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NEWS AND VIEWS FOR MINISTERS ISSUE 14 // SEPTEMBER 2014
The Role and Function
Candour is a bi-monthly publication. The
editor of Candour is minister emeritus the
Rev Dr Bob Eyles.
ISSN 1171-1027 (Print)
ISSN 1179-402X (Online)
The articles in Candour reflect the views
Ray Coster, Moderator, Presbyterian Church
of individual ministers or contributors Aotearoa New Zealand writing in a personal capacity. They are not representative of the Church’s official
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The Special Nature of Call
Collegiality Ray Coster, Moderator Presbyterian Church Aotearoa New Zealand T his will be my final article to you as Moderator. It has been an absolute joy and delight to have walked these past two years with you, meeting so many people at presbytery gatherings, chaplaincy settings, parishes and a few who serve in the “marketplace”. It was one of my goals when I set out two years ago to have at least one hour with every minister over a cup of coffee – simply to show my support and appreciation for the part you play in the life of the Presbyterian Church. I regret that I have not achieved that goal and I do apologise to those that I have not had some one-on-one time with. Suffice to say that I hold all of you who have dedicated your lives to serve the gospel in the highest honour. Thank you for all that you do.
This Candour is on the role and function of presbyteries. It has been my delight to have been involved in the inauguration of four of the new Presbyteries: Kaimai (before I was Moderator), Central, Pacific Islands and Alpine and I have attended gatherings of the other presbyteries. There are many positive aspects of the new presbytery model and some things that still need to be worked on to reach the ideal we have for our church.
A s a Church I believe that trust, or rather lack of trust in each other, is holding us back in our mission.
One of the issues that I believe we need to concentrate on together is our collegiality. The sense of collegiality in ministry has always been one of the strengths of the Presbyterian Church in times past. Central to our collegiality is our presbytery. Spending time with each other – ministers and elders together – is crucial for our well-being as a Church.
I recently spent time attending a function in the Great Hall at Parliament. A long-serving politician reflected that this room once had eight pool tables and that some of the best political discussion took place in that context. Today there are no pool tables and most politicians spend their time in their rooms looking at a computer screen. The importance of collegiality is more than friendship and time – it leads to good decisions and determines the culture of the organisation.
As most of our new presbyteries only meet twice a year, I believe that we are losing some of the collegiality we once enjoyed. This is especially a concern for the collegiality between ministers and elders. The intent was that our cluster groups would ensure this collegiality continued. My experience is that in many parts of the country these groups have yet to reach their potential. As our sense of collegiality lessens, so does our commitment to each other in presbyteries. And this is not unique to the Presbyterian Church. As I have spent time with fellow moderators from the Uniting Church of Australia I have heard them lament the lack of commitment of some of their ministers towards presbytery meetings. We will build strong presbyteries when we all commit to making them strong and work for the good of all.
As a Church I believe that trust, or rather lack of trust in each other is holding us back in our mission. As much as I wish it were otherwise my experience is that some still want to put people in boxes of their choosing. For example, when speaking of colleagues some ministers will ask me things like, “Is he liberal?” or “Is she evangelical?” Our sense of collegiality must rise above our differences. I am always very conscious that in the early Church people living with a resurrection mind-set understood that it is not “sinful” to hold different viewpoints or understanding about aspects of our Christian faith, but it is wrong to fall out of fellowship with other followers of Jesus.
A number of years ago a youth pastor shared with me his perception of our Church: “The biggest problem of Presbyterians is that they work well together, but they don’t play well together”.
Collegiality is learning to play well together as well as working well together. It’s very hard to criticise someone when we have spent time with them in prayer, shared a coffee, played a game of golf, had them for a meal in our home… or any other number of ways of building a deep sense of collegiality. Then we begin to see the heart and depth in the other, rather than focus on a viewpoint that we may disagree on.
I t is not “sinful” to hold different viewpoints...
about aspects of our Christian faith, but it is wrong to fall out of fellowship with other followers of Jesus.
Collegiality is all about growing in understanding, appreciation and respect for the other. My prayer for our Church is that we as ministers and elders – as colleagues – will enhance and develop further our sense of collegiality – for the sake of the Lord of our Church who prayed “that they may be one as we are one… May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me”.
In my final article I also want to record my deep appreciation to Bob Eyles for the fantastic ministry he has as editor of Candour. Much appreciation Bob, from all your colleagues.
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I n Reformed and Presbyterian churches the presbytery is the governing body between congregations and synods or general assemblies. Typically comprising equal numbers of ministers and elders from each congregation, they are presided over by an elected moderator. Ordained ministers in other roles (theological education, social services, church administration or retired) are also members, and equality in the numbers of ministers and elders is maintained by the appointment of additional elders.
