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Role of leaders should be to adapt their Churches to the 21st century

By Alf McCreary

This has been a week of announcements about the departures and arrivals of leading clergy. The Dean of Belfast the Very Reverend John Mann announced that he is leaving St Anne's Cathedral at Easter to take up the post of a group rector in England.

Then on Tuesday the Presbyterian Church elected the Reverend Noble McNeely to take over from the current Moderator the Rt Reverend Dr Frank Sellar in June.

The role of a leader is important to set the tone, whether it is a Moderator, Archbishop or parish minister.

The departure of Dean Mann from St Anne's was surprising, partly because his five years there is much shorter than the time spent by his predecessors.

Deans Crookes, Shearer and McKelvey each spent an average of almost 14 years at the cathedral.

Five years ago, Dean Mann inherited a tricky situation when the cathedral suffered much internal wrangling,

Since then he has brought healing, and developments including the establishment of a girls' choir, and relatively modest charges for visitors.

He is going back to England for family reasons, and also because he believes that he has done what he can and that the cathedral is entering a new phase.

I had thought that John Mann was destined for greater things in the Church of Ireland, but no one can blame him for returning to his roots. I wish him well.

I also wish the best for the Rev Noble McNeely. He has taken on the daunting role of Presbyterian Moderator, though this can be as less or more daunting as each incumbent wishes it to be.

Some Moderators have chosen to act mainly as chairman (never a chairwoman) of the General Assembly, and to follow the routine of special services, opening churches and halls, and making mostly anodyne public statements when required, though not always so.

The current Moderator, Dr Sellar, has been putting his head above the parapet on occasions. The fact that he has been criticised for doing so is evidence that he is being taken seriously.

One hopes that the new Moderator follows a similar path in speaking to the wider secular world, and not just to the church faithful.

He will also become aware, if he does not realise this already, that there is a deep worry among many Presbyterians about the steady move in the Church towards Right-wing conservatism. There is also concern that women are being discriminated against when it comes to choosing a Moderator - so far not even one female leader has been appointed, compared to all the other Reformed churches.

Many Presbyterians are also concerned by the way in which the Church is so ham-fisted and insensitive about gay and lesbian issues.

To be fair, the Presbyterian Church does much caring and bridge-building work in many parishes, but its general image is that of a closed institution.

So the role of the new Moderator is to try to make a real difference, within the strait-jacket of Assembly control. Hopefully he will have the support of those at the nerve-centre of Presbyterianism to project the Church as increasingly relevant to the wider world.

They could all make a start by ensuring that a woman is elected as Moderator on merit, and that the Presbyterian establishment treats gays and lesbians with the Christian love that one expects from any major Church in the 21st century.

All churches are long on words, but in the end they are judged on their actions.

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