Northern Ireland news

Presbyterians start week of debate

The Presbyterian General Assembly meets this week in Fisherwick Place, Belfast

THE Presbyterian Church's annual meeting of lay people and clergy opens in Belfast today as the denomination embarks on a week of debate and decision-making.

The General Assembly is made up of around 1,000 ministers and senior lay people, known as elders, drawn from the Church's 500-plus congregations across Ireland.

There will be a total of 26 sessions between today and Friday, with the vast majority open to the public - something that may interest Catholics who would like to see their own Church adopt structures that give laity the opportunity to take decisions jointly with clergy and bishops.

The position of chairman, or moderator, of the General Assembly is the most high profile in the Church.

Moderators are elected for 12-month stints, and the General Assembly's first business will be tonight when it formally installs this year's candidate, the Rev Dr William Henry, to the role.

Dr Henry is minister of Maze Presbyterian Church and, at 50 years old, the youngest moderator in living memory. He succeeds the Rev Dr Charles McMullen.

Among the matters before the assembly this week will be a report which seeks to give the Church a framework, based on biblical principles, to help it respond to human rights issues.

It will also discuss the denomination's submission to the government's public consultation on legacy issues.

Dementia care, end of life care and child and adolescent mental health services will be the focus of Thursday's discussions.

Following difficult discussions last year when Irish Presbyterians voted to end links with the Church of Scotland because of its liberal approach to same-sex marriage and also barred anyone in a gay relationship from full membership of a congregation, the assembly will also discuss how it deals with dissent.

Queen's University Belfast's decision to end the link with the Presbyterian Church's Union Theological College will also be reflected upon.

And with the Stormont assembly still defunct, the denomination will be asked to "express its deep concern and frustration about the prolonged absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland, the resulting stagnation in public policy and the negative effects on the most vulnerable in society".

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