During the annual weeklong gathering of 1,000 ministers and elders from the Church’s 500-plus congregations across Ireland discussed plans to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, relationships with other denominations, the role and ministry of chaplaincy in Ireland, concerns over the education proposals in the Republic of Ireland, the political situation in Northern Ireland and support for persecuted Christians around the globe.
Speaking at the close of the General Assembly, new Presbyterian Moderator, Rt. Rev. Dr. Noble McNeely joked when he said, “For the first time in 40 year’s I have been to every session of a General Assembly right through to very end.”
During a short address to close the Assembly, he touched on the theme for his year in office, ‘Everyday Disciples’. “On Monday I reflected on ‘taking up the cross’ daily. I often think of that cost, especially as I listened to people throughout the week, and especially those from overseas and the suffering that they experience for Christ’s sake. Throughout this year I hope I can encourage those I meet across Ireland to take up the cross and make a difference in the world.”
Future General Assemblies
In a busy last day, that included business from the previous day, a number of substantial proposals that could affect the dynamic of future Assemblies were discussed.
Members considered a resolution that it is hoped would widen accessibility to future meetings of the General Assembly, which included mid-week evening business sessions.
In looking at the meeting times of the General Assembly, to afford greater accessibility, Very Rev. Dr. Roy Patton said, “We recognise that this request arises out of a real desire that our Assembly be more representative and more inclusive than it is at the present time. It is a reality that as we meet during the working week and in the first week of June that in so doing we effectively exclude a range of people.”
Rev. Jonathan Boyd, seconding the resolution, explained why other options, which included evening meetings, were being explored. “You may personally prefer to meet in the day and wonder why working elders can't just take time off work. But it's easy to ask others to give up their holiday time to come to this when the vast majority of us who already come are either here as part of our work, or are retired. For many of us, coming here doesn't require the same sacrifice that it does for a working elder.
“We can talk and talk and talk about how important it is to get working elders and young people involved, but if we don't try something different then all we're saying to these people is that we expect to come, but it has to be on our terms, when we find it convenient. This is a chance to say and do something more positive,” Rev. Boyd concluded.
The Assembly discussed two options and agreed that in 2018 business would also be conducted on two evening sessions, with the Wednesday Evening Celebration moving to Thursday evening.
Members also considered a proposal that would also enable each of the denomination’s 539 congregations to send an additional member, or elder, who will be aged 30 or under. This new member would be able sit and deliberate in a move that would enable younger voices to be heard at the General Assembly. The proposal was agreed to.
Two Memorials also came before the House. Memorials, or ‘petitions’ usually come from a person, or body, who is not a member of the General Assembly.
One of the Memorials concerned each February’s annual election of the Moderator and asked that more information be given on nominees to assist members of Presbytery when making their decision. This Memorial wasn’t accepted by the General Assembly. However, with regard to the second, on breaking the link between being a communicant member of the Church, recorded giving and voting within congregations, it was agreed that a Task Group be formed to look at this matter in more detail - in particular the qualifications for voting in congregations and report to the General Assembly next year.
Speaking about Memorials, the Clerk of the General Assembly, Rev. Trevor Gribben said, “It has been a long time since significant issues have come before the Assembly in this way.
“These two Memorials, coming from people on different issues, have enabled the House to address very different topics. It isn’t just Councils of the Church who can bring issues to this House, but presbyteries and ordinary members of the Church and today was a good example of that, and I want to personally thank those who brought the Memorials on behalf of all of us.”
Among other business before it today, the Assembly also agreed a revised expenses scheme for ministers and the amalgamation of the congregation of Cloughey with Greyabbey Presbyterian on the Ards Peninsular. Members also agreed to create a Task Group to further investigate 'economically viable options' for retaining the Guysmere youth centre in Castlerock, County Londonderry.
The Assembly’s final decision was to agree to meet again in Belfast on Monday, 4th June 2018.
You can catch a sense and a snapshot of this year's General Assembly here:
Details of all resolutions and reports that came before this year’s General Assembly, including supplementary reports and minutes, can be found at here.