, the elders felt that the work of the PRC in the UK was too important, and the need of the Covenant Reformed Fellowship too great, to refuse.
The spiritual condition of Northern Ireland is probably a little better than the spiritual condition of our own country. For example, most stores and shops are closed on the Lord’s Day. It is difficult to buy bread or meat in the supermarkets on Monday because little baking and butchering are done the day before. It seemed to me also that there was a greater emphasis on the necessity of separation from the world. Nevertheless this does not mean that the spiritual condition of that country is good. The older Presbyterian churches are liberal. The Free Presbyterian Church, which was started by Rev. Ian Paisley, is more fundamentalistic than Presbyterian, and in fact has close ties in both doctrine and practice with the fundamentalists of North America. The more conservative Presbyterian churches, such as the Reformed Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, have adopted for the most part the theology of the free offer of the gospel and common grace. The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, to which denomination the Bible Presbyterian Church of Larne now belongs, is legalistic. Historic Calvinism is not much more appreciated there than here.
It was because of this that the Covenant Reformed Fellowship decided not to affiliate itself with any of the churches already existing in Northern Ireland, but instead to seek the help of the Protestant Reformed Churches.
The Fellowship began to meet in January of 1988, and until I arrived in July of 1989 listened to taped sermons of Protestant Reformed ministers. Many of the people indicated to me that they were very thankful to have this means of instruction, but that it was, nevertheless, far from ideal. It was much more difficult for the children to listen and learn in that situation than when a minister of the word was present. Furthermore they were somewhat hesitant about inviting visitors to the worship.
The church has two worship services every Sabbath: at 11:00 a.m. (a late morning service is customary in Northern Ireland), and 6:00 p.m. In the morning I preached a series on the life of Jacob, and in the evening I preached from the Heidelberg Catechism, because the people had expressed a desire for instruction in Reformed doctrine, and especially in the doctrine of the covenant. Their worship is very simple: singing of three or four Psalms, prayer, reading and preaching of the Word, and giving of alms.
Already before my arrival the people of the fellowship began to plan various things in addition to the weekly services. I conducted family visitation at their request. Catechism classes for the children were begun almost immediately. Since there are fourteen children among the five families who attend regularly it was necessary to have four classes: one for the five four to six years olds, one for the eight year old, one for the twelve year old, and one for the two fifteen year olds.
In October we began public meetings in the Larne town hall. The lecture topics were on various aspects of Reformed doctrine (e.g., infant baptism, the covenant, and Premillennialism) and current issues (the application of the doctrine of the antithesis to contemporary life, the role of women in the church, etc.). We had visitors at every meeting, and three people from outside the fellowship attended these meetings regularly. Two of them, young people who drove an hour in order to be present, requested catechism. I began to teach them from the Belgic Confession on Friday evenings before the lectures. The ladies had a Bible study which met every other week, and in November we began a study of the application of the doctrine of the covenant to the raising of children.
We met five nights in a row in early September to discuss the work and qualifications of the officers of the church. The fellowship is very eager to be organized, and is preparing for it now though we do not know when it will be.
If the spiritual condition of Northern Ireland is poor, then the spiritual condition of England is appalling. Only a small part of the population goes to church, and of these most are members of the apostate Church of England. There are only a few Reformed or Presbyterian churches in the whole country, and those few people who still hold to the Reformed faith are often unable to find a Reformed church to attend.
I made two visits to England. The first was with my family in August. We did some sightseeing, but also visited with three families to talk about the possibility of a Reformed work in England.
Out of this visit came the plans for a conference of interested men at which this idea would be discussed. Just before we left, fifteen men (five from Larne, flour from the Measbro Dyke Evangelical Church in Barnsley, and the rest from various parts of England) met in Barnsley. We were able to meet for only a few hours, and so were not able to accomplish as much as we would have liked, but we did agree to meet again in May 1990 to talk further. At the conference Mr. Tony Horne, editor of The Presbyterian, outlined the reasons for the calling of the conference and suggested some objectives toward which the group can work. I spoke on what it means to be Reformed, and Mr. John Clarke talked about the work in Larne. We also had some time for discussion and fellowship. At the meeting in May one of the subjects discussed will probably be the adoption of one of the Reformed creeds.
Though we had to return to America earlier than we had originally planned, we are very thankful for the opportunity we had to serve God’s people in the United Kingdom, and feel even more strongly now than we did before we went that this work is so important that we must be willing to make large sacrifices in order that it may go on.