Kōrero: Presbyterian Church

Whārangi 3. Church structure and culture

Ngā whakaahua

The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is part of the Christian Reformed tradition, whose 16th-century founders included John Knox, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli. The tradition stresses the importance of the Bible (‘the word of God’) over the teachings of the church, which is structured through a hierarchy of church courts rather than a hierarchy of people. Courts make decisions to avoid the risk that individual leaders might abuse their spiritual power.

Church courts and the moderator

Courts are based at three different levels: local (sessions and parish councils), regional (presbyteries), and national (the general assembly). These courts set the direction and oversee the welfare of the church at their particular level. They are made up of ministers and elders (lay officials). The general assembly meets every two years and elects a new leader: the moderator – who can be a minister or an elder – who heads and speaks for the church during their term in office.

Spreading the word

The beginning of a traditional Presbyterian church service was often signalled by the carrying of a Bible into the church and its solemn placement on the pulpit, lectern or communion table. At the end of the service the Bible was carried out again to emphasise the conviction that the word of God should be taken into the world.

 

Services of worship

In the 19th century Presbyterian church services were simple and severe. Following Calvin’s lead, the singing of psalms (unaccompanied by musical instruments) was preferred to hymn singing. A typical sermon was 45 minutes long. By 1900 most churches had embraced hymns led by an organist. After 1950 worships styles became more diverse, reflecting the needs and aspirations of individual congregations. Shorter sermons, more regular communion services, the singing of praise choruses, unrehearsed prayer, and even dance made services much less austere. Most lasted an hour.

Burning bush

A symbol that became a Presbyterian Church emblem was the burning bush. It recalls a Bible story in which God talks to Moses through a burning bush, telling him to lead his enslaved people from Egypt to freedom in Israel. The story highlights two important Presbyterian beliefs: the power of God, and the need for people to be God’s emissaries. An image of a burning bush is often found on church lecterns and other furniture.

 

Symbolism

Traditionally, the interiors of Presbyterian churches were plain and devoid of religious imagery, reflecting the Reformed tradition’s reaction against anything that could be perceived as an idol and lead to superstition. Some churches allowed stained-glass windows or featured a cross on the wall. Ministers avoided the colourful vestments of Catholic and Anglican priests, restricting themselves to a black Genevan preaching gown. From the 1950s the growth of the ecumenical movement saw ministers adopt the ‘ecumenical alb’ (a long white robe). The rise of the charismatic movement – with its emphasis on freedom in worship – within the Presbyterian Church led many ministers to dispense with vestments altogether and wear ordinary clothes.

A communion of equals

The participatory nature of Presbyterianism is highlighted in the sacrament of communion. This recalls Jesus Christ’s last meal before his crucifixion and is commemorated through the sharing of blessed bread and wine. Traditionally, white cloths were placed on pews and the communion table to give the impression of everyone being seated at one table. The church elders (officials) sat beside the minister at the communion table. The minister served them communion, then the elders served the congregation. Traditionally the communion service was held only four times a year to retain its sacredness, but by the 21st century many congregations had moved to monthly or even weekly services – something that both Knox and Calvin had advocated.

Baptism compromise

Baptism signals a person’s entry into the Christian faith and incorporation into church life. It is one of two sacraments the church recognises (the other is communion). The Presbyterian Church has traditionally practised infant baptism. However, the rising influence of evangelicals in the church – many of whom believe baptism should follow a personal declaration of faith – led some ministers to support adult baptism only. The church allows ministers liberty of conscience on the matter, provided they make infant baptism available on request.

 

Subcultures

The devolved nature of decision making in the church meant individual parishes were relatively free to develop their own subcultures. Historically, this was expressed in socio-political terms – how conservative or liberal a congregation was. As the church became more ethnically diverse, new subcultures emerged. Some parishes forged multi-ethnic congregations with ministries that built cross-cultural understanding. Others consisted of mainly one ethnic group, with ministries strongly rooted in that group’s culture.

Accommodating difference

Such diversity can create problems when the church seeks unity on particular issues. This was highlighted in the 2010 general assembly when the church reaffirmed its ban on gay people and people in de-facto relationships holding church leadership positions – an emotive issue since the mid-1990s. Some opponents of the ban pledged to ignore it. Despite such differences, all parishes remained united by the Presbyterian belief in the primacy of the Bible.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'Presbyterian Church - Church structure and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/presbyterian-church/page-3 (accessed 19 September 2019)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Mar 2017