With a visit from the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Rev Douglas Robertson, at the service in Wodonga and the meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in Ballarat in just under a fortnight, I thought it would be a good time to think about the way the church is run. (You can read about Douglas’ other visits on his blog moderator08.wordpress.com).
Some churches believe that the ultimate expression of the church is the local congregation, so they vest all the power of decisionmaking with the local congregation. We call this Congregational church government.
Other churches believe that the ultimate expression of the church is the collection of all congregations under one head. In these cases, some decisions may be made by the local congregation, but the big concerns are decided by a bishop, archbishop, Pope or Patriarch. We call this Episcopal church government.
Presbyterianism is a system of church government, more so than a kind of theology, although the two usually go hand-in-hand. In Presbyterianism decisions are taken by elders or people whom the elders entrust with decision-making. In the local congregation, elders usually give responsibility for the buildings and physical needs of the congregation to a committee elected by the congregation. At the Presbytery and Assembly level committees are also appointed to investigate options, recommend actions and to carry out the decisions of the Presbytery or Assembly. These “courts” are not more important the higher you go, rather they are different courts that oversee different responsibilities shared by every congregation and coordinated at the most effective level.
Moderators do not call the shots, like a bishop does. In fact, his only responsibilities are to chair the General Assembly, chair a number of Assembly committees and visiting local congregations. One of the first meetings the Moderator chairs is the one that will choose his successor! The recently inducted Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in the State of New South Wales, Rev Chris Balzer, recently told their state newsletter The Presbyterian Pulse:
In the 19th century the Moderator of the NSW Assembly used to chair the Assembly then get on his horse and go home, and that’s the sort of role I think it ought to be.
The word Moderator means chairman. Yet the role seems to have become a year-long position requiring attendances as a figurehead and I think many Ministers have refused nomination in the recent past because of this ‘other role’ not specifically commanded by the Assembly.
The Presbyterian Pulse July 2009, page 7.
I recommend the Wikipedia article on Presbyterian polity, which I had a large hand in rewriting. A very valuable resource is the Introduction to the Presbyterian Church of Australia (or pdf), published by the General Assembly of Australia Code Committee in 2004. It outlines in better detail how the different parts of the church are meant to operate. You can also read the Presbyterian Form of Church Government drawn up by the Westminster Assembly between 1643 and 1649. For a detailed list of regulations showing how the church runs, see the Presbyterian Church of Victoria Code and the Presbyterian Church of Australia Code.