Presbyterian heritage


This paper was presented to Duns Presbytery in February 2017

Some say that it is only possible to view the general through the particular: real examples are the best way to see something as it generally is. Now a whole dog is more than just a wagging tail: particular examples may not tell it all. Nevertheless I share two experiences of the Council of Assembly which highlight something which is complicated but important if the Church is to be faithful in its present task of engaging in the mission of God in the world now.

The Council of Assembly developed a Strategic Framework which it brought to the 2011 General Assembly for approval. It passed without question and successive years saw no real engagement. As well as the plan for the Trustees’ Report this framework informed spending around £70million annually for the vast majority of the General Assembly’s agencies. It was large-scale thinking hardly noticed.

The 2016 Assembly took nearly two hours, intruding into lunch, to investigate and debate the appointment of the new Ministries Council Secretary largely because her husband was being proposed to the same Assembly as the new Council of Assembly Secretary.

Both strategy and staffing are important. The issue of strategic direction for the ‘national’ church as articulated in the Strategic Framework received virtually no mention at any of the five Assemblies from 2011; an appointment which did not require Assembly approval was discussed for two hours.

Big, general (and of necessity slightly vague) issues are not addressed well by the Assembly. Specific issues are more readily grasped and discussed. It’s similar in local churches. A decision to spend quarter of a million pounds refurbishing halls or sanctuary can be agreed reasonably quickly (though that sort of spending has to be a strategic issue) while hours are spent debating the colour of the carpets. Something clear and definite is more attractive than something general and complex.

We cannot, though, leave determination of the overall strategic vision to a select few. We all need to be involved; and involvement needs to be made more possible.

But we stand in a tradition, recalled with particular clarity in this quincentenary of the start of the Reformation, which values principle and vision, and which (in the words of Ian Bradley in last month’s Life and Work) ‘values the theological insights and innovations made by [the Reformers] … and what we can still affirm in [Protestantism] and build on it.’ We cannot restrict ourselves to mere detail, though we must scrutinize carefully. We need to create vision. Together.

A second challenge is that of of co-operation. I am slightly depressed when our system of church government is described as ‘instutionalized distrust’. In presbyterianism (strictly ‘rule by elders’ – in the plural), no individual makes significant binding decisions; most are taken by some group or other, and virtually all decisions are subject to review in the main by another independent group. If you see that as instutionalizing distrust, the rallying cry might be: ‘Trust individuals to get on with it’.

But you can see things another way. Presbyterianism might, for profoundly theological reasons, advance a ‘doctrine of collaboration’ (which might find echoes in our understanding of the Trinity). Our processes might compel us to plan together, work together, and succeed – or not – together. Such a doctrine resists those who would like to get away with more, or who enjoy exercising power, or who don’t want the tiresome task of explaining what they’re thinking or planning.

Working well together requires clear thinking and communicating, and a willingness to explain one’s working. Often this is deeply helpful, if somewhat ponderous. If we had systems which allowed people to work well together speedily but carefully, we might do presbyterianism better. (And there are ways other than ours to do it).

One challenge facing us are the formal and procedurally demanding processes we insist upon. These suffocate the energy or life out of working together. Where other than the Assembly would collaboration engage six hundred colleagues simultaneously? Where else would one team member on a raised platform flanked by specialists and staff aim to ‘get through’ the Assembly the ideas developed by them, with as little comment as possible?

Serious but hard-to-encapsulate issues which require careful thinking are difficult to convey. Other organisations, though, have systems enabling alternative possibilities to be canvassed without putting proposers ‘at the bar’ with procedural and spatial clues (think of the layout of the Assembly Hall) which enhance a sense of the confrontational in Assembly decision-making.

The consequence of such a rigid, formal approach is disinterest. There is little clamour for commissions to the General Assembly. There were no Petitions nor Overtures from presbyteries to the 2016 General Assembly. Yet without such engagement, we hardly have presbyterianism at all.

One consequence is an increasing sense of separation between the thinking, planning and working of the ‘central church’ and that of the regional and local church. The hallways of ‘121’ are not populated by strange people or career clergy. it is almost as though there at two different churches at work. ‘What has George Street do to with Coldstream and Eccles?’ my friend David Taverner, Minister in those linked charges, might say.

The answer is, in some ways, quite a lot. There is a range of ‘national’ initiatives which ought properly to be carried out on that scale. Providing social care (with an annual budget well in excess of £40million), dealing with national government policies, producing printed resources for use throughout the church, providing legal advice and work, and operating a payroll and pension system for over one thousand people in parishes and the church offices are some. Devolving this to presbyteries would be inappropriate; individual congregations could hardly begin to address much of it.

But there is also a set of quite separate, different regional and local concerns. Worship is led, the sacraments are celebrated, funerals are conducted, roofs leak and are repaired, elders visit, ways of engaging with all sorts of communities are planned and developed and a very great deal of this never goes near Assembly agencies. Often, the Church offices have no need to make contact; that in itself creates the feeling that no-one cares (and may be compounded when, in time of need, no-one there seems to be around to take the call).

The two expressions of church are in some respects quite separate. If this pattern continues, there may be in effect two quite disconnected churches: one ‘national’, the other local (but present all across the nation). Let me stop there for a moment and try to capture the two problems I have tried to identify in a diagram.

