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Presbyterian greetings for Sinn Fein Lord Mayor

The Presbyterian General Assembly will create headlines tonight with the visit of the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Niall O'Donnghaile.

The youthful Lord Mayor has already expressed his desire to attend this important evening in the annual calendar of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which has almost 250,000 members across the island.

It is part of Councillor O'Donnghaile's desire to meet people from all the communities of Belfast and the church has already expressed its pleasure at the Lord Mayor's willingness to attend.

However, the Presbyterians have stressed that their annual invitation to the Lord Mayor of Belfast is always extended to the post-holder 'whoever he, or she, may be'.

The Lord Mayor will meet more than the people of Belfast tonight, as the attendance at the General Assembly is representative of Presbyterianism throughout Ireland.

It will be interesting to see how the rural members of the audience will react to the fresh-faced Lord Mayor, who has already created waves in loyalist areas of Belfast with his charm offensive.

It is unlikely that there will be the same kind of heart searching that followed the visit of the first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Alex Maskey, to the General Assembly in 2002.

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He was received politely on the opening night, but the next morning there was a heated debate about his presence the previous evening.

However, things have moved on and there was little comment about the Assembly visit of Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Tom Hartley in 2008, though he did not come on opening night.

Lord Mayor O'Donnghaile's visit tonight will be the symbolic window dressing of the civic recognition of a general assembly which this year, however, will be preoccupied with internal housekeeping, rather than with headline political issues. The topics to be discussed during the next few days will include the plan to allow members of the troubled Presbyterian Mutual Society to get some of their money back and to start to bring closure to a controversial subject.

There will be emphasis on other financial matters, including the funding for the important work of the Board of Social Witness at a time of government cutbacks.

The work of the church in mission fields and world development will also be discussed, as well as the training of students for the ministry.

Members of the assembly will be told that, in spite of the challenge of the secular society, numbers in the church have been holding up reasonably well at 246,480 in 2010 - 4,573 fewer than the previous year.

Finances are also holding steady, with the income from collection plates increasing slightly to £31.6m in 2010 and almost another £30m coming from building funds, bequests and other sources.

The income from the Republic, as part of this overall figure, has decreased markedly due to the financial crisis and particularly from bequests, which are down from €911,911 in 2009 to €388,800 last year.

The Assembly, which usually meets in Belfast, may also decide to hold its annual meeting in Londonderry in 2013, to coincide with the city's honour of staging UK City of Culture.

The bread and butter issues of this assembly are a far cry from earlier years, when Presbyterians, as other churches, were dealing with the controversial, dramatic and urgent fall-out from the Troubles.

Like this year's Church of Ireland General Synod in Armagh, the housekeeping nature of this assembly is also a welcome reminder of the improving political and security situation here.

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