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Will Presbyterians ever elect a female moderator?

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William Crawley | 17:08 UK time, Sunday, 3 February 2008

cooke1.jpgDr Donald Watts, the Clerk of the Presbyterian General Assembly -- the church's general secretary -- has written to every Presbyterian minister to "clarify" the church's position on the role of female ministers in Ireland. The full text of the letter is below.

When I asked Dr Watts, this morning, if ministers are somehow unsure about the church's law, he said it wasn't ministers but others, including the press, who are unsure about the church's law. Which rather begs the question, why write to the unconfused ministers in the first place, rather than publishing a press release? The clarification offered today by Dr Watts amounts to this: that the male minister in the Portadown pulpit row is not breaking the law of the church. In my previous interviews with both Christina Bradley and the Presbyterian moderator, Dr John Finlay, I raised this point specifically and in each case it was clear that Stafford Carson had not broken the church's law; so I'm not aware of any lack of clarity on this point in Sunday Sequence's coverage of this story.

The bigger question is whether the ministry of ordained women has been fully embraced by their male clergy colleagues. When I put it to Dr Watts that some male ministers walk out of official church meetings if a woman leads prayers, he seemed to think this practice was a thing of the past. A number of Presbyterians have contacted our programme since I raised the same point with Dr Finlay (who appeared equally unaware that such walk-outs continue) to express surprise that their Moderator did not know about a discourtesy still being experienced by some female ministers. They may be similarly surprised by the Clerk of the General Assembly's response.

The Clerk took the opportunity in the interview to offer this celebration of "diversity" within the church as a great strength. Here's how the interview ended:

Donald Watts: We have diversity. We love diversity. We need diversity.

William Crawley: You've never had a female moderator.

Donald Watts: Well, who knows what will happen in the future.

William Crawley: Would that be a good thing for the church in terms of diversity?

Donald Watts: A good thing for the church is that we have the Moderator that God wants to lead the church at any given time. Whether male or female.

William Crawley: You're dodging that question?

Donald Watts: And you expect me to dodge the question because you know perfectly well that I can't answer it.

William Crawley: But it would be good in terms of the diversity you're celebrating now to have the other half of humanity represented in the Moderator's chair, wouldn't it?

Donald Watts: In God's time, yes. And I've no doubt in God's time that will happen. But let's now forget --

William Crawley: Are you praying for it. Would you like to see it happen?

Donald Watts: I am praying that God's will may be done in leading us towards a Moderator. I'm not praying for any particular person, or any variety of person. What I was about to say was, let's not forget that there's a great discussion going on in the United States as to whether their leader could possibly be a woman. And this is the great democracy, with freedom and liberty and all the rest. We too are a church that has offered a lot to the States, incidentally, in terms of liberty and fraternity, and that we will continue to do.

William Crawley: Chances are that America will get a female president before you get a female Moderator.

Donald Watts: Let's wait and see what happens in November.

Some female listeners may regard this as a rather coy defence of diversity, but Donald Watts is, of course, keen to maintain the confidence of every section of his church, including those who oppose the ordination of women. He mentions the November presidential election, rather than this month's Moderatorial election. One of this year's candidates for Presbyterian Moderator is Dr Ruth Patterson, who made history in the 70s when she became the first woman to be ordained to the Presbyterian ministry in Ireland. On the basis of the soundings I've taken, I would be extremely surprised if Dr Patterson is elected this month. But whoever is elected will need to know their own mind on an issue that has attracted significant media attention, and which (as Donald Watts acknowledges in this interview) has harmed the reputation of the Presbyterian Church. On the basis only of conversations I have had, this is currently a three-horse race between Norman Hamilton (Ballysillan), Donald Patton (Old Church, Randalstown) and Joe Fell (Ebrington, Londonderry). Dr Fell was runner up in the election last year, which would normally make him the favourite at this point, but Donald Patton seems to be picking up more and more support from the conservative wing of the denomination. Normal Hamilton appears to be gathering increasing support from the middle ground of the church. At this stage, it seems more likely that either he or Donald Patton will emerge as Moderator.

(The picture, by the way, is of the Henry Cooke statue in Belfast -- better known locally as "the Black Man". Dr Henry Cooke was the most influential leader of Irish Presbyterianism in the nineteenth century.)

Letter from Clerk of the General Assembly to all clergy of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

25 January, 2008

Dear Colleague,

As you know, there has been considerable discussion in the press and media recently about the ordination of women. The Moderator’s Advisory Committee is concerned that the discussions may have left some people confused as to the understanding of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. I have been asked to write this letter to all ministers, hopefully to clarify some of the issues. You are invited to use it in any way you find helpful in explaining the Church’s position.

It has been the practice of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland to ordain women to the ruling eldership since 1926. The Code states (Par 31) that “women shall be eligible for election on the same conditions as men” and this statement must be read to the congregation when an election is to take place (Code Par. 177).

The ordination of women to the ministry of word and sacrament was agreed by the General Assembly in 1973. The Code states (Par 215): “Women shall be eligible for nomination as students for the ministry and for ordination on the same conditions as men”. The decision was taken having been sent down to Presbyteries the previous year for discussion under the Barrier Act. The votes of the Presbyteries were 18 for, 3 against and 1 undecided.

These decisions of the General Assembly are clear and definitive. While an individual may hold a different view, or even dissent from the Church’s position, the Code also states (Par 160): “Dissent ... does not exempt members from obedience to implement the decisions of Church courts ...” Interestingly in 1973 no member did, in fact, record dissent. Of course, these decisions do not alter the right of a minister to determine who shall occupy the pulpit or address a meeting in the congregation of which the minister has charge (Code Par 81).

