By Victor Gordon
Last year, she was involved in a three-way tie with the eventual winner Dr Michael Barry and the Rev Ian McNie (the first vote was 5-5-5). But there was a wide gap at Tuesday night’s election when Mr McNie made it with 12 votes, against Mrs Hughes’ four, followed by the Rev Frank Sellar (two) and the Rev Robert Bell (one). The Presbyteries of Ards, North Belfast, South Belfast and Derry/Donegal voted for Mrs Hughes.
Mrs Hughes is minister at Whitehouse Presbyterian Church, Newtownabbey, Mrs Sellar is in charge at Bloomfield in east Belfast and Mr Bell at Ballyclare.
It is seen as another setback for women in the Presbyterian Church. Mr McNie is its 176th Moderator. None have been female, even though the church voted in the mid-1970s to admit women clerics.
Mr McNie will take up post in June and is from the “conservative evangelical” branch of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). He has stated he would not be supportive of a woman leading the church.
The 64-year-old father-of-two attracted the support of 12 of Ireland’s 19 Presbyteries, one of the highest majorities in recent years in a church which votes in a conservative and a moderate in alternate years in a bid to satisfy both branches of Presbyterianism.
But even though woman are fully-fledged ministers, conservative male minister are given the “opt-out” right to exclude them from their pulpits which has caused much controversy over the years. The Rev Ruth Patterson was the first woman minister ordained in the PCI but she, too, failed in her bid to become Moderator a few years ago.
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 its pulpit. And on the night of her licensing service, the then minister, the Rev Desmond Knowles, stayed away on the grounds of conscience.
Mrs Hughes accepted the policy, but in a recent interview with the Portadown Times she said she was perturbed that, of the 400 clerics in the PCI, only around 20 are female – “perhaps the policy makes aspiring female ministers think twice”.
The former Portadown College student began her ministry in High Street Antrim where she was ordained and spent eight years as a missionary in the Caribbean. She is married to Brian and they have two daughters, Sarah and Bethan.