A less regulatory church – Martin Stewart

I wonder a lot about how we are going to get through this season of decline in the church.
We’ve been told for long enough that emerging generations of Christians do not relate to or own denominational distinctiveness – they relate to a community of living, kind and faithful people.  In light of this, I think we have to loosen up and be more enabling of what these people are saying to us!  I figure that a continuation of our regulatory approach to things will not help here.  The Book of Order will not save us!  The denomination exists for good reasons and in many cases for healthy reasons.  But the denomination will not save us either.  It is the Lord of the church, not the church that saves!
I have been at a few ordinations and inductions of ministers lately, and the whole formula thing just makes me cringe.  I understand that ministers need to have accountability and oversight by the Presbytery, but the inclusion of the wordy and other-worldly references to the confessions just makes me shudder inside.  And what annoys me the most is that we make a contract of it.  The formula has to be signed before the person can be ordained or inducted.  No grace here friends!  I see ‘the formula of belief’ as an attempt to straight-jacket what the Spirit may or may not say to the church in this time by attempting to tie us all to an old argument.  The ongoing reference to The Westminster Confession is a joke.  It is so in the past.  It has a place in our story, but to have to sign up to it and other subordinate standards (that most of us don’t read and don’t care to read) is laughable.  That we roll all this stuff out at ordinations and inductions just leaves the people in the pew mystified.  Who cares?   I know some care.  But I don’t buy their worldview.  And, underneath it is a more sinister threat – that if a minister strays from this peculiar way of framing everything, she or he can be disciplined.  While I do think that ministers have some responsibilities in regard to the interpretation and conveying of the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ, we aren’t going to do well by one another to attend to any waywardness in a regulatory manner.
In light of the decline and the lack of interest in our denominational expression our church communities many of us are working to be user-friendly, relational, enabling, and quite a degree more casual than we once were.  Thus when we meet at congregational level, we meet relationally and minimise the things that would be divisive.  Where I am ministering, we try to operate on a no surprises basis. If there are big issues (and we have had a few) we introduce them informally, discuss them, listen, and quite often we adjust things because of the feedback we have received.  Eventually, when we bring a recommendation for vote, so very rare these days, we achieve very high buy-in.  Our life together is far too valuable to risk it in some split decisions over things that really don’t matter.  And wait for this… the Book of Order has not been present, or quoted.  We operate in the spirit of it and we have come to no harm.  Occasionally the Presbytery has reminded us of some regulatory responsibilities (like when we were forming The Village Church), but even then it was pretty obvious that the Book of Order (its regulations usually formed by dispute and tension) didn’t have a clue about establishing new forms of doing church.  Most of its stuff in the chapter concerning congregational form was around closing churches!  The Book of Order, formed by what has been, will always be behind us.  It has no pioneering bones, even though we need these more than ever!
Even when the Presbytery I am in meets (Alpine Presbytery) we have the Book of Order well in the background.  Our approach to problems and challenges is to first be pastoral, gracious and enabling, and we can fall back on regulations if we need to.  I might be a bit more unregulated than some, but I notice that the attitude of the parishes of the Presbytery to the Presbytery has improved exponentially as we have stepped back from attending to problems in a regulatory top down manner.  We relate, listen, adapt and enable as a first reflex.  Occasionally the Presbytery has to take a deep breath and look beyond the immediate in order to achieve what it thinks is right.  Mostly it works.
I was at the General Assembly last year. I found so much of the business quite appalling in how it was handled.  I don’t blame anyone – it is the system – but the ‘at each other’, lobbying, regulatory approach to the challenges before us seemed brutal compared to what I experience at parish level and Presbytery level.  The substantive issues were handled in the plenary gathering which is quite careless when it comes to being relational.  At Assembly level it is like we don’t need to care for one another because we only meet occasionally.  And what of the things we decided.  I struggle to remember many.  I think it is mostly irrelevant the life and vitality of our primary relational groupings – our churches.  At Assembly level we gather our congregations and Presbyteries and subject them to a way of operating that I hope and pray they never take home.  We need to move beyond that stuff if we are seriously wanting to reconnect with our communities.
Just a thought to finish with: when Jesus bumped up against regulatory behaviour, what did he do?  He told subversive stories (parables) and he responded graciously and generously to whoever was before him.  Why, in claiming to be his followers, have we become something other?



