Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Why Churches like to spread their message around Ireland

On the move or sitting put? Religion Correspondent Alf McCreary traces the background to the latest round of annual Church conferences which begin next month

President Mary McAleese made news this week when it was announced that she will attend the Church of Ireland General Synod next month. Her visit to the Synod in Galway on May 14will also make history, as she will be the first sitting President to do so.

More than 600 clergy and laity from all over Ireland will attend the three-day meeting from May 13-15, which constitutes the supreme legislative and decision-making body of the Church.

Significantly, this will be the first-ever such meeting in the west of Ireland, and it underlines the Church's policy of moving its General Synod out to meet its members in all parts of the island.

In recent years the General Synod has been held in Dublin, Belfast, Armagh, and last year — for the first time — in Kilkenny.

There is also talk of the Synod returning next year to Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, and the seat of the Primate Archbishop Alan Harper.

While there are merits in a travelling General Synod, some members have expressed private wishes for the old days when the Synod generally met in Dublin.

However the Church's resident accommodation for such a large gathering is no longer available, and the Synod has to try to find suitable hotel or other suitable accommodation at the right price, with varying degrees of success.

The Methodist Church in Ireland, which meets later in June, has also been traditionally on the move, and its annual Conferences literally span the length and breadth of Ireland.

In recent years they have met in Ballymena, Portadown and Belfast, and last year they gathered in Cork.

In doing so they created history when the Rev Roy Cooper was installed as President in a service which was held in a Roman Catholic chapel — something which might not have happened in Northern Ireland. This year the Methodists are moving almost literally to the other end of the island, and they will be holding their annual Conference in Londonderry.

The Presbyterian Church, the largest of the Protestant denominations, is less inclined to move out of its Belfast headquarters for its annual General Assembly during the first week in June.

It has met in Dublin, and there was vague talk some years ago that it might meet in Derry or even in Sligo, but this year yet again it will meet in its historic headquarters building in Fisherwick Place.

Some members of the Church, and outside observers, may ask "and why not? " given that the Presbyterians decided only last year to hold on to Church House, after a period when it had been put on the market.

After a prolonged debate over several years, the Presbyterians decided to make the best of their prime location on their historic site.

In the past year a Church Panel has commissioned an economic appraisal from the University of Ulster.

The study, which focused on a mile radius of Church House, concluded that the building could be developed, among other options, as a versatile conference centre for 1,000 people.

This is the option which is likely to be presented to the Assembly this year as an outline plan, with likely costs and finance options to be decided some 12 months later. If this is accepted, it will be taken as further evidence that the Church has finally made up its mind on this contentious issue, and that its administrative headquarters will remain in Fisherwick Place.

Perhaps Presbyterians will also have realised during their heart-searchings that while other denominations regularly move their annual conferences around, there is much to be said for a fixed location in Belfast with one of the best conference halls on this island — and although its headquarters remain in the same place, things seem to be on the move within Church House.

Curiously, the Presbyterians are proving in this instance that it is possible to move while standing still.

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