What is the primary function of a presbytery? Section 8.3 of the Book of Order describes it in terms of facilitating and resourcing the life, worship, spiritual nurture and mission of the congregations for which it has responsibility.
Noticeably absent from the above description are references to: (1) the function of governance, or oversight; and (2) to the presbytery as a court of the church.
It could be argued that these things are implied rather than stated – for example, the Book of Order says that “a presbytery may exercise executive, judicial and administrative functions” (8.2(1)), and that, in performing its functions, a presbytery “may exercise its authority” over its constituent churches and in relation to any matter committed to its charge by the General Assembly (8.2(2)). However, the word “may” seems to suggest that these things are occasional and optional rather than integral to the role of presbytery.
One suspects that the governance role, including that of being a court of the church, has been deliberately downplayed so as to avoid portraying the presbytery in authoritarian terms, and to avoid weakening the primary emphasis on facilitating and resourcing the life and mission of congregations.
There is something to be said, however, for giving renewed emphasis to the governance role of presbytery. Why? Mainly because of the Greek word episkopos, meaning “overseer”. The word appears just a handful of times in the New Testament. In the likes of Acts 20:28 and Titus 1:7 it is used in close connection with the word presbuteros (“presbyter”, usually translated as “elder”), and seems to suggest that: (a) for the Apostle Paul the words episkopos and presbuteros were used interchangeably, and as synonyms for church leaders; and (b) a key part of the New Testament’s portrayal of the role of elders (presbuteroi) is the provision of oversight (episkopeo) of the church.
Different church traditions have understood this episcopal or oversight role in different ways. Some traditions have created a separate office of Bishop (which is presumed in the King James Version of the Bible when it translates episkopos not as “overseer” but as “bishop”). These are sometimes referred to as episcopal churches. In the Anglican Church, for example, there are three categories of ordained ministry: episkopoi (bishops), presbuteroi (presbyters or priests) and diakonoi (deacons).
It is sometimes said that, because the Presbyterian Church does not have bishops, we are a non-episcopal church. Not so. We just understand the notion of episcopacy differently. For episcopal churches, the episcopal function, and the apostolic authority that goes with it, is tied to a historical succession of bishops. For Presbyterians, episcopal oversight is provided not by an individual person but by a presbytery consisting of presbuteroi (presbyters/elders) serving as a kind of corporate overseer/bishop. Thus in our tradition it is presbyteries, not bishops, that ordain Ministers of Word and Sacrament through prayer and the laying on of hands; and it is from presbyteries, not bishops, that ministers and congregations take direction and correction.
Interestingly, in The Plan for Union (1971), which, had it been approved, would have seen five denominations, including the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists, form one Church, provision was made for the office of Bishop. It described the office as “historic”, saying that “it is a symbol and agent of the unity and continuity of the Church and its ministry with the witnesses of our Lord’s death and resurrection.” It further described six episcopal functions, summarised as follows:
- To promote mission and evangelism;
- To provide pastoral oversight, particularly of ministers;
- To ensure the truths of the Christian faith are taught, and to state the doctrines of the Church;
- To ensure the norms of Christian worship are observed, and to encourage and guide new developments in worship;
- To be responsible for fostering recruitment to ministry, for the pastoral care of those in training, and to ordain those who complete their training and are appointed to ministry positions;
- To authorise presbyters and deacons to minister.
It is an interesting exercise to compare the above list of episcopal functions from The Plan for Union with the list of presbytery functions contained in section 8.4 of our Book of Order. The first thing that strikes one is the difference in number: six (Plan for Union) versus thirty-five (Book of Order). No wonder some of our presbyteries are feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced!
Secondly, although many of the thirty-five presbytery functions could be grouped to fall under the six episcopal functions listed in The Plan for Union, there are some notable gaps, especially around the areas of doctrine and worship. In regards to the latter, the Book of Order says the function of presbytery is to “facilitate worship” among the congregations for which it has responsibility by ensuring that: (a) the Scriptures are read; (b) the gospel is proclaimed; and (c) the sacraments are made readily available. But facilitating worship (whatever that means) falls far short of the sort of oversight and direction expected of a Bishop under The Plan for Union; and ensuring the Scriptures are read, the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are made readily available falls far short of “promoting the growing together of the whole Church in unity of spirit and worship” expected of a Bishop in The Plan for Union.
Thirdly, the functions of presbytery in the Book of Order are generally described in terms that are more passive than the corresponding episcopal functions in The Plan for Union. We have already noted that in regards to worship, but the same is true of mission. “Recognising new forms of mission” (Book of Order, section 8.4(1)(p)) is not as dynamic and proactive as “promoting mission and evangelism” (Plan for Union).
The net effect of all this is a weakening of the episcopal function in Presbyterianism. To be sure, we see it operating at a practical level when a presbytery performs certain tasks, such as ordaining and inducting ministers, or appointing commissions and settlement boards, or forming and dissolving congregations, but the Book of Order offers no explanation as to why these sorts of tasks are the responsibility of presbytery. In other words, the Book of Order tells us what presbytery does, but not why. And in the absence of the why, we are denied a larger view of the purpose and scope of episcopal responsibility, and we see neither how individual tasks fit within a larger framework nor what additional tasks might perhaps be undertaken to better fulfil the function.
In recent decades, the weakening of presbytery’s episcopal function has been accentuated by the erosion of presbytery capacity. Internal denominational conflict and institutional decline have had a devastating effect. Many congregations are at best diffident, and at worst distrustful, towards the wider Presbyterian Church, including the presbytery. Recent moves towards a smaller number of larger presbyteries and a deliberate casting of the presbytery role in terms of facilitating and resourcing the life and mission of local congregations, are attempts to address the capacity issue and to revitalise our structures, but they may yet prove to be masking the problems rather than solving them.
One of the biggest weaknesses of the corporate episcopal model is that it is very dependent on the amount of buy-in from the presbyters (ministers and elders) and congregations that comprise its structures. The lower the level of buy-in, the lower the levels of sustainability and effectiveness. And that is a major challenge for our denomination right now. I suspect that before too long we will find ourselves discussing not just how to restructure and revitalise our existing presbyteries (like flogging the proverbial dead horse?), but how do we understand the episcopal function today, and what structures and processes are best able to fulfil that function. It would be nice to think that we could have that discussion because we think it’s important, not because it’s forced upon us.
 For implementation, The Plan for Union needed the support of all five negotiating churches. Four supported it, but it failed by just a handful of votes in the Anglican Church’s House of Clergy. A second vote a few years later got the requisite level of support, but by then the House of Bishops had started to cool on the idea and in 1976 the Anglican Church’s General Synod voted not to proceed any further. That spelt the end of it, much to the regret of those who had spent 15 years or more promoting the vision of a united Church in this country. However, whilst denominational unity was no longer on the cards, congregational unity and cooperation was, and the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand (UCANZ) was borne with the purpose of advancing that vision. Congregations that wanted to embrace an ecumenical future had two main options: (1) Become a cooperating parish in which some or all of the partners agree to share ministry, worship, buildings and other aspects of local church life; (2) Become a union parish in which some of the partners (other than the Anglican Church) unite to form one parish.
This piece was first published in the September 2014 edition of Candour.