12 thoughts on “A less regulatory church – Martin Stewart

  1. Great Martin. It is people,people, people.Not control and “right” theology.
    Last Sunday we sang “You can’t go to heaven in a bake tin can. And we can’t go to heaven on the book of order.
    Janice Purdie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Being regulatory is not a crime. Every organisation on earth has its own regulations by which they run. We live in a country regulated to … and back. Regulation is not the culprit. How regulation is used is the culprit.

    Another matter I hear you writing about is that of doctrine. I think the Presbyterian Church in NZ has a history of taking doctrine seriously – and rightly so. The issue arises out of what doctrine we hold to important enough to take a position on.

    The above two points highlight the current problem within our Church – we are seeking to regulate doctrine that is not necessarily core to our belief. I get just as annoyed when Government seeks to legislate freedom.

    Tonight I’m going to be inducted into a new Parish (I hope you can make it Martin). There will be the usual clauses and phrases written and read. I’ll sign the same formula I have signed in previous parishes, and I will confess my discipleship to Jesus the Christ, my Saviour and Lord. Do I agree with everything in the Westminster Confession? Hell no! But I have liberty not to. I accept that this liberty has been regulated for me. I come from a church background that is very congregational. I accept that the regulations within the PCANZ provide necessary checks and balances for all those involved in the church. Because of this I choose to be part of a church family (PCANZ) who I feel cares for its people enough to have ‘constitution’ that shows that care.

    But regulating unnecessary doctrine…. let’s get a grip.


    • Hi Gene, I did make it for your induction and it was good to be alongside you, your family, our colleagues and the Temuka congregation for such a good day! But I confess I found myself looking out the window during that formal stuff and the wall of sheet metal on the big sheds over the road proved more interesting than the regulatory yak about adherence to commentaries and confessions. I am however not a total renegade and nor am I a wild deviant theologically or even doctrinally…but I struggle with the church providing a broom to force me to a way of seeing limited to how the church of the past has seen things. I, of course, do take the scriptures seriously, and I value the witness of the church behind us greatly, but I do not accept that how the church behind us has interpreted the scriptures in their life and times should confine our engagement with them now, for I believe in a God who has spoken and who still speaks, calling us in Christ from the future. It has always taken pioneers and prophets to shake the people of God out of their holding to what has been, their life hasn’t been all that comfortable, but that has been the call on them. In this tricky season, pioneers and prophets need to be given room. The Book of Order is largely a response to problems and at times immensely helpful, but it is not visionary and enabling in its style, thus is should be used very carefully in terms of its regulatory nature.


  3. Martin, thank you for addressing the seemingly forbidden subject of demographic decline – and offering some pointers as to how the Presbyterian Church might escape its ‘formulaic’ straight-jacket.

    I was using the lectionary readings for Candlemas: another jacket, but less a straight-jacket, because you can always supplement the scripture with more contemporary readings. In this case I used the T S Eliot poem, ‘Song for Simeon’, which contains the curious lines,
    “Now at this birth season of decease,
    Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
    Grant Israel’s consolation
    To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.”

    Perhaps we need to recognise more thoroughly that we are in a “season of decease” that can yet be a birth season if we allow the new to come through. As I have nearly a quarter-century until I am 80, I would hope to have some tomorrows with the Church, but only if it can bend to the wind/spirit.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I absolutely agree with you Martin.

    There is a different spirit in many organizations as well as in local churches which operate on a win-win basis and on a transparency- of-process basis. I remember moving from Gore High school to Menzies College way back in 1990 and experiencing that kind of release from rule-bound to people-centred.

    The Book of Order is deficient on many areas in which we naturally operate now. You will have found that when dealing with the earthquake aftermath in Christchurch. Ministry staffing is one area I can think of.

    I would love the spirit of the law to be what we follow instead of the letter. It works in small relational groups – how can we translate that willingness to work creatively to the larger groups in our church?

