In 1965 Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans met above a local dentist’s surgery on the Jordanstown Road in Monkstown. This was hugely significant and pioneering.
From the very beginning of the Troubles, members of three main Protestant churches were worshipping together in the same building in the loyalist estate that is Monkstown; and plans were being made to share one permanent church building in the heart of the community.
Sadly, for various internal constitutional reasons at the time (1967), the Presbyterians could not continue with the shared buildings proposals. But the Methodists and Anglicans decided to forge ahead with the shared proposals and by 1969 new halls were built by the Methodists; and a church sanctuary by the Church of Ireland. The opening service was held on April 25, 1970. The Anglicans met for Sunday morning worship at 10am, and the Methodists met at 11.30am – each with their own minister and governance structure. Uniquely, it was a united act of worship and a coming together of both traditions.
There was good will from both parent denominations and by 1994 the Church of Ireland had legally recognised Monkstown as a parish in its own right. This meant the CoI congregation at Church of the Good Shepherd would have their own rector and no longer be considered an extension of St Patrick’s, Jordanstown. The parish of Monkstown was born.
But joint worship arrangements in the shared premises did not always run smoothly. Unity is not an easy path. Relations between the two congregations fluctuated and by 2002 things had deteriorated to such a point that the best way forward seemed to be if the partnership was dissolved. There was no real living and working together.
The Methodist Church in Ireland and the Church of Ireland signed a covenant in 2002 where both denominations agreed to enter into a closer working relationship. This new dispensation in church led the Methodist minister and Church of Ireland rector of COGS to try and put this covenant into practice in Monkstown and to begin to fulfill the dream summed up in the logo of Church of the Good Shepherd, drawn from John 10:10: There shall be ‘one church under one shepherd’.
The Methodist congregation and the Anglican congregation, with their own independent clergy and governance sharing the one building was akin to two different seeds being planted in the same piece of ground.
Once it was recognised that the fluctuating relations between the two churches was really a systemic problem, the solution was obvious: they needed to sow a new seed in Monkstown, a single seed stemming from a fully united covenant. There would no longer be two congregations using the premises, but one - united in heart and vision; sharing fully together in mission.
At a meeting with the Bishop of Connor and the Superintendent Minister of the Newtownabbey Methodist Mission, it was suggested that a joint meeting of the Select Vestry and Leaders’ Board be called to discuss the way forward. At that meeting all leaders affirmed their commitment to full unity. Everyone who wanted to be a part of COGS would enter into relationship together in Holy Communion on Sunday March 16, 2003.
After that all worship services, organisations and midweek meetings would be united and there would be one decision making body called a Church Council. So COGS became one body in Christ with services on Sundays at 11am and 6.30pm.
Each year on the Sunday nearest St Patrick’s day this covenant is renwed in community life together in Christ - man, woman and child. Since then every child that was baptised in COGS is baptised into both traditions. Likewise at confirmation the young persons received into full membership of the MCI and confirmed as a member of CoI.
Working out the covenant on the ground took longer to achieve in terms of fully legislated interchangeability of ministry and integrating legal ownership of buildings .
COGS has been a pioneer in all this and while it is exciting, often it has been difficult as there is no precedent.
A building extension completed in 2010 physically joined together the formerly Methodist owned halls and the CoI owned church sanctuary and allowed for renewal of the aspiration of institutional unity symbolically represented in the creation of a new homely space with a cafe area, link corridor and separate entrance onto the Jordanstown Road. It is called the Heartspace and it really has become the embodiment of all COGS stands for – a united Christian witness.
Having established full unity of the buildings it was then asked why separate ministers should be required for each tradition. This was not necessary.
The Methodist minister Rev Alan Lorimer, who had been so instrumental in the early days of securing unity in COGS felt 2011 was the right time to move on to pioneer a united work of mission through the creation of a Christian centre for spiritual wellbeing to bring hope and healing to broken people in the interface area of Carlisle Circus in north Belfast.
I was recognised by my own Bishop, the Most Revd Richard Clarke, and the President, Ken Lindsay (MCI) as the sole continuing minister for COGS. For the first time there would be one minister recognised by two different denominations. Since then, several other churches have entered into formal covenant with each other and with the interchangeability legislation coming into force following the CoI General Synod and the Methodist Conference the pathway has now been established for other churches to follow suit.
For more information on COGS contact Rev Arlene Moore on 07450 284484.