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What kind of a General Assembly was it when Presbyterians returned to the comfortable air-conditioned Assembly Buildings in Belfast after their sojourn in Derry’s Millennium Forum 12 months ago?
The opening night started strongly. Dr Barry called on the church to “look not only on your own interests but also to the interests of others” and speaking out against civic rioting and those “who would attack verbally or physically people they do not like”. He contrasted the tendency to say “come and listen to us” with Jesus’ command to “go into all the world”. Overnight this message was picked up by the front page of the News Letter and for once the denomination was there for the right reason. But did PCI continue to be so challenging throughout the rest of the week’s business?
Despite the nearly equal numbers of ministers and elders who can register to attend the General Assembly, there was an overwhelming clericalism. Apart from the singers and musicians – and a cameo appearance by moderatorial runner-up Rev Liz Hughes – the opening night was once again dominated by men wearing clerical shirts. Does this really epitomise how we want Presbyterian democracy and governance to be seen and heard?
For the first time I heard complaints about a queue forming for the women’s toilets during the breaks in business. Given the tiny minority of women ministers (remember less than 40 have been ordained by PCI in the last 40 years) and the vast majority of male elders, this was a significant and long overdue queue.
We should welcome the small increase in the number of elders speaking in Assembly debates. However, despite their vote being equal, non-clerical voices were very much still in the minority. The Clerk and Moderator might consider encouraging the full participation of all those ‘in the house’ during every session and not just at the introduction to Assembly business on the first morning.
Since its inception in 2007, the SPUD (Speaking, Participating, Understanding, Deciding) youth initiative has been as much about “listening to the views of others and to the rest of the church” as it has been about making the voice of young people heard in the General Assembly.
SPUD neatly summed up their contribution: 1 report, 5 speeches, 3 resolutions, 150 bacon/sausage butties, over 500 cups of tea/coffee, 500 tray bakes, serving God and blessing the Church.
Their focus was on relationships and networking, making the vacant Familybooks unit into a space for prayer, a haven of hospitality, an acoustic café late on Wednesday evening, and over Thursday lunchtime a venue for a discussion about sharing our faith and how to be a people of service and outreach. Our denomination should celebrate the example of the 12 SPUD delegates: listening, relating, serving, feeding and challenging.
The week of General Assembly is an odd mix of a Christian worship festival, a theology symposium, a corporate Annual General Meeting of shareholders, and a trade union rules revision conference. In behind the scenes, an army of office staff, building managers, clerks, stewards, IT support, sound and video engineers, not to mention the caterers and those who look after delegates visiting from other denominations and countries, invisibly hold the Assembly together.
This year it was impossible not to compare and contrast this year’s General Assembly with the experience from twelve months ago up in Derry’s Millennium Forum.
A majority of delegates in 2013 were residential, spending 72 hours living, eating, socialising, worshipping and debating together up in the north west. The relaxed atmosphere included the chance to walk around the walls to First Derry for communion, showing off the City of Culture’s heritage in the fabulous weather. Ministers and elders who normally only pop into General Assembly for a day stayed for the duration. There were lots of new faces at the opening night and Wednesday rally.
Back in the mothership of Assembly Buildings in Belfast, fewer people needed to stay over and were around to let their hair down in the evenings. In familiar surroundings, delegates sat in their favourite corners again. Some of the business was familiar too, with multi-year debates continuing on the restructuring of the denomination’s boards, ministerial pay progression, and another report on the theological considerations of congregations wishing to install baptisteries.
again this year playing its part in the ‘Big Society’, directly impacting the lives thousands of vulnerable adults. The Board reported that many congregations are running or supporting local foodbanks.
At times, significant business that perhaps deserved debate and wider discussion was rushed through. Many larger boards failed to squeeze their resolutions into the allotted times, and lapsed business mounted up alarmingly. By Thursday afternoon, there was a mixture of leftover resolutions and overtures to complete before the Assembly could close. Extending back into Friday morning must surely now be considered to give Assembly business the scrutiny that it deserves.
An amendment that might have delayed the restructuring of boards into councils for another year of review was discussed at length. When it failed the original plans sailed through with very little resistance to the shape of the new leaner organisation. With a smaller number of people being appointed to the new councils, Presbyteries will need to intentional about the need to promote a diversity of age, experience and gender in their nominations.
The substitution of “God-given right” for “inalienable right” in the revised Standards of The Church merited considerable deliberation. An attempt to reverse the change was blocked. Yet at no stage did anyone stand up and clearly explain and justify the moral and legal nuances that “inalienable” conveys in the original text.
Minutes later another important nuance was accepted without comment when no one pointed out that the ordination and installation service liturgy had been subtly amended. Ministers will no longer agree that the Word of God is “set forth” in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, but instead will agree that they believe those Scriptures “to be” the Word of God. Quite a theological change buried in the pages and pages of overtures in the blue book, and a change inconsistent with the wording elsewhere in the Code.
Excitement mounted on the third afternoon when a vote was finally close enough that a simple oral Aye/No followed by up a standing vote (counted visually by tellers) were insufficient and members were asked to place their voting cards in the boxes passed around. After a long wait the result was announced … a tie! 106 votes to 106.
Amazing that out of 616 ministers, 472 elders, 47 Assembly Elders, conveners and nominees of the Business Board, only 212 people voted on the issue of the Central Ministry Fund Bonus! The Assembly will return to the matter next year.
As the Assembly rose to sing a final hymn on Thursday, from my vantage point up in the gallery I wondered what the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan Rev Peter Gai Lual made of the business? Based in a three year old country that is tearing itself apart in a brutal conflict, with massive displacement of families, little food and many people living in camps for shelter, his denomination is barely able to function.
How would it change the way we do our business if the whole traumatised Assembly took place in the context of this wider perspective.
Have we got into the habit of following the agenda rather than setting it? Our radical gospel seems subdued. Across our denomination there are surely opportunities for the church to speak out on issues that matter to people. Issues of justice and equality. Issues that could impact poverty and stamp out discrimination.
Has the General Assembly heeded the wise words of Prof Donald Macleod who addressed a January conference on ‘The Church in the Public Square’ from the same spot on the stage where the Moderator sat during Assembly?
“… our calling as Christians, as the church in the public square [is] to bring warmth into civic life. Not higher standards first and foremost, not law and order, not discipline, but warmth. Individuals and formal governance which are compassionate, which bring hope which bring love, which bring affirmation. You bear God’s image, you matter to God and you matter to us.”
As followers of Jesus, our denomination and its General Assembly should be among the first to challenge the status quo in society and in public and political institutions. We should be the first to defend the rights of those we don’t naturally agree with. We should bring warmth and grace into homes and businesses and hearts across the island, whether they are Presbyterian or not. That’s the kind of General Assembly I’d love to see.
Alan Meban blogs online as Alan in Belfast and sits on the Board of Finance & Personnel … at least for the next six months (until it is restructured out of existence!)