In my time doing this blog and watching global Presbyterianism, one of the things that has caught my attention has been the variation between different traditions about who speaks for the denomination.
Now, it is first worth noting that when it comes to pronouncements, particularly social witness stands, many branches recognize that a governing body (judicatory, council – whatever term you use) speaks only for itself and can not bind the next meeting of that deliberative body to that statement or commit other levels of the denomination to it. This is not necessarily the case in all branches, particularly those with strong national infrastructure and definitive decision making at the highest level, but it is true for the polity of many branches that have placed the presbytery as the fundamental governing body and the authority of the other bodies derives from the presbyteries.
The question of who speaks for the church has been an active one recently in the PC(USA) as the Way Forward Commission has wrestled with this. (See the section on Communications in the Outlook article in the link) While not decided yet, something may come out in their final recommendations for consideration by the 223rd General Assembly in June 2018, particularly in the area of communications and the various agencies and offices speaking with one voice.
Globally Presbyterian branches fall into two categories as to who is the voice of the denomination. In general, American branches tend to hand that responsibility to the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly. However, elsewhere in the world the Moderator of the General Assembly or the General Synod tends to be the voice of that body.
I have been working with a semi-quantitative analysis of this over the last few months, but over the last couple weeks I realized there is a reasonable metric to do a quick sort on this. So here are the lists of who provided the official Christmas messages from different branches this year.
Moderators of the General Assembly or the General Synod
- Church of Scotland, Moderator Rt. Rev. Dr. Derek Browning
- Free Church of Scotland, Moderator Rev. Derek Lamont
- Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Moderator Rt. Rev. Dr. Noble McNeely
- Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, Moderator Rev. Richard Dawson
- Presbyterian Church in Canada, Moderator Rev. Peter Bush (plus an excerpt from a devotion)
Stated Clerks of the General Assembly or the General Synod
- Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Rev. Jeff Jeremiah
- Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, Synod Executive Dana Allin
- Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II
Web sites checked where I did not find Christmas messages include the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, CCAP Zambia Synod, CCAP Blantyre Synod, CCAP Livingstonia Synod, Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (English site), Presbyterian Church of Trinidad and Tobago, Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), United Free Church of Scotland, Nonsubscribing Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Presbyterian Church of Wales, Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales, Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, Free Presbyterian Church of North America, Presbyterian Church in America (but see below), Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Bible Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church in Australia, Presbyterian Church in Australia in the State of New South Wales, Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, and the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. If I have missed any in this group, or other branches not listed please let me know and I will update.
So the obvious conclusion is that most Presbyterian branches don’t post a Christmas message on their web site. A number of explanations for this: A few of the branches still hold to the Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God which has an Appendix against celebrating festivals or holy-days. For others, it is simply the expectation of the denomination – it is a nice idea but that is not what the GA or GS is really there for. And for others, the greetings are distributed in other forms and do not appear on the web site.
The other obvious conclusion is that while this quick analysis shows two obvious trends – Christmas messages are posted by the big institutional Presbyterian branches and they come from the Moderator unless you are an American branch – the other part is that a lot are left out. So back to the drawing board and maybe the semi-quantitative approach. (And this shift in focus to the stated clerk in American branches is an interesting phenomenon I am interested in reading more about, or tracking down more historical details if it has not been done yet.)
A few additional comments:
While the Presbyterian Church of Australia did not have a Christmas message, the web site does have a dedicated page for the Moderator’s comments.
The state branch, the Presbyterian Church of South Australia has begun functioning as a presbytery of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, but their Christmas message last year was written by the last Moderator, the Rev. Gary Ware.
The Presbyterian Church in America did not have a specific Christmas message, but their By Faith news arm does have a piece featuring one of their theology professors that does touch on Christmas theology.
And for the Church of Scotland, the advocacy and discussion of social witness policy is routinely delegated to the Convener of the Church and Society Council. Here are a couple recent examples of Kirk press releases related to “Church welcomes minimum pricing for alcohol ruling” and “Kirk hopes for a budget that will make Scotland a fairer and more equal society.”
Finally, something that was tracking with my other analysis but maybe is best considered an appendix here – a short case study on speaking for the denomination, in this case the PC(USA).
As the top continuing ecclesiastical officer the Stated Clerk speaks for the General Assembly, and not for him or herself, on matters related to policy of the PC(USA). This is covered in the Manual of the General Assembly.
Recently the Stated Clerk, The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, preached in South Korea as part of an ecumenical visit. The headline of the article said “Stated Clerk pledges repentance for No Gun Ri massacre: Nelson: ‘We’ll not let the silence continue’ about Korean War atrocity.” So the question is, as part of the sermon was he speaking for himself, or as the ecclesiastical officer of the PC(USA) was he speaking for the General Assembly?
Again, this was included as part of a sermon and the headline writer latched on to this for the article. Here is the full context of what the Stated Clerk said when he preached:
I cannot apologize for the government of the United States. However, we who are here today from the United States can pledge to not let the silence of this massacre continue. Just as the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse has called on the denomination to both acknowledge and repent of our silence as a denomination, we [the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)] must call upon the United States government to publicly repent of its actions at No Gun Ri.
He is clearly recounting the actions of the General Assembly, with an overture originating from the Presbytery of Cayuga-Syracuse. The problem is that the 222nd General Assembly did not actually call for repentance on the part of any body or government, as the Stated Clerk implies. The final alternate resolution 1) Acknowledged the actions of the US military in the massacre, 2) Directs the Stated Clerk to ask the United States Government to acknowledge the actions, issue an apology and statement of regret as well as considering compensation, and include training for future military members. And 3) work with the ecumenical partners for resources and additional statements of regret.
In the whole action the word repentance is used only once in the original rational from the Presbytery, which carries the weight of action only to the extent that the final resolution asks for its inclusion in communication about the action of the General Assembly.
So the polity question is: Based on the actions of the 222nd General Assembly, did the Stated Clerk faithfully represent it when he spoke for their action?
So I will leave it at that. I have a lot of other articles in the works so it may be a while before I return to this topic. And to a large degree, this is a topic of debate for us polity wonks and presbygeeks, but does appear to be an issue for the Way Forward Commission.
Your mileage may vary.