In 1989 a Memorial was received from 113 members of the General Assembly referring to “acts of ordination or installation”, i.e. Presbytery Services. It asks that “liberty of conscience be respected so that while the law and practice of the Church be not infringed or frustrated, yet neither should those be required to participate in acts of ordination or installation who, for conscience sake, feel unable to do so ...”

The Judicial Commission responded with the following Guidelines, agreed in 1990:


(i) It is our publicly declared law and rule that women in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland are eligible on the same conditions as men for ordination or installation to office as ruling elders (since 1926) and ministers (since 1973), which policy was adopted by the Assembly in good conscience.
(ii) It is recognised that there is a significant number of people in the Church who have personal conscientious reservations or objections to this policy on the basis of their reading of the Scriptures.
(iii) Both pastoral concern and prudence should warn against any attempts to force anyone to act in this in a manner contrary to a deeply held conviction. For their part those with such convictions must strive to avoid injury to the conscientious ministries of brothers and sisters called to serve under the laws and rules of our Church, who are rightly to be honoured for their work’s sake.
(iv) Equally it is unacceptable for any person to use his or her own convictions to deny others the conscientious exercise of their own ministries, or to frustrate the laws or procedures of the Church to which they belong, e.g. by impeding others lawfully seeking office. It is, of course, the duty of the Presbytery, so far as lies within its powers, to observe the laws and directions of the Assembly and to ensure that those subject to its jurisdiction do likewise.
(v) Of all institutions the Christian Church should be concerned for the development and defence of a well-informed conscience, not only with respect to private judgement and convictions, but also with respect to shared obligations.
(vi) Conscience may present us under God with competing demands which cannot be resolved by simple logic or legislation but must be faced with the exercise of integrity, charity and humility.
(vii) The practice of ministry in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland involves objectively a recognition of the lawful exercise of office by both men and women in good standing, nevertheless a particular theological belief on the place of women in the eldership and ministry is not a condition for acceptance for the ministry.
(viii) Those with personal conscientious objections to participating in a particular service have the freedom to decline for themselves, but not to dictate or veto who may be invited by the appropriate Church court or authority.

It should be noted that the Memorial asked for, and the guidelines accept, the freedom to decline from participation in a particular service, i.e. of ordination or installation. The Assembly did not determine any other situation, except to recognise “competing demands which cannot be resolved by simple logic or legislation but must be faced with the exercise of integrity, charity and humility.”

It is hoped this letter will make clear the unambiguous position of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland with regard to the ordination of women, while recognising there are different views sincerely held by individuals. Some may wish to portray any attempt to hold diversity together as a sign of weakness in the Church, but surely it is a visible indication of our strength. I hope we can continue, creatively, to engage together while speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

May we all know God’s blessing as we work together in this great family of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Yours sincerely,


  • 1.
  • At 12:25 AM on 04 Feb 2008,
  • Anne Green wrote:

Why are Presbyterian leaders continuing to sound so disconnected from reality!? This man refused to answer basic questions about whether a woman moderator would help the church. I was embarrassed for him.

  • 2.
  • At 10:19 AM on 04 Feb 2008,
  • Philip-in-Bangor wrote:

Donald Watts was all over the place avoiding questions. Thats just the way the moderator behaved. Do they train these guys in church house to not answer questions? Then when he did say something he defended the man who excluded the woman from his pulpit! Outrageous.

  • 3.
  • At 10:40 AM on 04 Feb 2008,
  • Rev Anon wrote:

Thanks for keeping this story alive William. I know that Church House would rather that it all disappeared but it's right that the church is forced if necessary to face up to this. Women are discriminated against all over the church. Donal Watts PRETENDS that he is unaware of any presbyteries where some conservative men leave the room when women pray. What planet is he living on? It's happening in my presbytery.

  • 4.
  • At 11:00 AM on 04 Feb 2008,
  • John 1965 wrote:

I agree with these comments about the Donald Watts interview. This is what happens when a church tries to have it both ways. They ordain women and then they allow conservatives to mistreat those women by banning them from pulpits. I think Donald Watts wanted to pour water over all of this and shout "Nothing here to see", but he's neither a fireman nor a policeman. All he's done is show up the unwillingness of people like himself to actually do something to defend their women ministers.

  • 5.
  • At 02:07 PM on 04 Feb 2008,
  • Mark wrote:

It seems to me the women don't particularly care themselves. If they did, it wouldn't take much to organize a boycott and start marching. From what I've heard, Protestants in NI are pretty good at marching. It's the only place I've ever heard of that has a "marching season." And if their husbands didn't go along with the boycott, well as I said when this topic came up before, women have considerable power over men and could take a page out of Aristophane's play Lysistrata.

Of course sometimes the old ways work best, especially in places referred to on my shores as "the old country" where there's a history and a traditional way of doing things. Annie, git yer gun!

There is a paradox at the heart of Puritanism: structurally democratic, it has nevertheless proved oppressively theocratic wherever it has achieved dominance. When Ulster Presbyterians attacked Cromwell's Toleration laws, Milton was annoyed that these 'blockish Presbyters' from a' barbarous nook of Ireland' understood little or nothing about real laws and liberties. Nothing much has changed in the succeeding centuries.

Occasionaly, as in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a more liberal vein comes to the fore (as in the Presbyterian opposition to slavery, led by a woman, Mary Ann McCracken). But it is snuffed out by the Cookes and the Hannas who triumph over the Montgomeries and reestablish Puritanism at the heart of the creed.

Nevertheless, if the moderator of the Free Presbyterianism church can flip flop from throwing snowballs at Sean Lemass into talking about 'the North of Ireland' to Bertie Aherne, perhaps anything is possible, even a woman Presbyterian moderator. In the meantime, are the free Presbyterians now more progressive than the official version?

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