Simon is senior minister at St Peter’s Tauranga
I often hear people complaining about ‘Assembly’, or about the way that Presbyterians ‘Debate’. I want to stand up and be counted, I want to shout from the roof-tops that Presbyterian Style is best! It is a style of democratic participation that harnesses the best of many people and balances the excesses of the few; we believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through the people discerning together. Our system grew out of the Westminster style of government, which is a fabulous way to represent and involve the population in their own government.
What are the values that I see in our polity?
- Publicly contestable truth. In our system people can stand up and proclaim the truth as they see it. Which is great. And other people can stand up and question some of the things that are put forward as truth. This is great for both liberal and conservative, members who go to Assembly are exposed to other points of view. When the apostles gathered in Jerusalem, people were exposed to another point of view.
- Publicly accountable leaders. In our system our leaders and our governors are subject to the review of the members. In our system, the Council of Assembly can come up with great ideas, but they must be tested and approved by the people. We have a system where important decisions are not simply made by a few, in a holy room.
- Group discernment. I love it that we now have discussion and discernment as well as debate, we can come together to pray and to consider. We can come together not just for an ‘Amway Conference’ where we are encouraged to ‘sell’ harder; but we can go deeper and we the people set the agenda, as seems right to us and the Holy Spirit. Now I think we could do better in setting agendas that help us to make the right level of decision, and not getting caught but in too much detail, but it is exciting to see that together we can map a way forward.
- Collegiality. The Presbyterian system of church, with elders (Presbyters) and Presbyteries was actually designed for the whole church and not a denomination and so it is at its best when we share with others in our region. In Tauranga the idea of Presbytery is reflected in the Pressie ministers having lunch together every week, and our sharing in the Tauranga Ministers Association. We do well when we advocate to other church leader a model where leadership is shared, pastor and elders working together; whatever tradition we come from. I love the way that our regional connection is a gift in times of conflict, when a brother or a sister from a neighbouring church helps us out; and when we are searching for a new minister.
My biggest concerns would be that we need to use our system with respect, not to see debate as a game, but as a serious process of spiritual discernment. I am worried that too often we look backwards and we structure our church to reflect the concerns of an earlier age. I believe that the driving force for renewal in the Presbyterian church should be this question: ‘If a group of people or a church planter has grown a church to a size of 50 to 60 people and they are looking for a denomination to join that would provide them property trusteeship, collegial support and a scaffold to help grow their church and their leaders; then how could we restructure the PCANZ to serve that group of people?’ I believe that if we could become attractive to new congregations that would help us serve our older congregations better.