While Methodists are his favourite, Gerry Adams is on record saying “I love the democratic nature of the Presbyterian Church”.
But if Gerry took a closer look under the covers, would he be happy with the level of democracy? Certainly there are many opportunities for members to be involved in shaping local work and events, and serving on congregational committees. But as you look at kirk sessions, and the hierarchy of central committees and boards, it is clear that the representation becomes less all-member and increasingly male and clerical.
Where are the women? Where are the elders? Are we covering all ages? Where is the diversity of voice? The “priesthood of all believers” isn’t just a phrase – it needs to be a reality.
I started writing this post on Tuesday. Each day there has been further articulation of the issue on stage and some positive – if limited – movement towards addressing the deficit.
Back in 2007 the General Assembly agreed to more effectively listen to the voice and views of young people.
The main aim of SPUD [Speaking Participating Understanding Deciding] is to enable young people to have a meaningful opportunity to be involved in decision-making at a denominational and a local level. However it is a key principle that we are not just making our voices heard, but also listening to the views of others and to the rest of the church.
More than twenty SPUD resolutions have been proposed and agreed at subsequent General Assemblies, despite the clash with school and college exams. Indeed today an additional resolution was tagged onto the end of the lapsed Board of Social Witness business that was a direct consequence of two SPUD speeches yesterday morning.
Guests from outside the Presbyterian denomination attending the opening night of General Assembly may have been bemused by the fact that other than the orchestra, everyone on the stage and everyone speaking was male and wearing a clerical shirt.
Every congregation sends their minister and a representative elder to the assembly. Over 600 ministers and over 400 elders were registered to attend. Each delegate has an equal vote, and an equal right to ask questions and make speeches. Yet on the first day of business at the assembly only two elders spoke: one convenes a board, the other is clerk of a presbytery. Throughout the week – other than those delivering board reports – only a handful of elders spoke.
There was a fabulous – if rare – moment of accountability on Wednesday when two elders who had travelled 170 miles to ask a series of pertinent questions around the low level of third level education chaplaincy in Dublin.
An induction session is run on the first morning of the General Assembly to introduce new delegates to the procedures of ‘the house’. However, recognising the consistent low level of participation, surely more could be done during the week – from the front – to regularly encourage delegates to take part in the business.
The planned reorganisation of central denominational structures (boards, or councils) has been delayed for another year. And with it delays the opportunity to address the gender balance – and perhaps other diversity imbalances – and in the makeup of those nominated to serve on the committees and boards/councils.
2013 is the fortieth anniversary of the General Assembly agreeing to ordain female ministers. While it’s the policy of the denomination, the uptake has been low … and slow. In the forty years, less than forty women ministers have been ordained – around 6% of PCI’s ministers. Perhaps the denomination needs to call in Lord Patten?
Indeed this year has been the first time a women minister has been called from her first charge to another congregation. As one minister put it, “the first time women have left their ‘starter church’ for a larger congregation”. Suddenly, three have moved this year.
The denomination’s Board of Christian Training recognised in its report that
Concern had been raised as to the low numbers of women applying for ordained ministry. The Committee agreed that promotional material aimed at potential applicants should clearly stress that both men and women are eligible for ordination on an equal basis.
However, this concern was not translated into a resolution. Could it have been proposed that ministers and elders encourage all their members, regardless of gender, to explore their sense of calling to preaching courses and ministry? Perhaps that would have been deemed foolish given the breadth of attitudes towards women’s ministry that continue to be held by members, elders and ministers of the denomination.
For the first time ever this, the main speaker at the Youth Night event at the end of General Assembly is a woman. Gender aside, Jude Hill will be an exceptional speaker.
It was telling that the first mention of the fortieth anniversary of women being allowed to be ordained was finally made by two women. Otherwise, it seems unlikely it would have been mentioned at the assembly.
Two ministers made an unexpected intervention as they jointly delivered a short and dignified speech following the Board of Christian Training report. Revs Patricia McBride and Katherine Meyer read out the names of a sample of the congregations across Ireland that have “had the courage of their discernment” to call women ministers and employ assistant ministers over the last forty years.
We look forward to the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in transforming the church we serve, a church reformed and always in need of reformation. And we look forward to celebrating the fiftieth anniversary with great joy and in great style!
