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Female Moderator finally a Presbyterian possibility

By Alf McCreary

The emergence of a new Moderator-elect for the Presbyterian Church this week may have seemed to some people to be as interesting as watching paint dry.

However, for those who take the affairs of Church and state seriously, the appointment of the nominated leader of the biggest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland is significant.

In a unique contest between five people, the Reverend Dr Michael Barry, from Newry, had the highest vote and he will take up his post on June 2.

He was successful after a first round tie, with the Reverend Liz Hughes, from Whitehouse, and the Reverend Ian McNie, from Ballymoney, with the Reverend Robert Herron, from Omagh, and the Reverend Alistair Smyth, from Carryduff, gaining fewer votes and, therefore, dropping out.

After the second round, Dr Barry was just one vote ahead of Liz Hughes and Ian McNie.

In effect, the successful candidate was finally elected on a minority vote of only seven out of 19 presbyteries, with the other two sharing six each. So what is so special about that?

It means that the Reverend Hughes was only one vote away from making history in becoming the first female moderator of the Presbyterian Church.

This was a remarkable achievement, because only a few years ago the Reverend Dr Ruth Patterson, another female minister whom I highly respect, received no votes in the final selection process.

I wish Michael Barry well and I told him so when we spoke after his election on Tuesday night. What happens next year is anyone's guess, but the events of this year have shown that, for the first time, the Presbyterian Church has taken seriously the possibility of appointing a female moderator.

However, I am not making a sexist point by suggesting that there must be a female moderator. I believe that the most suitable person should be chosen, but I also note that things are changing positively within the Church and that, sooner or later, there will be a female moderator.

When this happens, it will also be a tribute to the essential role played by women in a Church which would only be a shadow of itself without them.

Some people argue that a moderator is only the nominal head of the Church and that the real power lies within the General Assembly. This is partly true, unless a moderator is canny enough to use whatever limited power rests in the post.

Within Anglicanism, a bishop has clout within his diocese and an archbishop can command attention, but the real powers rests within the General Synod.

Within Methodism, a president can strike a good headline, as the Reverend Dr Heather Morris – currently its first female president – has done this year, but again the real power rests elsewhere. Within Roman Catholicism, a bishop has considerable control in his own diocese, but the ultimate power rests far away in Rome. Even there, the Vatican curia has vastly more power than the Pope himself.

In the public eye, however, a Church leader indubitably sets the tone.

Pope Francis is a popular figure, who has freshened the image of the Catholic Church, but without convincing the world as yet that he is as liberal as he tries to show.

Back home, the new moderator, Dr Barry, comes across already as somewhat conservative and he has speedily become ensnared in the unending controversy over gay people.

Would a female moderator have made a major difference to the image of the Church this year? Most undoubtedly it would, but that is a matter for another day.

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