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 - 1840
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 full week of June, beginning with an opening service on Monday evening and drawing to a conclusion on Friday afternoon.
On the Opening Night 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.
To get a a sense of what a modern General Assembly is like, this short video of the 2018 annual meeting includes the installation of the Moderator for 2018/2019, Rt Rev Dr Charles McMullen, times of worship and debate, fringe meetings and general atmosphere.
General Assembly 2022
The last General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland took place in Assembly Buildings in Belfast from Wednesday 22 June, with the Opening Night and election of the Moderator, closing on Saturday to Friday 22 June.
Attended by approximately ministers and elders from the Church’s 500-plus congregations across Ireland, along with representatives from partners churches at home and overseas, the Assembly received and discussed reports from the Church’s various Councils across 26 sessions involving 100 resolutions that set the direction for the life and ministry of the Church over the coming year and beyond.
An overview of the General Assembly 2022, including associated minutes, news releases, reports and video of all public sessions, can be viewed here. The next General Assemlby will meet in the third week of June 2023.
The 2020 General Assembly
In 1940 (see below) the General Assembly adjourned to meet later on in the year, a meeting which was subsequently postponed. Due to the exceptional circumstances surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic, for the first time in 180 years, the 2020 General Assembly was cancelled. The decision not to hold the meeting was taken by ministers and elders meeting in a unique virtual Special Meeting of the General Assembly.
The Special Meeting was called by the Moderator at the time, Dr William Henry, at the unanimous request of PCI’s General Council when it last met prior to the lockdown. Membership of the Special Meeting was based on the Roll of the 2019 General Assembly, with voting conducted online between 1st and 11th April.
It also agreed that all necessary business of the General Assembly would be conducted through a ‘2020 Standing Commission of the General Assembly’, which would meet either in person, or by other means, depending on the circumstances at the time.
The Standing Commission met remotely via video conference on the evening of 1 June, to elect and install the new Moderator. Apart from a small technical support team in the Assembly Hall in Belfast, only four people were physically present and participating in the installation – the outgoing Moderator, Dr William Henry, the Clerk and Deputy Clerk of the General Assembly, the Revs Trevor Gribben and Jim Stothers and Dr Bruce himself. The special event was livestreamed and watched by around 900 people online. The Standing Commission continued to meet on the 2nd and 3rd June via video conference. The Moderator chaired the Standing Commission. You can read about it here.
The 1940 General Assembly
The General Assembly of 1940 met in Assembly Buildings, Belfast, from Monday, 3 June to Saturday, 8 June 1940, adjourning to convene again later on in the year on Tuesday, 8 October.
Following representations from the majority of the Church’s presbyteries to postpone the 8 October meeting, on the advice of the Moderator’s Advisory Committee, it was agreed to postpone until the 1941 annual meeting of the General Assembly. This took place from Monday, 2 June to Wednesday, 4 June 1941. The decision to postpone, according to the minutes of the 1940 General Assembly ‘was arrived at on account of the acute National crisis.’
While the 8 October 1941 was postponed, no annual meeting of the General Assembly has been cancelled until the 2020 annual meeting.