On the final morning, another unexpected intervention as the convenor of the Board of Finance and Personnel John Hunter – an elder – finished his verbal report by referencing the gender imbalance of his own board. He spoke of the “failure” of the denomination to “mobilise all the talents in our church”. He also wondered whether there would be a female moderator in the next ten years.
Moderator, before turning to my final remarks I’d like to speak briefly on the transformational theme from the perspective of the Board of Finance and Personnel. A transformational church has to have the courage and capacity to affect change and this requires governance structures that are fit for purpose. But it also requires us to mobilise all the talents in our church. And I believe, Moderator, we’re patently failing in this regard.
I illustrate it with an example from the last meeting of the board. Of the around forty people present, only one was a woman, and she was Laura Kelly our personnel officer.
I can report that the Nominations Committee has sought to address this deficit in the thirty eight person membership of the new board. And I look forward to welcoming Mrs Barron to her first meeting. She however is the only female nominee within the new committee.
Moderator, I suggest that the most visible sign of a transformed church might lie in more female engagement and indeed in leadership. Would it be heretical, moderator, even to suggest that in time there should be a female moderator? Perhaps before the fiftieth anniversary of the agreement of this house to ordain women.
Throughout the week, I asked a number of women minister about their journeys into ministry and what might encourage more women to come forward as candidates. Here’s a selection of their comments:
While it’s a rule and we’ve encapsulated it into church law, there is an ethos in the denomination that hasn’t been very encouraging to women going ahead in leadership and specifically toward ordination.
I consider that I’m a woman who is in ministry. I’m a team player, men and women together. I just happen to know that God’s called me into this role and I work together with the other men and women in the congregation.
I was seventeen when he called me into the ordained ministry. I’ve just gone on in faith through that. I spent a long time with my New Testament professor making sure what I felt was Biblical and having done that there was no looking back.
I would really want to encourage women – and I see younger women all the time – with gifts and abilities that I think God would use greatly within our denomination in terms of ordained leadership. They’re choosing to use their gifts in the church but also in other spheres. I think women and men of younger generation are not in the main thinking of ordained ministry. I think of my congregation: I’ve got a lot of guys that I see incredible leadership in. When you suggest it to them it’s not happening in their hearts. We have to look at that – why is that the case that a lot of people years ago who would have instantly considered ordination are not doing that now.?
My minister and people around me spotted something and encouraged me.
It has to start at a grass root, congregational level. I would encourage men to be considering – in their congregations – who are the leaders? Not the men or the women. But who have obvious gifts of leadership. That’s the missing gift today. It’s not so much the pastor or the teacher. As we’ve heard in the assembly today we need to be calling forth leadership in the generations that come after me.
What will change it? The women themselves will change it – the lay women.
I knew I had a call from the early age of thirteen or fourteen. I fought against the call because I knew it was going to be difficult. I thought that if I go down this line that my life is not going to be normal. My call developed and in the end I couldn’t fight it any longer. I knew it was the right thing and I knew from a young age that this was where I was supposed to be.
If you have a call, you can’t fight the call, and if you trust that you will get a church, all the doubts and the negativity and the obstacles that you face will fade away because your congregation accept you as their minister very quickly. That gives you the validation and you know I’m in the right place and you do forget about the difficulties that you went through. There’s nothing any of us can do higher than living up to our calling.
Whenever I was being interviewed at Presbytery level [seeking to become a candidate for the ministry] I was told “you do realise that women have trouble getting a church?” and my answer then was that God already knows the church he wants me to be in and I’ve never wavered from that. God always knows where he wants his people.
Without a change of attitude – a transformation of expectation – the status quo will continue. The denomination must intentionally listen to the width of opinion across its membership. And it must also intentionally listen to the width of opinion – and criticism – from those outside the denomination, whether those be previously committed Presbyterians who are leaving to pursue their Christian faith in other churches, or those tell me that they dismiss the denomination as irrelevant and terminally prejudiced.
Disclosure – I write as a member of the Presbyterian Church who was ordained as an elder more than ten years ago (though isn’t active in that capacity) and a member of one of the boards of the church. I’ve spent the week as a fly on the wall – or perhaps a tweeter in a balcony box in the Millennium Forum – and wasn’t a ‘member’ of the assembly. I’m also married to a Presbyterian minister.