This week the Presbyterian Church will meet at a Special General Assembly in Belfast to make one of its most important decisions in recent years.
It will be considering the latest developments in the long-running trauma of the troubled Presbyterian Mutual Society, and the steps it takes will determine the Church’s reputation for years to come.
Some 10,000 members faced financial difficulties when the Society was placed in the hands of an administrator in November 2008. This followed a run on its funds when members discovered that they were not covered by the Government’s guarantee of £50,000 to savers in banks and other financial institutions.
Initially the Presbyterian Church seemed to distance itself from its members when it pointed out that technically the PMS and the Church were separate legal entities.
Many PMS members felt let-down, and the Church mounted a rear-guard action to persuade the Treasury that the PMS members were not investors but savers who were also entitled to shelter under the Government’s £50,000 guarantee.
During the long-running campaign, the Church enlisted the help of local and Westminster MPs, and it appeared as if there had been a breakthrough last year when the Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced a working party to try to find a solution.
However ‘Plan A’ failed, and recently the First Minister and Deputy First Minister outlined a new plan, subject to approval by the Treasury.
This would include financial help from the Treasury and an input from the Stormont Government. However it would also include a contribution from the Presbyterian Church itself towards a ‘hardship fund’ to help smaller PMS investors. This is the complex background to the Special General Assembly which is being asked “ to consider the present situation for savers in the PMS and to respond to a recent initiative of the Northern Ireland Executive’’.
The seriousness of the situation is underlined by the fact that a “Special” General Assembly has been called only twice before in over 30 years — in 1975 when the Church debated the sale of its former Crescent Church in South Belfast, and three years later when the Presbyterians decided to sever their links with the World Council of Churches.
This time the Church may be asked to contribute a hefty sum to the PMS ‘hardship fund’.
This may be levied from all congregations, even though many of their members had nothing to do with the PMS.
If the Assembly decides to do nothing this time it will be accused of being heartless, yet members may not be willing to sign a blank cheque to help others in need.
Some senior Presbyterians believe, however, that while the Church could find itself over a barrel in having to contribute what Stormont expects, it would be better to pay up as much as it can afford.
This would at least bring closure to a long-running situation which has brought real hardship to some of its members and which has also created a grievance with a number of PMS investors who felt that the Church had initially deserted them in their hour of need.
Presbyterians have a reputation for collective generosity, but the painful episode of the PMS will make not only the Church but all its members extremely wary in future about the small print of investments which offer above average returns on their money.