Our system does not anticipate such division. The General Assembly voting members are drawn from congregations sitting within presbyteries. Yet Assembly decisions are mainly focused on the national church agenda, drawn up (in the absence of an alternative) by those working within Assembly agencies.

Until recently there has been no real connection between national strategic planning (necessary in a large organisation such as the church) and the needs and aspirations of local congregations. The Council of Assembly is undertaking road-shows to engage with the regional and local church. It will be interesting to see how this year’s Report reflects on this engagement. Even that initiative is from the national to the local. There is another direction, which lies at the heart of our system of church government: that is from the local to the national.

Both national and local / regional church matter, but there is (presently) one source of resourcing both. That is why we need, across the church, to be more collaborative.

The Strategic Framework helps determine where resources are best used: thinking has to be put into practice. The Strategic Framework connects with local vision and need mainly over stipends but also with other congregational activity through the Go For It Fund. (That Fund has a particular set of criteria which must be met in to receive funding these differ from the national Strategic Framework.)

A connection between the national picture and local expressions of Christian faith may be put bluntly: How much of our Ministries and Mission (M&M) contributions should be spent in congregations, and how much used for ‘national’ purposes? More importantly, from year to year, who makes these difficult and important decisions?

We have been able to avoid the question recently because the reducing number of ministers has eased, somewhat, the burden on the whole system and has allowed some flexibility. This was largely focused on presbyteries whose allocation has increased from 3% to 5% of their M&M allocation. This deliberate policy aimed to support regional planning and develop vision at a finer grain size than the ‘national’ but it will be interesting to see if regional church grasps the opportunity to plan. If it does not, the argument for national planning is strengthened despite the weaknesses I’ve outlined.

It’s about more than money. People are becoming scarcer, too; the number of available ministers decreases year on year. Resource questions will become sharper and more difficult even as their answers become more urgent.

So I want to offer two ways of overcoming what I have argued is a dislocation between the local and the national.

First, presbyteries should grasp the opportunity to think big, and if necessary in complex ways, about Christian witness, service and ministry in their areas. This is the time for creatively exercising faith, attempting what is new without prejudicing the good in what is older. Please don’t simply remit the M&M allowance back to congregations, unless there is a clear and well-argued reason for doing that.

Instead, use it to meet in conference, collaborate with other organisations and presbyteries to engage new expertise, explore how we might together meet the challenges of this new age. You have more resource available to you; please, use it.

Second, we should become who we are, and take the idea of a General ‘Assembly’ more seriously. Presbyteries should arrange to flex their muscles to make significant contributions. Let’s not debate Assembly agency issues to the exclusion of all else. The present dislocation in part comes from overstretched presbyteries which have stepped back from active involvement in General Assembly decision-making while the centrally-supported and staffed Council structure has not.

Presbyteries can better resource those who are commissioned so that they are able to engage with understanding. The Youth Delegates offer us a collaborative example. They stay in the same place, spend some free time reading the Reports for the next day, helping each other understand them, encouraging each other to frame good questions and supporting each other to ask them. Which presbyteries are organising themselves like this?

I’d be astonished if a Council convener wouldn’t jump at the change to engage with an interested group of commissioners keen to learn more in a less formal setting. Why don’t we help commissioners grapple with the material, understand the issues and ask the good questions?

When we meet in General Assembly, let’s be guided in part by presbyteries. Presbyteries can in their right bring matters directly to the Assembly. None was so brought in 2016. At the Methodist Conference that year the denomination’s regional structure brought three dozen suggestions, recommendations or requests for greater clarification of what was being done centrally. They have a much less cumbersome and formal system and that may assist them; we still have a robust, effective way of being heard. We are choosing not to use it.

What if there were two Overtures from presbyteries on each major Council report? This would help set that Council’s agenda for the coming year at least in in part informed by the needs and aspirations of the regional church. To complain that the slimmed-down Council structure limits regional involvement misses the point. Presbyteries should set the agenda from the start, at the Assembly. Presbyteries – and especially groups of them – are not too parochial for their needs to set national agendas. At least potentially, they offer a necessary dose of realism.

What if the Assembly gave over one or two days to consider the regional church point of view? A morning’s debate on a subject determined by presbyteries, followed by reports on what is happening in local churches, with themes perhaps identified by presbyteries who met and established common themes across Scotland? Why should Councils always set the agendas?

The irony is that those who stand at the front of the Assembly are, on the whole, deeply involved in local congregations and presbyteries. It is not the people who are at fault. It is not even the system. It is the use we make of it.

If we recapture a sense of our call as the people of God engaged together in the mission of God in contemporary Scotland and beyond, we will want to make use of all the processes already around to enable resources to be best placed to respond across the nation and beyond to Christ’s call.

We will engage in service and mission, continue to preach, pastor and proclaim that Christ is Lord in local places all over the place. That’s not a ‘national’ issue as much as it is a collective of local issues. We have gathered the local in sensible regional groupings (and we might want to refine and develop this for changed circumstances). Having done that, let’s make use of it.

It might just be, as I said at the start, that the general can only be seen through the specific. It might just be that an issue, or an insightful response, comes from examining particular cases. And we are more likely to see helpful particular cases in specific places, locally and regionally, than we are if we start from a large but vague overall view imported from elsewhere.

If the General Assembly were to take some of its cue from regional issues it might gain more traction. We might even become more able to things better by learning to do them well together. Are we going to take this step of greater collaboration in a different way, though one which is clearly open to us? And is this what God is calling us to do at this challenging time?

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