A woman’s place

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is the second biggest Protestant denomination on the island and the biggest in Northern Ireland. It is in some ways a coalition of different opinions. Some parts of it are quite liberal and even ecumenical represented by people like Rev. Ken Newell of Fitzroy and previously Rev. John Dunlop of Rosemary. Probably the majority of Presbyterianism is, however, more traditional, theologically conservative and in reality quite fundamentalist, certainly churches in the Coleraine Presbytery (which my church just sneaked into) were and that is probably the case with most of the country congregations.The two wings of the church coexist fairly amicably. The media tend to like to focus more on the liberals than strictly speaking their numbers probably deserve. This, however, suits the traditionalists quite well, as most of their ministers have no great love of the media spotlight. There have been a number of issues which have caused significant division such as the failed attempts by some of the liberals a number of years ago to get the PCI to join the world council of churches.

Recently, however, the issue of women ministers has come to the fore. Normally at Christmas it seems that two of the Armagh Presbyterian churches share their services with everyone going to one church and the other minister preaching. On this occasion, however, it appears that the Reverend Stafford Carson refused to allow Reverend Christina Bradley to preach in his church. Actually my understanding is that the kirk session would have had to agree with him but still she was not allowed to preach. Apparently the two ministers have subsequently met but the outcome has not become clear.

In a separate move one of the potential candidates for moderator of the General Assembly is a woman. The issue of women elders and ministers actually cuts across the liberal / conservative split in the church; I certainly know of otherwise liberals opposed to women elders and ministers and conservatives in favour of them.

The biblical basis for this comes down to the analysis of Paul’s letters and whether or not one takes them as referring to the particular churches to which he was writing or to all churches for all time.

The other more fundamentalist denominations are also not always as clear on this as one might expect. The Brethern have no women leaders and women usually are not permitted to speak in church. The Reformed and Free Presbyterians have no women elders, deacons, ministers etc. The Independent Methodists have no women ministers but do have women members of the committees which run the church, allow women to preach and pray in public and have women teaching adults; all of which some other fundamentalist churches would disagree with.

The outcome for the Presbyterians is a little unclear though I doubt they are about to elect a woman moderator but as one can see above it is a more complex issue than many outsiders appreciate.