I have missed very few Opening Nights since I started Union College in 1979. I always look forward to the occasion – with one exception – 2nd June 2014 when I was to be installed as Moderator of the General Assembly. That was a night of anticipation and fear – pleasure and terror rolled into one at what lay ahead.
The few weeks beforehand were busy spent reading the Blue Book more thoroughly than usual – I was even featured on Facebook alongside one of the younger ministers with one in my hand! The conduct of business was something I was not really used to, with the proposing, seconding, amending, substantive motions and all the formal procedures that make the Assembly both correct and effective.
However the Clerk’s office with Donald, Trevor and Joyce, Gordon Best the Convener of the Arrangements Committee, together with Stuart and Trevor, my two Chaplains, ensured that I was well prepared for all that lay ahead.
Wave of Love
The view from the Moderator’s chair is quite overwhelming. The sight of my wife Esther with my daughters Judith and Deborah and son-in-law Andy in the front row of the gallery was a welcome sight. But I was conscious of a wave of love from the Assembly that night and felt that the people were behind the Moderator regardless of who filled the position.
I know that some people have little time for the ceremonial aspect of the Opening Night, yet that is something that I value. We are a Presbyterian Church, with a Godly and noble history, and the links to the past are important for us in the present.
Our mission and witness did not begin in the year 2000 – it didn’t even begin in 1840. So as we contemplate and celebrate our history, we must remember that we are adding to it and in the years to come will have contributed to the story, which others who come after us will celebrate in their day.
Chairing a congregational committee meeting is one thing – I remember one young minister despairing that he would never master it – but chairing a session of the General Assembly is something very different, with so many people who know when you have made a mistake! Being fair in calling people to speak and being firm when someone overstepped the mark.
That year marked the retirement of Dr. Watts as Clerk of the General Assembly and the appointment of the current Clerk, Rev. Trevor Gribben and Rev. Jim Stothers as Deputy Clerk; so we were all new at it in a way.
Moving insight from South Sudan
A highlight of the week was the Communion Service on Tuesday morning. One of the most moving speeches that I remember was from Rev. Peter Gal Lual from the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan. He told the House of the plight which the church faced in the midst of famine and fighting.
And what about the tied vote? Panic! Thankfully the Clerk advised that the Moderator should not change the status quo and the matter was sent back for further consideration.
The Assembly passed more quickly than the others I have attended and normal business was resumed – as far as the work of the Moderator can ever be considered normal. But while I will continue to enjoy and be blessed by attending the Opening Night of the General Assembly, that Opening Night was something special, and I am thankful to God and to our church for the opportunity of serving as Moderator that year.
Very Rev. Dr. Michael Barry is minister emeritus of First Newry Presbyterian Church in County Down and served as Moderator for 2014/2015.
For information and resources about this year's General Assembly: The Blue Book, individual reports, supplementary reports, daily business, minutes, previews and reviews of each day's proceedings, visit our General Assembly 2017 resources section here.