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Covenant Protestant Reformed Church: Past and Present

Past
Over the last forty-five years or so, our church in Northern Ireland, in its various forms, has had as many as five different names (and one of them has even been used twice)! 

Our origins lie with the Independent Free Church, which was formed of people forced out of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster in the late 1970s because of their commitment to the doctrines of God’s sovereign and particular grace. Later, the Independent Free Church changed its name to the Bible Presbyterian Church, with which the PRC established sister-church relations in 1985. However, Rev. George Hutton and about half of those in the Bible Presbyterian Church soon decided to join the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and so severed the bond with the PRC. The remaining saints, now without a pastor and institutional status, called themselves the Covenant Reformed Fellowship (1988). 

In 1996, with Rev. Ron Hanko as our missionary pastor, we organized as the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church. After doctrinal divisions in the congregation led the majority of the male confessing members to vote to disband, we became the Covenant Protestant Reformed Fellowship (2002). We deliberately added the word “Protestant” before “Reformed” this time because the ones who were most given to theological experimentation among those who left us were especially opposed to all things “Protestant Reformed.” When we reorganized in 2006, we became once more the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church (CPRC). 

There are some members of our congregation who have been through all three of these splits: in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 2000s. We also established a sister-church relationship with the PRC three times: in 1985, 2000, and 2007. Currently, we are your most frequent, oldest, and smallest sister! 

The CPRC has been based in two different towns about twenty-two miles apart: first in Larne on County Antrim’s east coast, and now in Ballymena in the center of the county. Over our first three decades, we met in various nonglamorous venues: community centers, people’s homes, Orange halls, etc.1 Finally, in 2010, we moved into our newly built church home. 

Behind all the numbers, name changes, and events in this massively condensed history of our church are lots of prayer and work, painful struggles and sacrifices, many disappointments, and tears. But it has all been worth it! We gladly confess with the apostle Paul: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). 

Through it all, the assistance of the PRC has been invaluable, chiefly in bringing to us the pure biblical gospel of God’s covenant friendship in Jesus Christ, proceeding from his eternal and unconditional grace. Where would we have been without Protestant Reformed preaching on video cassettes (remember them?) and pulpit supply, especially in our early days; the use of the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary and financial help over the years; quality ecclesiastical advice and even wives for several of our men? 

Our thankful testimony is that of Psalm 124: “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, now may Israel say; if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us: then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us: then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul: then the proud waters had gone over our soul” (vv. 1–5). Thus we also conclude, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (v. 8). 

Our heavenly Father in his faithfulness, wisdom, and love has preserved, guided, and edified us through his work of testing, pruning, chastening, and purifying. In Psalm 90, the church prays, “Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil” (v. 15). Scripture explains God’s dealings with us: “For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). 

 

Present
Moving from the past to the present, one striking feature is that, after all the difficulties and opposition we have faced from within and without (and the former is worse), the CPRC has enjoyed relative peace for the last several years. Long may it continue! The infallible word exhorts us, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him” (Eccl. 7:14). 

Of late, we have experienced significant numerical (and we trust also spiritual) growth. We now have twenty-three families in our membership and average about seventy-five to eighty congregants at our morning and evening services on the Lord’s day. For us, having been so small for so long, this too is grounds for thanksgiving! 

After decades of operating on a shoestring, now we even have money in the church. This enables us to support solidly Reformed causes in which we can be confident. 

Whether a congregation is small, medium, or large, young or old, financially rich or poor, sailing in stormy waters or on calm seas, we must always watch and pray. Let the church that thinks it stands take heed lest it fall (cf. 1 Cor. 10:12)! 

 

Our biggest structural weakness is that we do not have our own Christian day school. Some of our children are homeschooled (which is demanding), others go to a Christian school (though it is some distance away and operates on a more fundamentalist basis), and others go to state schools (which are degenerating). Over the decades, we have lost too high a percentage of our children to the world or liberal, departing churches. For a Christian school, we would need more children, money, and unity, as well as appropriate premises and Reformed teachers. 

The CPRC is busy promoting the biblical and creedal faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and developing contacts. We have a strong online presence through our main website, which includes thousands of translations, and our YouTube channel, as well as on Facebook.2 Our bookstore is well stocked with RFPA books, Protestant Reformed pamphlets, etc. We help organize a biennial conference in the British Isles (British Reformed Fellowship Conference), the speeches of which we publish in book form. We mail and email the monthly Covenant Reformed News to many hundreds of subscribers, and we use articles in local newspapers and lectures to spread the word. The witnessing of our faithful and enthusiastic church members is crucial. Brethren, continue to pray for us, as we do for you. 

Rev. Stewart is the pastor of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena, Northern Ireland.