Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Church's election process shows the need for reform

Religion Correspondent Alf McCreary traces the background to this year's second attempt to elect a Presbyterian Moderator

When the members of the 19 presbyteries across Ireland vote tomorrow to elect a new moderator of the Presbyterian Chuch it will be for the second time this year.

Last month's vote ended in a tie between the Rev Norman Hamilton of Ballysillan in north Belfast and the Rev Norman McAuley of Greenwell Street in Newtownards, who each received five votes.

The other nine votes were divided between three other candidates, while a fourth nominee did not receive any votes.

The election this time will be a straight contest between Rev Hamilton and Rev McAuley and, if the five presbyteries rally behind their man again, the outcome will depend on the distribution of the other nine votes.

The Rev Hamilton was ordained in 1983 as assistant minister at Finaghy in south Belfast and has served in Ballysillan in the north of the city since 1988.

The Rev McAuley was ordained in 1984 as assistant in Dundonald and was installed as minister of Union Road, Magherfelt and Lecumpher in 1987.

He has been a minister in Newtownards since 2004.

Rev McAuley is widely viewed within the Presbyterian Church as a traditionalist and, if he receives the full backing of the conservative wing, he should win, but the outcome is not guaranteed.

However, it is almost certain that one or other will be elected - unless members of a presbytery cannot make up their minds and so are unable to reach a decision. This is not an unheard of outcome and happened most recently several years ago.

This is the third time in eight years that the first election for a moderator has ended in a tied vote.

This has prompted some people to suggest that, in such an event, the presbyteries should hold a second vote on the same day as the first.

This would mean that the incoming moderator would, as is traditional, be able to start making preparations immediately for his 12-month leave of congregational duties and his installation in June each year.

When a tie occurs, this preparation period is shortened by a four weeks.

Some people are also questioning the Presbyterian Church's preferred method of electing a moderator for only one year.

In practice, this means that the post-holder is given little or no experience of high office before taking on the job.

He (and, to date, it has always been a he) is then required to move on precisely at a time when he should be fully versed with the challenges of his duties in such a high-profile office.

The current Moderator, the Right Reverend Dr Stafford Carson, coped well in what was a difficult and challenging year, which was dominated by the troubled Presbyterian Mutual Society (PMS).

Dr Carson has demonstrated a confidence both within the Presbyterian Church as well as with a more than normally inquisitive media which would be valuable if he were to continue for another 12-month term of office. However, this is not to be.

The Presbyterian Church's immediate challenge is to elect a new leader.

But the underlying issues concerning the form a moderator's election takes - and his term of office - will still remain unresolved.

The result of the election is likely to be announced tomorrow night.

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