It may seem strange to remember that in New Zealand, elders pushed for the development of presbyteries because they wanted to be able to participate in the running of their Church. Where the culture of the eldership is stronger than that of ordained ministers the tone of presbytery business can be noticeably more relaxed and its processing less of a minefield. Our church is congregational as well as Presbyterian and both traditions have always been closely related. Congregationalists also had forums which overarched individual congregations – especially for mission as the London Missionary Society now the Council for World Mission illustrates.
E lders pushed for the development of Presbyteries because they wanted to be able to participate in the running of their Church.
Presbyteries have powers to select, licence, ordain and discipline ministers and to visit parishes.
They implement national policies, deal with disputes and seek to resolve conflict. They debate issues referred by general assemblies and may overture assemblies on issues of policy or discipline. They provide a voice for lay leadership. They may raise funds and employ staff. Their rituals transmit and modify narratives of faith, process and identity. They can be energising sources for mission.
Like any participatory forum, they can also be arenas for party politics, personalities and conflict.
In Roman Catholicism, a presbytery is a residence for priests or religious, and part of the sanctuary reserved to priests. For us “Womens’ presbyterials” were meetings held at the same time as presbytery.
Presbyteries as regional courts of Reformed and Presbyterian churches originated in 16th century Switzerland, France and Scotland as a product of both political circumstance as well as theological principle. Unlike Scotland, Reformed churches in Hungary retained bishops.
Presbyteries have nurtured participatory democracy and believe it or not, have been threats to political powers. A Presbyterian theology of the Church has often been defined by concern for freedom of religion.
Recently there has been a tendency to reduce the number of courts between congregations and general assembly and for ethnic synods to develop similar powers to geographical presbyteries. In America and New Zealand presbyteries have become more like synods allowing for more efficient pooling of resources to handle administration. The multicultural nature of the Church raises issues about whose culture of decision-making should be followed and what provision is needed for minorities.
There are parallels between the experience of presbytery and the development of democracy, as well as the pitfalls involved in seeking to develop these structures in other cultures. Missionary presbyteries have been empowering of local Christian leadership, and sometimes of women, but they have not been spared the politics of control by local or expatriate forces or the sense of their being, at times, unnatural constructs.
ARTICLE Early presbyteries developed most clearly where convictions about the “priesthood of all believers” combined with a vision for a biblically based Christian community embracing the whole of society (like Israel in the Old Testament) which lacked the alternative of a “godly prince” to implement their vision. Reformers gaining power faced huge questions surrounding finance, leadership, education, and lifestyle and not just theology.
In Scotland the First Book of Discipline of 1560 provided for General Assemblies and weekly “exercises” in biblical theology. Presbyteries evolved in the 1570s from general sessions of elders and ministers operating across several congregations and as an alternative to episcopacy as bishops got entangled in politics. Support for presbytery became synonymous with the rejection of bishops, which also meant that presbyteries took over their roles. In 1581 the Scottish General Assembly decided to establish model presbyteries and the records of the Presbytery of Stirling created on 8 August 1581 still exist. The Form of Presbyterial Church Government drawn up by the Westminster Assembly and adopted by the Scottish General Assembly in 1645 is still a classic description, but in every generation we actually have to work out what is most appropriate for the church and society of our time.
Author’s Note: This is adapted from John Roxborogh “Presbyteries” in G T Kurian, ed., ‘The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization’, Oxford, Blackwell, 2011.
I come to this question of the role of presbyteries as someone who is not steeped in the Presbyterian tradition. My adult life until coming to Knox 12 years ago was spent in the context of Baptist churches, except for three years when I found refuge in the local Presbyterian church after resigning from Baptist ministry. However I was never involved enough to learn much about how it related to the wider Presbyterian Church, my assumption being that things by and large were determined locally, as they were in the Baptist context.
The next 13 years were spent with the Bible College of New Zealand, an interdenominational context which gave me some more understanding and appreciation. I mention this to give an awareness of the perspective I bring on the role of presbyteries.
In my doctoral research, which looked at how New Zealand churches adapted to the rapid changes impacting on them in and since the 1960s, one of the conclusions I came to is that churches like the Baptists did better because they were able to adapt more rapidly as they could make decisions locally.
Churches like the Presbyterians and Anglicans were handicapped, sometimes because they were hamstrung by regulations that prevented them from taking the action they wished to, or on other occasions when they had to wait to get permission from other bodies.
C ollegiality, support and networking is the heart of what Presbyterianism is about.
That research ended in 2000 and since then conditions have become much more challenging for churches, so much so that they are often beyond what a local church or parish can deal with on its own.
By the time I came to Knox and became involved with the Presbyterian Church in 2003, I gradually appreciated its presbytery structure as a significant benefit, particularly since the Baptists had almost completely stripped away the limited connectional life they did have. Many would point out that the Presbyterian Church has engaged on a similar journey, and there is truth in that.