My First (Presbyterian Church in Ireland) General Assembly
I was running late. My husband was 963 miles away. I had navigated three school drop-offs, supported some last-minute GCSE Physics preparation, unloaded and re-loaded the dishwasher, unblocked the toilet, walked the dog, stopped for diesel, collected a parcel. I wondered would there be others similarly behind schedule due to their domestic duties but as I stood in the queue of aftershave in Assembly Buildings at two minutes past 10am, I couldn’t see too many that looked like me. My yellow lanyard¹ publicly heralded my status, reminding me that I wasn’t a minister or an elder, I was an ‘other’. I didn’t have a vote. As I climbed the stairs to the viewing gallery, I considered what might happen if I got carried away and accidentally shouted ‘aye’. Were there consequences?
It is difficult to encompass the sights, sounds and smells of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) General Assembly² in less than 1500 words. It is an anthropologist’s paradise, a homage to ‘no wriggle room’ governance, the ‘Blue Book’ with its reports and resolutions is quite simply a masterpiece. Any minor apologies re typos are testament to the person who had the joy of proofreading it. Despite its Twitter take-over and endless decision-making about various aspects of church life, the average Presbyterian who turns up on a Sunday still remains oblivious to the General Assembly’s purpose. Its impact though was undeniably felt across the city centre. By 12pm on Thursday, Costa had run out of sandwiches. Forced to go further afield for a fishcake and three salads on Saturday, I caught sight of a blue book under an arm in Avoca.
I found the General Assembly simultaneously enthralling and confusing. Never before had I seen so many retired people wield so much authority. I couldn’t think of another sector where the pensionable were still controlling day-to-day business. I pondered how it was possible to hold so many resolute opinions on so many disparate social, cultural and political issues whist remaining completely unfazed by nuance and lack of personal expertise. Some faces became increasingly familiar up-front. I noted there was a specific uniform for those retiring this year.
I was bemused by the on-stage props, the countdown clock, the green light, the buzzer that made me jump. There were elements of a Channel 4 game show. Failure to sit in the blue seats when entering the debate necessitated a ticking-off from the host. There were a lot of mini-sermons, mostly about how far we have transgressed, how liberal we have become. There was a lovely tribute to the Queen. A Bishop told a joke. Very few succeeded in concise speech-making. Four minutes felt like a lifetime. Training is definitely needed in formulating a question. Although there were bonus points for submitting a question in advance, most weren’t actually answered. Interim was the main excuse. 2023 sounds like it’s going to be a bit of a nightmare, something to do with a code as well. I was glad the Moderator recognised a rhetorical question. I wished he would use his motorcycling analogies more. As time ran out and there was a danger of lapsing, I liked his golfing one about keeping it on the fairway, no straying off into the rough. It was great that he seemed to either know everybody or they had holidayed in Portrush at least once. I was relieved he got three good nights’ sleep despite the ‘boom-boom’ beneath him.
I found myself comparing the stance of the women versus the men. One gender leaned less on the lectern. As the males competitively leapt on to the stage and appreciated their youthful knees, I was struck by their ease. I realised that speaking passionately about Christ’s love for the marginalised, as a woman, does indeed cost dearly, that women have to work so much harder to earn respect, it is not naturally gifted to them through the advantage of gender. I was pleased that one academic discerned that less is more when she asked the Assembly not to demand the sacred right to teach religious education, but to explain why it should be taught as a sacred privilege. I watched a professor take down a deaconess using learning outcomes as his weapon. I decided the future will depend on how well we can dissent with grace. I saw her graciousness as she chose to clap his graceless response to her question. I was grateful for all the women who had made it there, for their Biblical faithfulness, their intellectual robustness and their unique insights. I focused on a vibrant pink jacket amidst the griegeness and prayed for greater diversity to break through. When John Dunlop highlighted the non-inclusivity in the Assembly hall, “this church is predominately rich, white, male and British”, social media pounced on the Britishness. There is a distance to travel to ‘raise Jesus as the single flag’.
There was the potential to be overwhelmed by the wealth of topics discussed, from integrated education to devolution, Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol, refugees, the cost of living, same-sex attraction, fossil fuels, the Troubles, the fallout from the pandemic. The General Council has a ridiculous remit. It seems there are areas saturated with Presbyterian churches, others unreached. Rural demands a different strategy to inner-city. The Moderator offered some advice, “concentrate on the depth and let God look after the breadth”. For me, there weren’t enough stories. What does the outworking of so many task groups mean to the teenage girl who finds herself pregnant, to the parents raising children with intellectual disabilities, to those struggling with identity? I wanted to hear more about real interventions into real lives - offenders, addicts, those in respite care, supported housing. Their artwork was outstanding. I especially wanted to hear more about William’s mother, how her learning difficulties meant “her theology could be written on the back of a postcard yet she understood God’s grace and that he had saved her”.
I needed to both ground and elevate the whole experience. What had specifically moved me? When had I felt the presence of God? As we stood to sing Turn Your Eyes on Thursday lunchtime, as we looked up and lifted our voices to cry “all glory to Jesus alone”, there was a palpable togetherness. It was a powerful reminder that we were worshipping the same God. Somewhere there was a Carrickfergus window, I didn’t know where it was but the light was surely shining in. If we could only package what unites us rather than divides us, take that light outside the building, the potential to witness in the public square could be limitless. It will not be the words of our inward resolution-passing that defines us but the actions that emerge through the consistency of our outward living. As we were reminded, ‘aye’ doesn’t just mean agreeing, it means committing.
But it was listening to the global church that challenged me most. Reaching out into communities that desperately need the Gospel, Anne, resplendent in her Women’s Guild headscarf was a no-nonsense beacon of hope. She personified the theme of ‘hearing the heart’ and described exactly what church should be - a safe space. When her husband added that men can’t cope with empowered women, I caught the eye of my favourite Clerk of Presbytery. It was a moment of solidarity.
When Emma, a pelvic physio, braved the podium to ask for more women to be trained in pregnancy-related pastoral support, she also highlighted the non-existent queue for the ladies. I had one to myself, a secret one round the side of the lift. I spotted a second throne abandoned there, the twin of the one the Moderator was occupying to conduct proceedings. I deliberated whether to take a selfie….
Late on Saturday afternoon, the Assembly got to the crux of the matter, the drop in numbers across the denomination, the depressing statistics. It was acknowledged that PCI may have to decline first in order to grow. Covid has accelerated a stripping back, an inevitable pruning. Throughout the General Assembly, there were impassioned calls for vision, for boldness and courage, to be grace-givers wherever God places us. For one anxious moment, there was a brief possibility that the die-hard few remaining at the close of business would break into Be Bold, Be Strong. At 4.30pm, Louise, a female under-30s rep, an ‘other’, stepped up and told the Assembly to be encouraged, that there are dedicated young people, willing to take risks, to live in faith, not fear. It was an offer to hand the future over to a new generation. In 2023, when the General Assembly meets again, when it reviews its progress, that richness of perspective is vital, diversity of thought and experience is key, inclusivity of gender, race, age, class is essential. That’s how we can best spread the good news. More yellow lanyards please!