Belfast Telegraph

Expect the unexpected as 1,000 gather for Assembly

The Presbyterian General Assembly, which begins this evening, will have a special focus on Londonderry. The Assembly, with its 1,000 delegates from all over Ireland, will meet in Derry to mark its ongoing programme as the UK City of Culture 2013.

The Presbyterian General Assembly, which begins this evening, will have a special focus on Londonderry. The Assembly, with its 1,000 delegates from all over Ireland, will meet in Derry to mark its ongoing programme as the UK City of Culture 2013.

This is the first time in 80 years that the General Assembly will have visited the north west and this begs the question why it almost always meets in Belfast.

This is in sharp contrast to the Church of Ireland Synod, which meets alternately in Dublin, or Armagh, and quite recently in Galway.

The Methodist Church, which meets for the first time in Carrickfergus this month, is the most mobile of all and visits a different place in Ireland each year.

It is also fitting that the incoming Presbyterian Moderator, the Rev Dr Rob Craig, who will be installed this evening, is minister of Kilfennan Presbyterian Church in Derry.

To mark the City of Culture programme, the Assembly will hold a special evening tomorrow at the Magee Campus of the University of Ulster, which is a former Presbyterian training college.

As ever, the General Assembly will deal with a large number of housekeeping issues between tomorrow and Thursday afternoon, during which members will decide upon two nominations for two significant posts.

The Rev Trevor Gribben has been nominated as the designate to succeed the Rev Donald Watts, who will retire from the key role of clerk of the General Assembly in August 2014.

The Rev Dr Stafford Carson, a former moderator and the current minister of First Portadown, has been nominated as the new principal of Union Theological College.

During this week, the church will also consider other important issues, including a re-emphasis of conciliation services to try dealing informally with conflicts within congregations before they get to the stage of formal judicial procedures.

Another important development within Presbyterianism is lay training and this should feature significantly this week.

The church's very successful accredited preachers' scheme has trained nearly 100 people and there is currently a pilot scheme, Handling the Word, to help people who speak at church functions, rather than preaching at services.

Next year, the church intends to start an auxiliary ministry scheme to help the laity play a greater role in church life.

These measures underline how much the church is working to involve its laity in congregational life and the Assembly will also note, no doubt with satisfaction, its new intake of 15 students for ministry training.

This year, there are no major controversies on the horizon, though the General Assembly is never predictable and one or other of the many resolutions for consideration could trigger off a spirited debate.

One of these is the resolution asking the General Assembly to 'note' that the moderator's advisory committee is minded to 'initiate discussion on human sexuality'.

This is one of the subjects that perturbs all the Protestant church assemblies, given the current debate on same-sex marriage.

The Presbyterian church has been relatively quiet about this, apart from stating repeatedly its backing for 'traditional marriage' between a man and a woman.

However, the Presbyterian church in Scotland has taken the issue a significant step further by allowing 'liberal' congregations to appoint an actively gay minister. Nevertheless, the Scottish Presbyterians stressed that they still uphold the traditional view on marriage.

A couple of years ago, a number of ministers at the General Assembly spoke animatedly about the way in which their Scottish colleagues might deal with same-sex relationships and this is undoubtedly an important – if currently dormant – issue among Irish Presbyterians.

In general, the business of the Assembly should go according to plan, but, as ever, no one can rule out the unexpected.

Belfast Telegraph

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