    Trust may be an issue. After one of the GA debates I was asking someone with a different point of view from me why we couldn’t make our own decisions within our own parishes where we knew the pastoral situation. The reply was that if we ‘broke the rules’, it would get in the papers and cause a scandal for the church! I thought we could have been credited with more media commonsense and trusted not to cause trouble in the sense he was thinking.



  5. Marty
    Someone said to me about 20 years ago now that denominationalism was dead and had been since before the ‘Church Union’ debates began, in fact the debates were an indication that it was already of little consequence. One might also say that the ‘church’ has been on the wane for as long and much of our response has been in defence of something that was already changing. One might also say that the rise of technology in our lives and the availability of social media have all contributed to the evolution of the nature of community, church and our reliance on structure and organization to give us identity. What is ‘church’ if it has no identity within this new social environment? The issue I think you are talking about is the evolution of practice and this means the way we do things but I sense that evolution of theology or the lack of it is more central to our concerns. I would dare to suggest that we have made theology so tightly bound to culture and organizational outcomes that we have killed the church ourselves. I think we are experiencing the death of the church just as we have the death of God and because we have stopped doing theology we have failed to see the emergence of the new. I wonder too if because of this we have limited our ability to do as you suggest; relate to a community of living, kind and faithful people. I agree with you that its is past time to loosen up and be more enabling of what non-church people are saying to us! I disagree however with your focus on regulation as our problem. This to me is still the presenting cultural stuff and not the identification of the alternative which for me is the theology stuff. As you have said; The Book of Order will not save us! The denomination exists for good reasons and in many cases for healthy reasons. But the denomination will not save us either. I would prefer to say that it is the theology that will save us, it is why we do what we do that makes it alternative and I am reminded of being told that the church was the only place where one could sit alongside people of differing politics, culture, interpretation and see them as fellow people on the journey of life. Doing it right was never the central issue. I agree wholeheartedly with your comments of the authorization rituals we use and if we think that the ritual makes us accountable we are in fantasyland. I would even go as far as to say that the making of contracts has contributed to the decline in efficacy of our calling and the strengths of vocational life. As you indicate ‘church’ is no longer about a regime driven by obedience. One has to believe but in what? Certainly not an organization bound by regulation, consumed with accountability and with being right and that righteousness being rooted in a theology that cannot be applied to life as we know it.
    On a positive note I think that you are right in saying that at congregational level many are working to be user-friendly, relational, enabling, and quite a degree more casual than we once were. Many meet relationally and try to operate on a no surprises basis. But I think the danger is that we minimize difference rather than see it as a contribution to a more just and workable outcome. Difference is not a problem until it is glorified as a problem. As you suggest the big issues (in terms of their potential to confuse) need to be treated carefully but that for me is the strength of our traditional organisational model. The minute we personalize issues we limit our ability to hear the collective mind and further, we begin to destroy the empathy needed for a faith community.
    As a deeply committed church person I have always had a very high respect for the mind of the General Assembly and I think that is because I have a high regard for the collective mind that is at the core of its decision making. That is until recent years when business has been relegated to the bit we wish we didn’t have to do and the bit we need to get through quickly that means easily. This has meant in my opinion, bad law, law that has no theological underpinning. The use of the word ‘mission’ indicates this lack of theological undergirding. I fear we have misused the book of order also in that we now treat it as law rather than a guide for process. A guide for process (a tried and workable how to do it) has become the rule book by which one is punished for wrongdoing. You are very right when you say that the Book Of Order is not about establishing new forms of ‘doing church’, because ‘church’ is more than the doing. And it is pleasing to hear that attitude community is valued and that perceived difficulties are approached by relating listening, adapting and enabling but I fear we are still dealing with organizational unity as opposed to ‘church’. I think that I have always been in a church where I have not known everyone, but I used to know of a lot more people than I do now, I used to feel a part of something greater than me, family, community, nation and world but now it is an organization I do not trust. How did this happen? It happened I think because I allowed it to become more about doing right than about enabling others to embrace what it means to be human today in a world that is now larger and more complex than it was, or at least it is now perceived to be.. It happened because I was too busy doing church as opposed to doing my theological thinking and then applying it to my doing. General Assembly use to help with that until it too became consumed with being right and imposing itself on others.
    I like your finishing thought Marty and like you I think that when Jesus bumped up against regulatory behaviour, he told subversive stories (parables) and he showed in his response a Way of being and doing that was rooted in grace and generosity


