Are we to believe God is still deciding whether women are fit to be appointed church leaders?

Rite & Reason: For quite some time the Presbyterian Church has been backing itself into a fundamentalist cul-de-sac from which it may not escape

Rev Sam Mawhinney: the current moderator has made it clear that he does not approve of the ordination of women

Rev Richard Murray, who will be installed as the moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland on Friday, immediately raised eyebrows inside and outside the church shortly after his selection as moderator-elect last February.

He told the Belfast Telegraph: “Ultimately the Lord of the Church determines who is the moderator. If the Lord wants a woman minister to be moderator next year then that will happen.” That has to be one of the least persuasive reasons ever offered for the non-appointment of a female moderator in the church’s long history.

Murray, who is minister of Drumreagh Presbyterian Church in Co Antrim, is entitled to his view, and some Presbyterians may agree with him, but other observers may see in this approach a spectacular washing of hands. In modern parlance, this is akin to the old excuse: “Not our fault, guv, don’t blame us. That’s up to God.”

Are we therefore to believe that God is satisfied that the other main Protestant denominations in Ireland, including the Anglicans and Methodists, are right to have female leaders, but that He is still deciding whether a Presbyterian woman would be fit to be appointed moderator? Are Presbyterians a cut above, or below, the others?


People will no doubt make up their own minds about this. Sadly, however, the stiff-necked stance of those clergy and laity who refuse to countenance a female moderator is all the more regrettable because the Presbyterian Church was the first main Protestant denomination in Ireland to ordain a female minister, the Rev Ruth Patterson, in 1976.

Since then the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has backtracked, with the fundamentalists cleverly creating for themselves a let-out conscience clause. Several excellent female candidates have allowed their names to go forward for election in the past half-century or so but all have been rejected by the church.

They include the pioneering Ruth Patterson herself, but she was turned down twice, and on the latter occasion she did not receive even a single vote from any of the 19 presbyteries in Ireland. Such lack of grace from the church at large was appalling.

Presbyterian Church in Ireland has become ‘a cool house’ for a dwindling liberal membershipOpens in new window ]

This year another very good candidate, the Rev Mairisine Stanfield, received two of the 19 votes. She also stood in 2019 when she received only three votes, and the next year she stood again and was given only one vote. Her courage is commendable, but the fundamentalists close ranks every time.

The only year that a woman almost broke through the glass ceiling was in 2014 when the Rev Liz Hughes came joint second with the Rev Ian McNie, closely behind the victorious candidate, the Rev Michael Barry. This was because the conservatives had mixed up their numbers, and almost let a female through by mistake.

The Rev Hughes stood again the following year but McNie was elected with a large majority. In previous decades, when Presbyterianism was a broad church, a “liberal” or a “conservative” candidate was elected moderator every second year but sadly those generous-spirited days have long gone.

For quite some time the Presbyterian Church has been backing itself into a fundamentalist cul-de-sac from which it may not escape, and it is on track to end up as a narrow sect of ultra-conservatives with little or no appeal to the dwindling liberals in the church at large.

It has repeatedly shown its unwillingness to move with the times by stubbornly refusing to appoint a female moderator in an age when women are now playing leadership roles in all aspects of modern life. Despite this the Presbyterian Church plods on regardless, looking steadfastly inwards and rarely outside to the world of today.

For many years I was a member of the church, which was then broadly welcoming. There are still many decent people in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, which also carries out good work in society for which it deserves recognition, but in recent years it has changed beyond all recognition. It has become one of the most conservative and, to some people, the least appealing of churches on this island. In my lifetime it has changed beyond recognition, and not necessarily for the better.

What makes the Presbyterians’ attitude even more regrettable is that for several years they have been assuring women that their time will come, and that one day there will indeed be a female moderator.

Women are the backbone of Irish Presbyterianism. They deserve much better from their male colleagues

The Presbyterian Clerk of Assembly, the Rev Trevor Gribben, who was runner-up in this year’s election, acknowledged that “leaders are far from perfect” and that people on both sides of this debate “can be less than sensible”. He also admitted that “women have been hurt sometimes by what has been said, and that is wrong. Women are every bit as eligible for leadership as men – that’s our position. There is no doubt that there will be a woman moderator some time.”

Despite this, many are asking when will this happen, and there is a view that it is time for the church either to “put up or shut up”.

The current moderator, Rev Sam Mawhinney, made it clear that he does not approve of the ordination of women. Against such a background of relentless Presbyterian conservatism, it is a wonder that any female Presbyterian has the courage to even consider becoming a minister, much less a moderator – and that cannot be good for the church.

Women are the backbone of Irish Presbyterianism. They deserve much better from their male colleagues. Meanwhile, many broader-minded Presbyterians are leaving to join other Reformed denominations that treat women leaders and potential leaders with the respect and understanding to which they are entitled.

This year the General Assembly dates have been changed for the first time. It will take place from Thursday to Saturday, June 20th-22nd. The new moderator will be installed at 4.30pm on Friday, which is the Summer Solstice. These historic administrative changes have been made with good reason, to expedite the business of the Assembly, but the real change needed is a more tolerant and caring attitude from those Presbyterians who take a hard line against others who in their opinion do not match their own “high” standards.

This is not likely to change any time soon. How sad it is that there seems to be little or no room for dissenters in a church where dissent used to be a part of its very life blood.

Alf McCreary is a Belfast-based author and journalist who, for more than two decades was religion correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph. He was PCI elder until his resignation some years ago. His latest book, Keeping the Faith, was published recently by Messenger Publications