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Presbyterians ‘not ready’ to elect first female moderator

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is tonight expected to again decide that the election of a female moderator is a step too far.

The Rev Dr Ruth Patterson, daughter of former Moderator Dr Tom Patterson, is one of six candidates hoping to be elected to lead the Church tonight.

She has an impressive series of firsts. Dr Patterson was the first woman to be ordained by the Irish Presbyterian Church in 1976 and the first Irish Presbyterian woman minister to be awarded an honorary doctorate from the Church’s theological Union College.

However, if today’s Presbyterian voting follows traditional patterns her bid to become the first female moderator will prove unsuccessful.

Dr Patterson, who is Director of Restoration Ministries, stood unsuccessfully twice before. In 1998 she received only one vote out of 21, from the South Belfast Presbytery, and 10 years later she received only one vote, this time from Dublin/Munster.

The odds against her being elected today are lengthened by the fact that she is currently not in a parish ministry, and also because she is a noted ecumenist, which will not bring her votes from the powerful right-wing of the Church.

The fact that she is a woman will not help either, because many of the conservatives, including the current Moderator Dr Stafford Carson, will not allow a woman to preach in their pulpits on “grounds of conscience”.

Some people are surprised that Dr Patterson, and her nominators, have allowed her name to go forward again, but this is one way of reminding the Church — and the general public — that the Presbyterians have as yet refused to elect a female moderator despite the important role played by women in their Church at large.

The key to this election — as in other years — is the right-wing bloc of nine or 10 of the 19 Presbyteries. If they all fall behind this year’s conservative candidate, the Reverend Norman McAuley from Newtownards, he is likely to win outright.

However if the conservative vote splits this may allow one of four others to edge ahead — Rev Norman Hamilton from Ballysillan, Rev Derek McKelvey from Fisherwick, Rev Roy Mackey from Comber and Rev Ivan Patterson from Newcastle.

Insiders feel that the front-runners may be Hamilton, McKelvey and Patterson but with such a large field and two fewer votes than last year due to boundary changes, anything can happen. A tie and further election cannot be ruled out, but the election of the first female moderator would be an ecclesiastical “miracle”.

The result of the first round will be known later this evening.

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