    • Thanks for your response Doug. I do want to hold out for a doctrine of God that is Trinitarian, Incarnational and I am really big about the Resurrection, God raises things – even the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (even though I am utterly clueless about how it all comes to be). So yes, theology is important, but not necessarily some time warp doctrinal and cultural interpretations of how God is and continues to be among us in Christ. (Gee, don’t I now sound traditional!) It is church law that I struggle with and you mention it in a way that worries me. What is church law but rules and regulations that in time straight-jacket us and the Holy Spirit. I love how Jesus lifted people out of a rules based faith into a broad sweeping view of a truth that will set us free. I worry about how quickly we seek to turn his wild grace into a legalism. This for me doesn’t mean an anything goes – I think wonky theology tends to let off a bad smell soon enough. My worry really is that we want, as Peter did on the mountain of transfiguration, to put a tent around things. To confine them. To insist that what we have seen is the truth rather than a window to the truth. Thus I have an aversion to isms – fundamentalism, evangelicalism, liberalism, and Presbyterianism (as well as nationalism, patriotism, racism, monetarism… the list is long – so much to worry about!). They are, for me, human constructs and forms self-blinkering. They are, for me, signs that we constantly wish to dominate others and usurp God’s sovereignty. The church of Jesus Christ has such a high calling to set God’s people free, but too often reduces itself to rob people of their freedom by behaving as a fallen power…don’t get me started! Hence my call for at least a less regulated church…one part of easing into the freedom and victory of Christ!


      • Marty,
        I welcome your comments surrounding law and I think one of the strengths and weaknesses of Presbyterian culture is that the law of the land is critiqued by ecclesiastical law and vice versa. This for me has put the book of order in a place of being a process tool. I suspect the GA and the judicial system of the land has lost faith in this objectivity we are now left with the ecclesiastical law seeking to fill the space left and take over. All it has left is to attack its own doctrine rather than keep it alive and evolving.
        But lets not throw out our process in search of objectivity. On the other note re theology, I am not sure the issue is the truth of what we say but rather what questions it generates. To be technical I guess its about the hermeneutic.


  6. Good to hear you speak out. There is no way I could sign the formula for becoming ordained as an elder any longer. It would not be honest. My wife and I now feel most comfortable and at home in a genuine inclusive parsh where what members believe is irrelevant but where what is done and shared is relevant to us and the world in which we live.


  7. your so right Marty, all that Westminster stuff is so pathetic. I was so disappointed at Assembly that some bright spark did the Maths and it didn’t add up and we had another vote. It would have been so post modern to have left it as it was. I think that’s what you are calling for, and lets face it in our parishes all that Assembly stuff is almost totally irrelevant except when it affects the Parish contribution to it all.


  8. Mart, thanks so much for your important and gutsy reflection. For a long while I thought adherence to key propositions marked out the faithful Christian confession. The problem, I now consider, and as you reiterate, is not that confession, or doctrine, or scriptural authority don’t matter, but that assent itself does not do the work of discipleship – assent itself doesn’t make a Jesus and Spirit inhabited life, as individuals, or as the body of Christ. A common life, in 2017 New Zealand is not served well by structures which rub against informality, openness and trust. Some regulations and church processes can be fair weather friends, but in my opinion, increasingly function as impairments in a context where ‘membership’ is easily misconceived, and the personal demands of average Kiwi family life make traditional notions of institutional commitment difficult to negotiate. The character of our people, communities and leaders will not be deepened by regulation, which is not to say that what we believe is simply private or inconsequential, but that the transforming Lordship of Jesus occurs in the hard work of habits and common life. Just so, our behaviour at GA seems to be obsessed with litigating propositions. I don’t think we will solve this problem by disseminating the church into the wider world as if ‘missional’ meant absconding from the call to work out visible church common life, and at times, dare I say it, remind the world that it is the world (I think Stanley Haeurwas might have said that).


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