The General Assembly is the supreme governing body of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It represents all individual congregations and oversees the various councils and committees that deal with the day-to-day running of the various aspects of church life.
The General Assembly is the Church's supreme legislative, administrative and judicial authority, and like all other subordinate church bodies and congregations, is governed by its own Code. The Code is the constitution and government of the Church; every court, congregation and member of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland is governed and protected by it.
The senior figure of the General Assembly is the Moderator. This is an elected post and changes yearly. The Assembly consists of: all ministers, including retired ministers, and a representative elder from each congregation. Deaconesses and representatives of women's and youth organisations are invited to sit and deliberate. In a similar way, delegates from sister churches are invited and may speak but they have no vote.
The very first General Assembly
Friday 10th July 1840 is a significant date in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland’s history as it was the birth day of the very first General Assembly.
It met in Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast and came into existence as a union of the General Synod of Ulster and the Secession Synod. At the time of union, there were 292 congregations in the General Synod and 141 in the Secession Synod. It is estimated that some four hundred ministers and elders made up the Assembly that day and between 3,000 and 4,000 members of the public joined them in support after an advertisement had been placed that day in the Belfast Newsletter.
The Very Rev. Dr. Samuel Hanna was the first Moderator of the General Assembly, unanimously elected for the ensuing year and he formally constituted the Supreme Court of the Church under the title ‘The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’.
The General Assembly of the 21st Century
The General Assembly normally meets in Assembly Buildings, Fisherwick Place, Belfast during the first week of June, beginning with an opening service on Monday evening and drawing to a conclusion on Thursday afternoon.
On the first Monday evening of the Assembly, members join with invited guests and members of the public to install their new Moderator who chairs the week's proceedings and represents the Church throughout the forthcoming year. After formal proposing and seconding, the Moderator Designate is officially appointed to the chair.
The business sessions of the Assembly begin on Tuesday morning and for the next three days approximately 1,200 delegates, representative of every Presbyterian congregation in Ireland, hear reports and debate resolutions presented to it by the Councils and Commissions of the Church.
These include financial and administrative reports as well as reports from the church wide ministries and mission directed by the Assembly which include Congregational Life and Witness, Mission in Ireland, Global Mission, Social Witness, Training for Ministry and Church in Society.
With the exception of a brief private session, where judicial matters are dealt with, the Assembly is open to everyone. Only delegates, however, can take part in debates or vote.
In recent years, live streaming has enabled members of the public to watch proceedings online and a Twitter feed (@pciassembly) is updated with progress of the business meetings.