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Unravelling the mysteries behind a Presbyterian Church tradition

Members of the Presbyterian Church meet today to elect a new moderator, who will take up office in June. It is a procedure steeped in tradition and, although not as secretive as the election of a new Pope, many Presbyterians feel there is an air of mystery about the selection of their new leader.

In fact, the term 'leader' is not quite correct - even though for convenience the media describes him (but never a her) as such.

A moderator is, in fact, the chairperson of the annual General Assembly, or of a special Assembly which may be called during his year in office.

Apart from that, a moderator has little direct authority - although he can exert a great deal of influence.

Past moderators, including the Very Rev Dr Jack Weir and the Very Rev Dr John Dunlop, did that in a major way.

Others in more recent times made headlines, like the Very Rev Dr Ken Newell, who invited the Roman Catholic Primate, Archbishop Sean Brady, as his personal guest to the opening night of the General Assembly. The Rev Dr Stafford Carson also made headlines by not allowing a female colleague to preach from his pulpit in First Portadown Presbyterian Church, but he went on to officiate with style, determination and eloquence as moderator during the difficult time of the Presbyterian Mutual Society's demise.

However, other moderators have made few headlines and seemed content merely to chair major church committees and to do the rounds of routine business, such as opening new church buildings.

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It is against this varied and complex background that Presbyterian ministers and representative elders from 19 presbyteries all over Ireland will be meeting at various times today to nominate one person from a selected list. This will have been prepared in the Church House headquarters in Belfast and those nominated will have allowed their names to go forward.

Others made it known that they did not want to stand, including the Rev Norman McAuley, of Greenwell Street Presbyterian Church in Newtownards, who tied on the first vote last year with the current moderator. The Rt Rev Dr Norman Hamilton went on the win the second election decisively.

The Rev Derek McKelvey, of Fisherwick Presbyterian Church in Belfast, who also polled well last time, had also indicated that he did not wish to stand again.

Presbyterians will be voting for one of five candidates: the Rev Ivan Patterson, from Newcastle, who polled four votes last time; the Rev Roy Mackay, from Second Comber, who polled one; and 'newcomers' the Rev Joseph Andrews, from Ballee in Ballymena, the Rev Rob Craig, from Kilfennan in Londonderry, and the Rev Roy Patton, from Ballygilbert. In the contest, the Rev Ivan Patterson, with his four votes last year as a base, may do well this time, but there is no guarantee that any 'favourite' will succeed.

The result will be announced this evening and, unless there is a tie, the new moderator will be announced publicly. However, the current moderator, Dr Norman Hamilton, still has four months in office, during which the church has to try to deal with, among other things, the practicalities of the PMS winding-up.

The Presbyterian system has the advantage that the moderator-elect has several months to prepare for office, but many feel the post should be filled for two years.

That way, the moderator would have more time to make a mark and the public may be less inclined to ask: "Moderator Who? Is it that time of the year again?"

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