Without doubt the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly is one of the biggest annual Christian gatherings in Ireland.
Last week’s Assembly – the 180th in its history – brought together 573 ministers, 486 church elders and 361 other people (most of whom can take part in debates, but do not have a formal vote).
This year’s tone was generally softer and rather sober, in marked contrast to 2018. That was clear when the General Secretary told the Assembly that last year’s report (on same sex matters) was missing a “warm, open, pastoral, caring compassionate section”.
With that said, there was considerable passion and emotion in the debate covering the breaking of the link between Queen’s University and the church’s theological college. The pain and hurt in this fracture were never far from the surface, and facing them well is a real challenge.
There were also many sobering yet uplifting moments – as when the Assembly heard in detail from representatives of overseas churches where the pressures and struggles as well as the opportunities that come with being a Christian are often very considerable.
And at a local level the Assembly was brought face to face with scale of adolescent mental illness and the needs of caring properly for those whom Professor Max Watson called the “Jenga generation” – the elderly frail, who like the tottering tower game survive until one critical brick is removed .. and suddenly that individual’s vulnerability is exposed”.
Yet for me, the last full session held on Friday morning was by far the most fascinating. It saw the emergence of the first shoots of real concern about how the Assembly’s constituency is put together.
By a noticeable majority, members voted to “explore ways to make the General Assembly even more accessible for those who have found attending difficult”.
This was sponsored by a young man in his 20s deeply concerned by the difficulty of enabling young people and those who are working full-time to be part of the Assembly. His disquiet is well founded, for as was stated in that debate, there were only 59 people aged under 30 who were registered participants in a gathering of over 1,400.
Everyone accepts that this is an extraordinarily difficult problem to solve, and that every option has significant drawbacks. Yet they must all be looked at, such as meeting over the weekend, potentially shortening the Assembly by some reports being biennial rather than every year, further flexibility in the membership of the Assembly, or even some complex issues being considered in one-off sessions away from the main week.
This all points to an even deeper set of problems. The Presbyterian church prides itself on being extremely democratic – to the extent that (apart from staffing) every individual is only ever accountable to a panel or committee of some kind – never to a single other person. However this brings with it the profound difficulty of how those with a big vision for the future of the church and its work are able to be heard.
The church generally seems to move at a snail’s pace when compared with the immediate populism of Facebook, Twitter and the snapshots taken in referenda. This is not to say that the church should be shaped by the demands of social media. Rather it is to acknowledge that the current way of working does not enable a younger generation of Christians to be well connected to their churches.
A colleague made the point that a younger generation is quite able to speak for itself and to offer leadership if the generations above it are ready to create the space for them to lead.
To be a leader in a Christian church ought not to mean that one is, by definition, middle aged or older. The emphasis ought to be on quality rather than age. This is well understood by Christian organisations working outside the walls of the established church, with Northern Ireland having more than its fair share of young, active and very able Christian leaders.
The problem of church leadership becomes even more complex when we realise that a younger generation is less and less inclined to ‘formally’ join a church, or indeed any institution.
They rarely join anything today other than a club or group that provides a service to them, and for which they pay a fee (such as a gym or the RAC). They often have limited allegiance to a particular denomination, even if they are very committed Christians serving energetically in their local congregations.
The number of elders in the Presbyterian church is falling year on year, as is the number of new people being formally received into the church – which is in itself a requirement for being an elder.
The prospects of our church becoming a younger church are not good. But unless that process gets under way soon, the average age of those attending future meetings of the General Assembly will simply rise, and that is to no one’s benefit or blessing.
Norman Hamilton OBE is former moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (2010-2011). He was minister at Ballysillan Presbyterian Church in north Belfast.