Norman Hamilton and inconsistent moderation

The Presbyterian Church is tonight due to elect a new moderator. Update: Ivan Patterson elected (thanks Drumlin’s Rock). Presbyterian moderators are elected every year: in actual fact the office has almost no power; the moderator presides over the General Assembly in the summer and although often perceived as the leader of the church that is not really correct, as such a position does not exist within Presbyterianism. It must be remembered that ministers are not even the leaders within their own churches: they may often function as such but are in reality merely the teaching elder and as such no more important than any other elder. Indeed even elders are not that powerful: the priesthood of all believers is an important concept within Presbyterianism and the autonomy of each believer before God is central. The church can in theory exercise some disciplinary functions but they are limited and almost never used.

The Presbyterian Church is a broad one with the majority of it being evangelical: indeed within areas such as the Ballymena Bible Belt and its extensions into County Londonderry and elsewhere as far afield as rural County Down, there is often little theological difference between it and the Free Presbyterian Church.

Other parts of the church are much more liberal and ecumenical. This somewhat disparate mix has been held together for years remarkably successfully by a number of different strategies, one of which has been the unofficial rotating of the moderatorship between the theologically conservative and liberal wings on a largely alternate basis. The last moderator was a conservative Stafford Carson and the current one is a liberal Norman Hamilton: hence, no matter how much members of the church or ministers disapprove of the current moderator they know that next year one will come along more to their liking.

In general the more conservative minded moderators are less interested in publicity: few outside the Presbyterian Church would know their names for more than a year or two after their moderatorship and even during their moderatoral year they tend to concern themselves mainly with attending church functions (the Presbyterian Herald always has photographs of them opening halls, being at the instillation of new elders and visiting assorted centenarians). The last conservative Stafford Carson did have a somewhat higher profile due to his very open views on women ministers and problems with the Presbyterian Mutual Society.

The current moderator Rev. Norman Hamilton has thus far courted controversy more than most. He has at times seemed to be especially interested in making headlines and has annoyed some of his more conservative fellow Presbyterians; sometimes it seems without much thought to consistency.

Hamilton had hardly been installed moderator before he dashed off to Londonderry to meet the Bloody Sunday families: this despite not being known to have an interest in the issue and not being from the area. Had he been involved with the families beforehand it might have been understandable. However, in the absence of this and in view of the very public fashion in which he announced this decision it looked a little like headline chasing. The subsequent report of the HET into the Claudy Bombing (in which Presbyterians died) resulted in no such instant visit: explained by the moderator being out of the country. It was reported by the church that Hamilton would be travelling to the Northwest and possibly meeting the families after his return but this seems to have been part of a general visit to the area and Hamilton seemed less inclined to make a song and dance about it.

This week the News Letter is carrying the visit of the moderator and others to see Peter Robinson and other leading DUP members which may not seem especially controversial but in view of things said by previous moderators, most notably John Dunlop, about the DUP and its founder (and of course things said by Dr. Paisley about the Presbyterian Church) it is maybe a mild departure from the past.

Possibly more controversial was Hamilton’s recent meeting with Gerry Adams. Here, however, is where Hamilton’s inconsistency is again to be seen.

At the time of the Pope’s visit to the UK Hamilton behaved in what seemed a somewhat bizarre fashion. He attended a joint service which involved the Pope: something many evangelicals would have refused to do; yet he refused to meet or shake hands with the pope. This seemed a strange position: one could meet the man yet refuse to engage in worship with him: many Christians would happily meet a Muslim, Hindu or Buddist spiritual leader (maybe the Dali Lama) yet decline to engage in worship with them due to theological differences.

What makes Hamilton’s subsequent decision even more bizarre is that he explained this refusal to meet the Pope as due to the failure of the Roman Catholic Church to be active enough in investigating clerical sex abuse. At the time Hamilton stated:

“Colleagues of mine are picking up pastoral issues within the Catholic Church, where Catholic families are coming to them asking for pastoral help, sometimes in the most difficult of circumstances, because they do not want Catholic clergy to deal with them in light of the abuse scandals.”

However, Hamilton seemed quite happy to meet Gerry Adams despite the latter’s clear failure to deal adequately with the issue of child abuse. Of course being inadequately proactive over child abuse is arguably one of the less serious issues which Adams has been accused of over the years: yet Hamilton was happy to meet Adams (complete with hand shake as seen here).

Hamilton has another few months left of his moderatorship to run and presumably will have further opportunities to display his remarkably variable views on a range of issues. Since the next moderator is likely to be a conservative evangelical and they are usually somewhat more publicity shy it is likely that next year the public at large will see less of the Presbyterian Moderator.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.