The steel in gentleness

News reached me at the weekend of the death of Revd. Dr. J.I. Packer at the age of 93. Dr. Packer, a renowned speaker, theologian and clergyman, published a book called ‘Knowing God’ in 1973. It sold 1.5 million copies and was translated into 12 languages.

The news took me back to an event in Fitzroy Presyterian Church in the late 1990’s. A friend of mine, A Roman Catholic priest, had invited me to attend this debate between Dr. Packer and a Roman Catholic priest called Fr. Pat Collins, I think. They were invited to share a paper on why their faith was important to them and discuss it with the audience. Dr. Packer went first and made a very gracious and learned contribution to the discussion through his paper.

When the priest stood up to speak, the atmosphere changed. As he started his paper, he was heckled by a section of the crowd. As he tried to continue, further interruptions occurred as sections of the audience pointed out the errors they believed were present in various Vatican documents. The Minister who was chairing the meeting appealed for calm while the priest sat down. When the place was absolutely quiet he approached the podium again and I will never forget his words spoken with great respect and gentleness.

He said, “If there are people present, as there clearly are, who do not believe I am a Christian, you will discover something very challenging when you read the Bible that you claim to have such authority over your lives. You will discover,” he continued very gently, “that, whether I am a Christian or not, the Bible says you have a responsibility to love me and, sadly, I haven’t experienced that here today. Thank you for your time.”

Today we are considering the 8th Fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of ‘gentleness’. While I value gentleness as a quality in people’s personality and character, we discover at times in the Bible that gentleness has sometimes a steely element to it.

The priest who spoke at the J.I Packer debate in Fitzroy called out the hostility and bigotry he experienced in the most gracious and gentle way and silenced them completely. J.I Packer, himself, applauded him for doing so. It’s hard to call out difficult things in such a gracious and powerful way.

I think of a talk I heard by a Jesuit priest called Fr. Greg Boyle. He works with rival gangs in Los Angeles and has started a most inspiring enterprise called Homeboy industries. It’s primarily a bakery and it runs programmes for those trying to leave the gangland lifestyle that has claimed so many lives.

One of the things Fr. Greg does is that he gets people from rival gangs to work together making bread in the bakery. People who were previously unemployed and without hope are now part of a thriving industry supplying shops and restaurants across the city. By working together in the production line, people who would previously have shot each other for being in the wrong neighbourhood are getting to know each other as human beings. It’s the sort of work that places like the Corrymeela Community have been doing for many years here in Northern Ireland throughout the troubles and after the ceasefire. They have provided a safe place and skilled facilitators to help people who have been sucked into the ways of violence and paramilitarism to encounter one another as human beings.

It’s about seeing people as people first, and not just enemies on the grounds of their politics, religious affiliation or their sexual orientation. These are all hard things and hot potatoes as far as the Christian community is concerned. People have fiercely held views on these matters and, even to have dialogue or discussion with those who differ from us, is often viewed as ‘selling out’ or a slippery slope.

When I look at the life of Jesus he never shirked an opportunity for dialogue with those who may have held a different viewpoint. He often spoke gently, but truthfully, into their blind spots or prejudices to the point where they had no defence left when they considered his points. He didn’t gloat in victory in a triumphant way, but offered people space to process what he was telling them and he recognised that it might take some time for them to engage with what he was saying.

It strikes me as a very good model.

As we prepare to return to church on 2nd August we are so pleased to report important progress in setting the various guidelines in place. Tomorrow night we hope to have a meeting for stewards and volunteer cleaners at 7 pm in the church as we try to set things up. People will have to complete whats called a ‘return to work form’ (including clergy!) if you are going to volunteer in any way.

We hope to make a video during the week explaining what will happen as people come to church. Many have been asking about our numbers and capacity and the guidance stipulates that we can hold more people if people come as households. If you are, for example, a family of 4 or 5, you can sit together and potentially another person can be in the same pew 2 metres away if it’s a large pew. If people come as individuals, we can seat around 25 observing the 2 metre distance, but we could have over 80 if people come in family groups or couples. We recognise that it will, most likely, be a mixture of both and we will do our best to seat people. Please remember that there will also be an evening service and, if you are able to come at night, that may free up spaces for those who, potentially, may find the evening time more difficult.

The government advice is that those over 70, those who have underlying medical conditions, those who might be pregnant are advised not to come. There is a recognition that there are many who are very healthy in their 70’s and 80’s and 90’s and may wish to come and, in communicating the guidance, it’s up to people to decide for themselves. The advice recommends the use of masks indoors without making them mandatory, so we expect a combination of approaches from those who choose to worship with us and be assured of a warm welcome.

Many will understandably feel nervous and cautious and there is no pressure on anyone to return. Services will continue to be recorded and, with our new technology being installed in late July, we hope to be able to live stream the 11 am service. Those who have been dialling in to receive services will continue to have that option and we will be doing all in our power to ensure everyone is safe as they come to, what will initially be, shorter services, slightly longer than the ones that are currently recorded.

We will all feel glad to get these new routines in place and familiarise ourselves with them. Can I ask everyone to continue to pray for the whole process, please? As the office is on holidays over the next week, if you would like to be part of a technology team, a cleaning and stewarding team please email me directly on

The parish prayer meeting will take place by Zoom on Thursday at 7 pm and, if you’d like to join us, drop an email to

As we think about the underlying steel in the Christian fruit of patience, can we learn to engage with gentleness with those who are different to us and ask God to pour upon us that particular fruit. There are likely to be some hiccups as we get our new systems in place but, with patience and good humour and the grace of God, we will work our way through them.

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,