Presbyterians will vote tomorrow for the election of a new Moderator to lead the church from June.
This year the 19 presbyteries — two fewer than previously due to boundary changes — will consider six candidates. Three — including one woman — have been nominated previously and there are three |relative newcomers.
This annual ritual is ostensibly democratic, in that each presbytery will vote independently. But in real terms very few congregations, or individual church members, will have a direct say on the outcome.
In fact, many Presbyterians remain blissfully unaware of the details of the election procedure and each year the church simply closes ranks behind the selected candidate, whether liberal or conservative.
The result is important, however, because every major church needs a titular head, if only for a year. The Presbyterians do not elect a ‘leader’ as such and the Moderator is meant to be no more nor less than the chairman of the annual General Assembly.
In real terms, though, he or she is regarded by the media and the public as the spokesperson for the church during the term of office.
The current Moderator, the Right Reverend Dr Stafford Carson, has had a demanding year — mainly due to the challenges posed by the troubled Presbyterian Mutual Society and the attempts to protect the savings of its 9,000 or so members.
This issue has dragged on interminably and if it is not solved before Dr Carson leaves office in June — as he fervently hopes it will be — the problem could prove a heavy burden for his successor.
Leadership of the main churches nowadays requires not only considerable media skills, but also organisational and financial ability as well.
Traditionally, however, the Presbyterian Church has chosen its moderators not so much on these skills as on theological background and on gender.
All six candidates this year could bring particular talents to the office, but the result of the election is difficult to predict because of the range of candidates and the lower number of votes.
The Reverend Dr Ruth Patterson, the only female candidate, is the first woman to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church and she is currently director of restoration ministries.
She received only one vote out of a possible 21 votes when she previously allowed her name to go forward for election.
By standing again this year both she and her nominators are again underlining the crucial contribution made by women in the Presbyterian Church — even though not one as yet has been honoured by election to the highest office.
The two men who stood unsuccessfully last year against Dr Carson have again been nominated. The Reverend Norman Hamilton, from Ballysillan, and the Reverend Derek McKelvey, from Fisherwick, are both well-regarded throughout the church.
The Reverend Norman McAuley, from Greenwell Street in Newtownards, is from the conservative wing of the church and he will undoubtedly attract votes because of this.
However, the Presbyterians traditionally tend to swing towards a liberal candidate, if there is one available, in the year following a theologically conservative incumbent like Dr Carson.
This leaves two candidates relatively unknown outside the inner church circles — the Reverend Roy Mackey, from Second Comber, and the Reverend Ivan Patterson, from Newcastle. Both are literally in with a chance.
If the conservative wing unites solidly behind the Reverend McAuley, he may receive a working majority. But if support for him dips, the voting pattern over the six candidates might even lead to a tie — which will bring about another election.
It is said that the Lord moves in a mysterious way, and sometimes “the way” is no more mysterious than in the election of a Presbyterian Moderator.
If there are no complications, however, the result should be known tomorrow evening.