Tomorrow (Tuesday 5th February) will be a crunch day, not just for the mainstream Presbyterian Church, but for the equality of women within Irish Christianity.
The Presbyterian Church is the largest Protestant denomination in Northern Ireland and its Presbyteries across the entire island of Ireland will meet to elect their next Moderator, or leader.
For the first time in living memory, one of the four clerics in the running for the top post is a woman - the Rev Mairisine Stanfield has been minister of First Bangor Presbyterian Church since 2013. She was born in 1965.
Her election would signal a revolution within the Presbyterian Church and would be a tremendous slap in the face to the ultra fundamentalists within the denomination who are perceived to allegedly adhere to the sinister theological cult of Hyper Calvinism.
Whilst the other three male candidates for Moderator - namely, Rev William Henry, Rev Albin Rankin, and Rev David Bruce - would all make excellent leaders, the election of a woman Moderator would be a giant theological leap forward for Christianity in Ireland.
On the down side, if Rev Stanfield wins, her democratic victory could unfortunately spark a schism within mainstream Presbyterianism not witnessed since the fractious debates of the 1970s concerning the Presbyterian Church’s membership of the controversial World Council of Churches.
In the 1980s, when I was Religious Correspondent at the Belfast News Letter, part of my ‘beat’ was covering the annual General Assembly meetings in Belfast. Motions were passed supporting the ordination of women ministers.
But I was personally shocked by the number of male delegates who lined up to sign a petition of opposition against the decision. That might have been 30 years ago, but there is certainly a significant undercurrent within Presbyterianism which believes the only roles for women in the Church is to make the tea at congregational functions.
One point which could be in Rev Stanfield’s favour tomorrow evening when the Presbytery votes come in is that the Presbyterian Church wants to avoid the negative backlash which was unleashed following the General Assembly’s votes on same-sex marriage and on its relations with the supposed sister denomination, the Church of Scotland.
Avoiding more public bickering may be in Rev Stanfield’s favour as the Church took a real battering both in the media and in the wider Presbyterian community because of the same-sex and Church of Scotland votes.
The Methodist Church already has numerous women clerics within its ranks. Indeed, in the early years of the new millennium when I was facing a deep spiritual crisis during my time as a Methodist deacon, it was a woman minister who shone a light when enabled me to embark on a path which saw me address that crisis.
Conversely, at the grand old age of 59, I’ve been present at many Protestant Church meetings which usually ended with a senior male member of that church’s leadership issuing the edict - ‘the ladies will leave now and make us the tea!’
Imagine what would happen even in today’s modern media newsrooms if a male colleague barked out an order for female members of staff to ‘hurry up and get us the coffee!’
For generations, females were given strict orders on their dress code by males for worship - women should always wear hats, never wear trousers, and tone down their make-up.
In some denominations, women could be refused membership if they chose not to wear a hat to church. In other places of worship, head scarves were provided to save the blushes of any woman who attended a service and who had forgotten her head gear.
A number of years ago, a young female Gospel singer travelled quite a distance to a mission hall to sing only to be refused permission to sing because she had no hat.
This ‘fashion fascism’ still exists today with suspicions that men from fundamentalist Plymouth or Exclusive Brethren theological backgrounds have infiltrated other churches and have brought their deep-rooted Brethren thinking with them - with women being the top victims.
In Scripture, women have a key role. Christ praised the role of the women in anointing him with perfume prior to his eventual crucifixion; it was the virgin birth through Mary which brought Christ into the world in human form in the first place; he defended the woman accused of adultery who was to be stoned to death; many women remained with Christ at his crucifixion at Calvary when the menfolk scattered in fear of the Romans.
Hardline fundamentalists unfortunately point to the role of Eve in the Garden of Eden, that it was she who was tempted by Satan in the form of a snake to persuade her to break God’s request not to eat from the tree of knowledge. To these fundamentalists, it was the woman’s fault who initiated the Fall of Man, therefore, women should be punished by having a minor or slave role in the Christian Church ever since.
Within Catholicism, nuns should have the choice as to whether they wish to remain celibate or be allowed to marry. Catholic theologians may argue that when nuns took their vows, they agreed to be married to the Church, therefore, human marriage is out of the question.
Women have so much to offer the modern-day Christian Church. They have just as much right to lead an Irish denomination as any man.
As the son of a Presbyterian minister, my appeal to the Presbyteries is simple - follow Christ’s example as too how he demonstrated his respect to womanhood - and give your votes to Rev Standfield.
In the message of Salvation as mentioned in St John 3 verse 16 and 17, Christ Himself said: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved.”
A victory for Rev Standfield will prove that the sexist male militants who dominated the Presbyterian Church for centuries have had their day, and a true spirit of equality has finally engulfed the Church.
Regretfully, I equally believe that a heavy defeat for Rev Standfield could signal yet another forward step for the Hyper Calvinist faction within Presbyterianism.