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Alf McCreary: Why the rank and file of Churches don't take much notice of yearly gatherings

By Alf McCreary ·

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Bold claim: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby believes many aren’t interested in Church statements

The annual season of major conferences kicks off next week when the Church of Ireland holds its general synod in Armagh from Thursday until Saturday.

It will feature much important business to the Church and its members, but gone are the days of major news stories like the years of confrontation at Drumcree, near the local parish church.

There is relief that the heat has gone out of Drumcree, though sadly this baleful deadlock is still not resolved.

In more recent years as the peace process has bedded in, however patchily, the issues debated at Church conferences are more to do with internal issues.

Next week's general synod will deal with a range of topics including the safeguarding of adults as well as children, and measures to reduce its membership.

There will be no major focus this year on the vexed question of a Church blessing on same-sex marriage.

This was a big feature last year when the general synod decided to lob this ecclesiastical hot potato onto the laps in the House of Bishops.

The general synod will take place before the May 25 vote in the Republic's referendum on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment which, if it is dispensed with, will open the floodgates to abortion across the border.

Senior Church of Ireland clergy have already underlined their opposition to the proposed Irish Government's legislation. Only this week Bishop Ken Good of Derry, whose Diocese extends into the Republic, has advised people that it is their duty to vote "and to weigh up the consequences of their actions".

The abortion issue is also likely also to feature in the Presbyterian general assembly in June, when the outcome of the referendum will be known.

This week senior Presbyterian clergy issued an unusually hard-hitting statement describing the Dublin Government's proposals on abortion legislation as "regressive, incompatible with human dignity and morally unacceptable".

The vexed issue of same-sex marriage is also likely to feature at the general assembly.

In recent years the assembly voted not to send the incoming moderator to the Scottish general assembly in Edinburgh because the Scots had agreed, among other things, to allow people in same-sex civic partnerships to serve as ministers and deacons, with the approval of local congregations.

The decision by the Irish Presbyterians to prevent their moderator from visiting their Scottish brethren was to my mind rude and short-sighted, and certainly not the best way to handle the issue.

The reality is that whatever side you take on the argument, the Scottish Church is moving towards a qualified acceptance of these same-sex marriage issues, as their Episcopal colleagues have done, albeit by a narrow vote last year.

The Churches will need to address the reality that there will be a continued strong drive by supporters of same-sex marriage and abortion to have the law changed here.

The Churches will have to work out their reaction to that, whether they like it or not.

Whether such changes are evidence of progress is very much another matter.

So while the annual AGMs of the Churches attract mainly the kind of people who really want to be there, or who attend out of a sense of duty to deal with mainly housekeeping and theological maintenance, there are several major social and ecclesiastical always bubbling away in the background.

The question should be asked, however, as to how far these deliberations are even noticed by the people in the pews?

During a recent interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, I was impressed by his claim that the rank and file pay little attention to grand Church statements on policy and beliefs, and that they are much interested in what is happening on the ground.

During a recent interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, I was impressed by his claim that the rank and file pay little attention to grand Church statements on policy and beliefs, and that they are much interested in what is happening on the ground.

That may be so, but where would we be without the annual conferences, a bit like the first ecclesiastical cuckoos of the spring?

The devotees of such gatherings might miss them.

However, would the vast majority of Church members even notice that they were no longer there?

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Bold claim: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby believes many aren’t interested in Church statements