He’ll take over from the current moderator Rev Michael Barry on 1 June, on the opening night of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly.
Rev NcNie was one of the runners up in last year’s tight contest which went to a second round of voting after a three way tie. Rev Liz Hughes – the other 2014 runner up – got support from four presbyteries. Two presbyteries endorsed Rev Frank Sellar and one backed Rev Robert Bell.
As a conservative evangelical, I recognise that we are living in the 21st Century and therefore seek to steer the congregation in such a way that we do not cling to the traditions of the past, but seek to be relevant today. At the same time, I also recognise that the truth of the Gospel has not changed and we should not allow society to pressure us into departing from the core values of the Scriptures.
During a five minute interview on Good Morning Ulster, Rev Ian McNie started off by explaining why he described himself as a “conservative evangelical” before being asked whether the Presbyterian Church was “falling behind” other denominations like the Church of England which has just started to appoint female bishops [and the Church of Ireland which beat them to it]. He was pushed on whether he “believed in the ordination of women clerics” …
I would have a conviction that like many other people within all main denominations that there are some concerns about that issue and yes I would share that conviction as well.
There are two or three questions that a new moderator designate always get asked. Will you participate in worship with Catholic clergy? What’s your view on women ministers? And what football team do you support? Two out of the three need snappy and unambiguous answers prepared in advance.
Rev McNie was back in front of the media at a mid-morning press conference in Assembly Buildings, the denomination’s central Belfast headquarters.
I spoke to Rev McNie and asked him how he heard the news last night and he talked about the ministry of his congregation. He also spoke about how he would work the denomination’s theme of A Caring Fellowship into his moderatorial year.
Ecclesia semper reformanda sums up Protestant reformed theology that believes the church needs to continuously reform and change. It started not ended at the Reformation. I asked whether the Presbyterian Church showed evidence of (continually) reforming?
I think the principles of the Reformation were clearly the proclamation of the Gospel and then people taking the message of the Gospel out in to the community and one of the things I have sought to encourage our people to do – having responded to the Gospel as Christians – not to cocoon themselves in the church building but to get out into the local community to filter into the different avenues and aspects of community life and to be witnesses for Jesus Christ in those areas.
For example I myself am a member of the local sports centre and I would go up there two or three times a week … I have discovered myself that … it has opened the door to be involved with so many people and I have always sought to encourage the folks. I have befriended a number of people and it has been an added dimension to my ministry and I would encourage others to do the same.
His year as moderator will take him away from parish and into the public square meeting a wider set of people. Rev McNie agreed that he was looking forward to it, saying “it will be a nice diversion for a year to be involved with people both in the public square and in the church”.
Given the fuss over his statement on the radio and continued confusion over his remarks at the press conference, I asked theologically where does Rev McNie stand on women in ministry. He answered, speaking slowly.
As I’ve said before, every major denomination has this struggle with regard to women in the ministry. And those who are not fully convinced of the ordination of women don’t take their position from personal preference, nor do they take their position from media pressure or how society is changing, but they take that position from what they see as they interpret the scriptures. And I think that position has to be accepted as existing in all major denominations and there has to be a real tolerance – as there is within our church – between those who have reservations and those those who don’t.
You would have reservations though?
I at this moment would have some reservations.
But those reservations don’t stop you from working with colleagues?
By no means, oh not at all. If any female colleague in the ministry invites me to take a service I will me more than happy to go.
Jesus was a radical. Does Rev McNie think that as Presbyterians we need to be more counter-cultural and provocative, and be like Jesus?
Very much so. At the end of the day We can wither influence society or society can influence us. We as Christians are called as Christians to go out and to influence society for good. And in order to do that at times we may have to stick our necks out and we may have to say things that society is not terribly happy with. But that’s what Jesus did. And that’s what he calls us to do … I would like to think that the Church would look at the issues of society and that if it felt it had a positive contribution to make that we wouldn’t be behind the door in making that contribution.
While Rev McNie was finishing off his interview with me, over on Radio Ulster, William Crawley picked up on the subject of women in ministry on Talkback, with contributions from Rev Richard Murray, Sunday World journalist Roisin Gorman and Presbyterian chaplain at Ulster University Cheryl Meban. [That surname looks familiar!]
The topic popped up on Evening Extra too, with Rev John Dunlop and Rev Lesley Carroll.
