Someone may need to remind me tomorrow night that predictions should be made in the privacy of the bookmakers and not on a public blog! But I reckon that the Presbyterian Church’s Moderator designate elected on Tuesday night will be Rev Stafford Carson (from First Portadown). And here’s why. Update - he was elected Moderator Designate!
First some background. On Tuesday night, Presbyterian ministers and elders representing their congregations will meet up at their regional monthly Presbytery meetings across Ireland to vote for a new Presbyterian moderator who will take over on the opening night of the annual General Assembly (church conference) in early June. While the Pope generally dies in office, and the Church of Ireland primate stays in office until retirement (was Robin Eames, now Alan Harper), Presbyterians and Methodists figureheads only hold office for a year.
This year, there are only three ministers up for nomination! Each Presbytery will vote and submit their favoured candidate to Church House (don’t think they have any Eurovision-style scoring boards!) where the numbers will be totted up and an announcement made around 9pm.
Two of the three have previous form – Rev Norman Hamilton and Rev Derek McKelvey – having gathered one and two votes respectively in last year’s election that put Rev Donald Patton in the hot seat. And most years, previous form is an indicator of who will be elected. But not this year.
Christmas is traditionally a slow news period, and plenty was written in December 2007 (dragging into January 2008) about the difficulties in Portadown. Alf McCreary summed it up in Friday’s Belfast Telegraph:
In December 2007, [Rev Stafford Carson] became embroiled in a controversy where he said that he was unable “in conscience” to allow the Rev Christina Bradley from Armagh Road Church in Portadown to preach in First Portadown during a traditional Christmas joint service. Attempts to reach a compromise between the churches were unsuccessful and it was decided not to continue with the joint Christmas service in an atmosphere which was polarising opinion within the town and within the Church at large.
Mr Carson suggested that the services should be resumed in 2008, with the “home” minister conducting the services — not the “away” minister as was the tradition — but Armagh Road turned this down.
Now the issue of conscience could turn out nowhere near as simple as a difference in theology over women in ministry or even being ill at ease with a more liberal theology. Who knows? Stafford has perhaps wisely kept his counsel on the matter and seems to have been slow to answer media questions or accept interviews.
But the media covered (and kept covering) the dispute in great detail at the time, helped by the Portadown Times journalist Victor Gordon who just so happens to sing in the Armagh Road church choir and wrote articles on the subject for the Belfast Telegraph.
So seemingly out of nowhere, Rev Stafford Carson is the third name on the list of potential moderators. Now from what I know and have heard about the three candidates, they could all make good moderators.
In fact, most moderators come to office with the odd rough corner that the year knocks off and smoothes over! Most seem to realise that in order to represent the breadth of Presbyterian belief and membership, they’ve got to put aside any of their more extreme (or minority) views and concentrate on the fundamentals that everyone will agree on. And some moderators have ended the year and resumed their parish ministry changed people, with their grip loosened on old beliefs and policies that they used to hold dear.
The media have thrust Stafford Carson into the limelight, and in doing so have made him a champion of the conservative cause. And I suspect that as a by-product of the media’s reporting of events in Portadown, he’ll be elected in a (democratic) bid to stamp a conservative voice on PCI for 2009/10.
Certainly Sunday morning’s traditional interview with the moderator designate on Sunday Sequence will be an interesting listen, as questions about sharing services with women elders and ministers, as well as potential ecumenical activity and pastoral care, are inevitably discussed.
While many will hope for shouts of “Down with that kind of thing” and “That’ll be an ecumenical matter”, Carson may not be so predictable or so easily pigeon-holed. But it’ll be the media, as well as the voters at Presbyteries, who will have chosen the moderator designate.