Portadown-born Rev Liz Hughes almost stood the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) on its head last week when she came within one vote of being the first woman Moderator in its 500-year history.
The former Portadown College student was in a three-way tie in the first vote, level 5-5-5 with the ultimate winner Dr Michael Barry (Newry), and Rev Ian McNie (Ballymoney). But the second vote by the 19 Irish Presbyteries saw Dr Barry edge it on a 7-6-6 majority. Had her original ‘home’ Presbytery of Armagh voted for her, she would have made it. But Armagh is known for its ultra-conservative views.
The effusive Mrs Hughes (nee Stevenson) – who has worked hard for women’s equality in her 30 years as a minister – sees it as a significant move forward in a church that is rather ambivalent towards its female clerics.
The first Presbyterian women minister (Rev Ruth Patterson) was ordained 40 years ago after the General Assembly allowed females into the profession. But four decades later, dissenting male clerics can still exclude women from their pulpits.
Mrs Hughes’ experiences are testament to that policy. In 1985, in her ‘home’ church of First Portadown (Edenderry), she was licensed to the Presbyterian ministry. But she never got to preach from the its pulpit. And on the night of her licensing service, the then minister Rev Desmond Knowles stayed away on the grounds of conscience.
But you won’t hear a murmur of personal dissent from Mrs Hughes. “I understood his reason and we agreed to differ,” she said. “My ambition to become a Presbyterian minister was fuelled by the Biblical ethos of First Portadown – I grew up under the influence of Rev William Craig, and you couldn’t have had a better mentor.” Her parents – Faith Mission couple Walter and Rita Stevenson – had a big influence on her Christian calling.
The then Liz Stevenson had graduated from Queen’s University (BA in English) after which she qualified as a nurse in Edinburgh Infirmary – “But I felt the healing of the mind and soul were just as important as the healing of the body, and entered the Presbyterian ministry”.
Her first post was as assistant in High Street Antrim, where she was ordained. Ironically, her predecessor as assistant there was Stafford Carson, later minister of First Portadown, PCI Moderator (2009-10) and a well-known opponent of the ordination of women.
“But Stafford and I are firm friends,” said Mrs Hughes. “He recently took over as principal of the Bible College where male and female ministers are trained. He assured us he would assiduously follow the church’s principles of treating male and female students equally.” But she is still perturbed that, of the 400 clerics in the PCI, only around 20 are female – “perhaps the policy makes aspiring female ministers think twice”.
During her Antrim days, she felt the calling to minister overseas, with Jamaica and Indonesia her favoured alternatives. And it was at this stage she met and married missionary Brian Hughes, stationed in Jamaica, so it was off to the Caribbean for eight years.
“We had 13 churches between us, right across Jamaica!” she recalled. “They were such enriching years, but we experienced hurricanes and earthquakes – a time we’ll never forget.”
Their two daughters (Sarah and Bethan) were born during this period, although Liz returned to Northern Ireland to give birth. And they finally came back home when she joined First Bangor as associate minister and then took over in Whitehouse, Newtownabbey, in 2000. Brian, meanwhile, became Chaplain at the City Hospital, and is a member of his wife’s church.
Whitehouse hit the headlines in the early 21st century, being the subject of an arson attack three time, the third in 2002 when it was reduced to a shell.
“But it had a positive side,” she said. “The wider Protestant and Catholics communities really rallied round, and we have established a truly cross-community ethos to the area. One example was that people from St John’s in Portadown came to our Alpha Course. It hit me rather forcibly that I never had the chance to meet these good people during my days in divided Portadown, and yet I sat down with them in Christian Fellowship in Whitehouse.”
Liz Hughes is “more humbled and gobsmacked than disappointed” that she came within a whisker of leading the PCI into the 2014-15 session and wishes Moderator Elect Dr Barry “God’s richest blessing” as he takes up the reins in June.
But there is no doubt they have their differences within the PCI, which is a broad church and felt the need to introduce the so-called “get-out” clause for the male clerics opposed to the ordination of women.
In an interview on BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘Sunday Sequence’, Dr Barry made his opposition to the ordination of women clear to presenter William Crawley, adding that he would be willing to attend a Roman Catholic Church but would not take part in an RC service.
Mrs Hughes, though, insisted that this side to Dr Barry’s ministry overshadowed the many positive aspects of Christianity for which he stands – “his compassion for the under-privileged, his desire to cross political barriers and his sound Christian theology.”
She truly wants to see the gender barriers broken down and would not be averse to her name going forward again.