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How Presbyterians have lost ground over gender equality

By Alf McCreary

Published 30/01/2016

Missing a trick: the Presbyterian General Assembly will elect a new Moderator from three male ministers
Missing a trick: the Presbyterian General Assembly will elect a new Moderator from three male ministers

This week the Presbyterian Church nominated three male candidates for next Tuesday's election as Moderator.

That is hardly world-shattering, but it certainly should be important for the Presbyterian Church, which has more than 230,000 members in 545 congregations throughout Ireland.

The Clerk of the General Assembly, the Rev Trevor Gribben, rightly points out that "democracy is one of the strengths and hallmarks of Presbyterianism", and the Church is perfectly entitled to name the Revs Robert Bell of Ballyclare, Tony Davidson from Armagh and Frank Sellar from Broomfield as candidates for the Moderatorship.

I wish them all well.

However, many people inside and outside the Church will be wondering why no woman has ever been elected Moderator, as the first female minister - the Rev Dr Ruth Patterson - was ordained 40 years ago this year.

In 1976 the Presbyterians were ahead of the other main denominations in ordaining the first female cleric in Ireland, but since then they have slipped badly behind.

The Methodists elected a woman president two years go, and, while we will wait a long, long time for a female Archbishop of Armagh, the Church of Ireland recently made ecclesiastical history by appointing the first woman Anglican bishop in the British Isles.

Some Presbyterians claim that there is no grassroots demand for a female Moderator. That is not my experience from talking to many Church members, at all levels, so why is there still no prospect of a woman leader?

Part of the reason is that very few pew members understand, or perhaps even care, about the way in which a Moderator is elected.

The decisions are taken by 19 Presbyteries throughout Ireland, and the elders and clergy involved are predominantly male.

In the Church at large there are only 21 women out of a total of 345 ministers, even 40 years after Ruth Patterson was first ordained.

Speaking to me earlier this week, she expressed her disappointment that women in the Church "have a hard road to walk" and said she would like to see a woman elected as Moderator.

As ever, Ruth was gracious and diplomatic in her language, but, in my opinion, it is absolutely astounding that in this age of gender equality in leadership, the Presbyterian Church has consistently refused to appoint a woman Moderator.

This is not entirely due to the grassroots political skills of the Presbyterian conservative males who make sure that they usually get their way, and that their man gets the vote.

Two years ago, however, they almost got their figures wrong, and the very capable Rev Liz Hughes of Whitehouse was a worthy runner-up, by only one vote.

The dwindling band of liberals in the Presbyterian Church wring their hands in despair, like the liberals in the Labour Party who have been outwitted by the Corbynistas, but, unless they do something about it, the Presbyterian Church will be taken over totally by the ultra-narrow conservatives, if this has not happened already.

The women clergy and laity themselves are also to blame for letting the men get away with such dominance for so long in selecting male Moderators.

Unless all the Presbyterian women assert themselves, this gender discrimination will continue.

The women have long tried the tactful and gentle approach, but spectacularly without success. It is time, now, that they took to heart the old adage: "The Lord helps those who help themselves."

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