During the press conference, Rev McNie was asked whether he would support women achieving a higher role than they currently hold in the Presbyterian Church, he responded:
I believe the time will come when that will happen … If the Presbyterian Church elects a woman moderator within the next number of years, they will have my full and complete and utter support.
Asked whether this was a change of position from his remarks on Good Morning Ulster, Rev McNie admitted:
I may have not expressed myself as clearly as I should.
The Clerk of the Presbyterian Church Rev Trevor Gribben emphasised that “women have every right to ordination to every office that is ordained that is open to a man that is open to a woman”. He humorously added “if I was to predict it … there could well be a moderator of General Assembly who is a woman long before there is an Archbishop of Canterbury who is a woman”.
Responding to a question about Church of Scotland Presbyteries recently voting overall in favour of accepting the appointment of gay ministers [though the decision still must go back to this summer’s General Assembly] …
I feel very uncomfortable with the rift within the Church of Scotland … I think the vote has caused some degree of sorrow and regret for the Presbyterian Church [in Ireland] but the Church of Scotland – the “mother” church – are masters in their own house. They have made that particular decision. And that’s not a decision that will probably be on the agenda of our church in the foreseeable future.
On Ashers Bakery, Rev McNie thought that “the Equality Commission have gone over the top”.
I do think that the Ashers Bakery had the right to take the decision that they took simply because of the convictions that they had.
The problem in our society … is that the definition of tolerance has changed considerably. It used to be that if I disagreed with you, and you disagreed with me, we were tolerant of each other and we agreed to disagree. Nowadays it seems to me that the definition of tolerance is such that we are not only supposed to accept that there are a whole lot of views that there are, but we’re supposed to accept and embrace as equally correct every view that is expressed.
Tolerance is always in the atmosphere of disagreement. We don’t have to tolerant of each other if we all agree together.
So I think as far as the Ashers case is concerned, they should have the right to determine what they do as a bakery and they should be tolerated because of the Christian convictions and views that they have. And in that particular case, as I understand, there was absolutely no need for the people to go to Ashers if they knew they weren’t going to get the cake. They could go elsewhere … [Ashers] should be allowed as a service provider to have certain principles.
Rev McNie had obviously been doing his homework and frequently flicked through the file in front of him to find his notes on topics he’d predicted might come up, including three parent babies. He confirmed that he supports Manchester United.
Asked if he was “a political animal” Rev McNie replied “not terribly”.
It’s working to a degree, and at the same time I think that all our politicians need to clearly work together for the betterment of all within our community and have that at the forefront of all that they are doing, simply working for the good of all and trying their best to build on the peace process …
Rev McNie confirmed that has attended Catholic funerals in the past, and would be willing to preach in other denominations’ services.
Asked by Gerry Moriarty (Irish Times) about Stephen Fry’s recent comments, the moderator designate said:
I suppose my immediate reaction to it was that I felt sorry for the man that his understanding of life is simply confined to the here and now and that from his position of atheism there is no hope for the future.
On a church-led parading initiative suggested recently by Canon Ian Ellis, the Moderator designate would “certainly encourage” it, saying “we’ve got to get that situation sorted out as soon as possible”.
Today’s news bulletins were dominated by the notion of a Presbyterian moderator who had reservations about women in ministry. Hardly the image or message that the denomination would have wished for. To be honest generating an alternative positive-yet-still-newsworthy soundbite would have been difficult, though more wholesome.
Yet underneath the fumbled explanation, the “conservative evangelical” moderator designate is perhaps less conservative that he self-labels, with more nuanced approaches to the shibboleths that test out new denominational leaders.
The minister who has “some concerns” about women in ministry is also the minister who is happy to support them in their ministry and welcomed a woman who recently received a call to his Presbytery. Also conservative by name but showing humanity and not hardline with regards to attending Catholic services or taking part in acts of worship that do not include mass.
The labels are useful shortcuts. With over 628 ministers (and a similar number of ruling elders) voting for moderator each year across the 19 presbyteries, personal acquaintance with the four or so candidates will be limited. But the labels disguise the nuance and character with which convictions and beliefs are held.
For Rev Ian McNie, his support of Manchester United remains a problem …
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Coverage in Belfast Telegraph (which talks about a "U-turn"), three stories in News Letter, the Irish Times, UTV and a fun piece in the Irish News (behind its paywall).