The Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic churches locally appoint their respective Primates of all Ireland that lead their denominations for many years, bringing a stability to their office until their eventual retirement. Alan Harper took over the CofI top job from the retiring Lord Eames earlier this year. In contrast, Presbyterians and Methodists vote in a fresh face each year as their moderators and presidents serve for a fixed twelve month period.
Back in February, Dr John Finlay from Harryville congregation in Ballymena was elected as the moderator designate, and he will be installed tonight at the opening of this year’s Presbyterian General Assembly in Belfast.
Belfast City Council often elect their new Lord Mayor the Monday before General Assembly. This year, the mayoral vote is happening around the corner in Belfast City Hall tonight, so the likely winner Sinn Fein’s Tierna Cunningham will miss out on a trip to Church House (unlike her party’s Alex Maskey back in 2002). Update: Of course, favourite horses don't always win the race, and in the end it was a coin toss to decide between two UUP mayoral candidates, with Jim Rodgers elected as the new Lord Mayor of Belfast.
The complex ecclesiastical choreography that is the opening night will no doubt be rehearsed this afternoon, before being performed at 7pm tonight. The outgoing moderator, Dr David Clarke, will give his closing address, and then be escorted out of the main assembly hall by the phalanx of previous moderators (who sit up on the stage behind him in chronological order). Soon after, they’ll troop back in, bringing with them the new moderator, who will then go on to make his opening statements, setting out his theme for the year (“Jesus is Lord”).
In a deviation from the normal agenda, Tuesday night will be opened up to the public for a town hall event focussing on education. Teachers, parents, politicians (including the Stormont Assembly’s new education minister Caitríona Ruane) and maybe even pupils will debate curriculum reform, governance changes and educational ethos, chaired by BBC Good Morning Ulster’s Seamus McKee. Update: It's been confirmed that Caitríona Ruane will address Tuesday night's education meeting.
During the week, the mood of the assembly will be tested with another break from tradition: a proposal to move the installation of the new moderator to the end of the week, allowing the moderator to get more experience working across the breadth of the church for a year before chairing the assembly business. (If successful, the transitional moderator will get to chair business twice ... unlucky!)
As well as dealing with internal structural issues (a bit like any trade union or political party annual conference), assembly is expected to debate a number of other higher profile matters ...
- During the year, guidelines for pastoral care of homosexuals have been developed and will now be discussed at assembly. (They've also been widely trailed on the Will and Testament blog.) It's a contensions area for many in the church, exposing their differences of theology and interpretation. Included are recommendations that congregations “create an environment of love, acceptance, patience, forgiveness and grace” while a “safe space” is developed within PCI where people can discuss their sexuality. Amendments to the report are possible, along with further work to refine the church's policies and attitudes.
- For the fourth year running, the sale of Church House (home to the assembly, and also the main office accommodation for the denomination’s central departments) will be debated. Faced with the question of restoring the crumbling stonework and redeveloping the impractical internal office spaces versus the emotional and practical pain of moving out of the trademark property to another premises (perhaps outside of Belfast), it’s been an alternating game of Oh yes they will! Oh no they won’t! And even if assembly sticks to last year’s decision to stay, there are still a variety of renovation options that will test the hearts, minds and pockets of PCI in the months and years to come! Or as the church’s press office phrased it:
“The on-off sale of Church House will be debated once again on Wednesday afternoon. This should be the final definitive debate in a saga that began in 2004 with a vote to sell the 100 year old building and should end today when a resolution to rescind that 2004 decision is either accepted or rejected.”
- And around lunchtime on Tuesday, the Communications Board will announce the winners of their first annual Excellence in Communication Awards. Created in an attempt to improve communications across the denomination, awards will be made in four categories: print, broadcast, internet and audio-visual. (But unlike the Church of Scotland, assembly's business isn't streamed live over the internet, and doesn't feature a daily news update podcast!)
- And somewhere in the middle of the buzz, debate and bureaucracy, hopefully God will be glorified, as the Shorter Catechism advises!
You can catch the sounds of the opening night on Radio Ulster (Medium Wave only) from 7pm tonight, complete with Bert Tosh and William Crawley's commentary on the unfolding events.
And if the excitement of a mayoral vote and the installation of a moderator is too much, Katherine Jenkins will be singing along with the Ulster Orchestra in the Waterfront Hall.