It’s a happy coincidence that ministers and representative elders from Presbyterian congregations across Ireland will be voting for their new Moderator at regional caucuses across the island at the same time as citizens in
seven 24 US states consider their preferred Democratic and Republican party candidates on Pancake Super Tuesday.
It used to be a complete mystery how around half the Presbytery meetings could nominate the same name on the same night, and hence vote in a new Moderator designate when the votes were phoned in and tallied in Church House. With no short lists and certainly no overt campaigning, it was an annual act of God, assisted by a whispering grapevine, to elect the denomination’s leader and spokesman for the following year.
2008 brings a revision to the procedure: Presbyteries put forward names at their January meetings, allowing them to be collated and circulated to everyone before tomorrow night’s vote, and giving the chance for nominees to approve their inclusion on the list. So for once, the field is reduced from potentially several hundred ministers to a mere seven.
- Rev Willis Cordner (First Bangor)
- Rev Dr Joe Fell (Ebrington)
- Rev Norman Hamilton OBE (Ballysillan)
- Rev Derek McKelvey (Fisherwick)
- Rev Wilfred Orr (St. John's, Newtownbreda)
- Rev Dr Ruth Patterson OBE (Director of Restoration Ministries)
- Rev Dr Donald Patton (Old Church, Randalstown)
With the exception of Norman Hamilton, all the other candidates have form: getting one or more votes in previous year’s but not topping the poll. (Northern Ireland’s Free Presbyterian denomination must be glad they don’t have to go through this rigmarole very often!)
Over on the other side of the Atlantic, Presbyterian Church USA is in the process of electing its next biannual moderator. Except it’s a lot more transparent, with ministers allowing themselves to be nominated, and a certain amount of campaigning seems to be required. Rev Bruce Reyes-Chow - already a keen blogger - now writes about his moderatorial experience and hopes online. There’s even a Facebook group for fans!
None of the seven PCI candidates have been campaigning so openly. Though some have been quite willing to talk to the Belfast Telegraph’s religious reporter Alf McCreary (also a PCI elder) when he’s contacted them over the last fortnight. And some have - perhaps coincidentally - raised their profiles by being particularly available for local radio and TV interviews on various community and political issues! Demonstrating their calibre of public speaking, fashion sense, and ability to be cross examined and represent a particular theological/political viewpoint. It certainly hasn’t been closed season.
But how much does the average Presbyterian know about their denomination’s ministers?
Maybe they’re aware of the clerics in their local area, the maverick down the road, the woman who’s been installed in the next town, the man who’s just moved to the place with the name I can never remember. Bad enough for the voting ministers who only get to see (the majority, but not all of) their colleagues together at the annual June week of General Assembly. But even with this year’s advance listing innovation, how are representative elders meant to discern their vote at Presbytery? Prayerfully as they pin the tail on the donkey? Vote with the crowd? Ask around for the low-down on the candidates? Accept light from their minister and effectively give them a second vote?
It’s not quite an answer, but I’ve got a suggestion.
Each Sunday during Autumn, packets of stickers should be available to collect at morning and evening services. Remember the rush as a child when you finally completed a page in the Panini sticker album, or when you swapped a double for a hard-to-find player?
Families could rush home to rip open their packets and affix the clerical mugshots to the right Presbytery pages of their family album. There could even be a few biographical details, experience on boards and committees. Free bonus packet with every copy of the Presbyterian Herald!
While tacky, it would certainly raise awareness of PCI’s ministry “talent” (a word the FT’s Lucy Kellaway is less than fond of) and perhaps kick off useful conversations about the kind of leadership that PCI members would prefer. While less intentional that PCUSA’s open style of campaign, over the years it might actually help make the annual voting a bit more educated, and a bit less blind.
Though I would be a little scared that 10 year olds could make their favourite
player minister into a hero!
And then Alan woke up from his cheese-inspired dream as the wheels touched down on the familiar Heathrow runway.