Belfast Telegraph

No news can be good news where church is concerned

The Presbyterian general assembly this week may not attract the headlines of previous years but that's no bad thing, says Alf McCreary

One of the biggest annual meetings of the year begins in Belfast today. Some 1,200 delegates will deal with matters affecting 240,000 people in Ireland and decisions will be taken about the work of an institution with an annual income of more than £80m.

It is one of the most important institutions in the country and it happens to be the Presbyterian Church, which is holding its annual general assembly a week earlier this year to avoid any clash with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Relatively few people, apart from knowledgeable Presbyterians, are aware about what goes on at the general assembly, but the wind of change is blowing in these hallowed corridors.

During the Troubles, when Protestants of varying shades of unionism were not talking to the Government, or politicians, it was the major church gatherings each year which became a focus for political comment.

Stormont was in mothballs and there was little, or no, political outlet for strong opinions. Inevitably, people took the opportunity to air their political views on church platforms. Indeed, this was a part of the churches' role in society. At one stage, relations were so bad between unionists and Westminster that the Presbyterian headquarters in Belfast were used as a kind of unofficial post-box between both sides.

It is not well-known, for example, that the former Church of Ireland primate, Archbishop Eames, played a leading role in liaising behind the scenes with John Major and Albert Reynolds, when they were trying to kick-start the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Even fewer people knew that the then Ulster Unionist leader, Lord Molyneaux, was in the same loop.

All this has changed. The establishment of the Assembly has given politicians from all sides a voice and the Churches no longer have such a major role to play.

This means that annual meetings, such as the general assembly, are less likely to make major headlines, especially when they are busy setting their own house in order.

The Presbyterians, for example, will debate only 150 resolutions this year - many fewer than in recent years. However, these resolutions are indications of a significant restructuring of the way in which the Church does its business.

They also reveal that the Presbyterian Church remains in a stable financial position, in spite of the upheaval caused by the demise of the Presbyterian Mutual Society, which was a separate legal entity from the Church.

This general assembly may reflect that the Presbyterians have learned a hard lesson and that the Church will never again rush to associate its name with a financial institution over which it has no direct control.

On the bright side, the general assembly will be told that there is an adequate supply of student ministers, which is essential for the Church's future.

The assembly will also be told of the impressive work in the overseas mission field, as well as the sums donated by individual Presbyterians to the annual World Development Appeal for the Third World.

It would be foolish to suggest that the churches will not make major headlines at their annual meetings and, most years, a controversial subject arises, such as the same-sex couples debate at this year's Church of Ireland synod.

However, the churches are busily engaged with their own concerns in trying to make ends meet and keep the Christian message alive.

This, however, is nothing new for the churches, which have remained in business for more than 2,000 years and are likely to continue to do so for a long time to come.

Headlines come and go, but sometimes no news can be good news, particularly when the main business of the churches is concentrating, as always, on how to stay in business.


From Belfast Telegraph