How the Church Functions
Much of the discussion so far has dealt with key constitutional and doctrinal matters. These are important, because the way in which a Church functions will be governed by what it believes and teaches. Some aspects of how the Church functions at local, regional and State levels are discussed below.
At the Local level
The Presbyterian Church is made up of individual congregations of people (including children), who gather in a particular locality to worship God, to be instructed from the Bible, to share in Christian fellowship together and to witness together to Jesus Christ. Each congregation is usually under the supervision of mature Christian leaders called elders, who are chosen by the members of a congregation. The Bible teaches that some elders have special responsibility to lead, (sometimes called Ruling elders) and some have special responsibility to teach as well as lead. These are sometimes called Teaching elders or Ministers. Because each congregation is different, congregations will naturally develop their own special character. However, despite this individuality, no congregation of the Presbyterian Church is completely independent of others. There is a responsibility to love, pray for and support other Presbyterian congregations and both Ruling and Teaching Elders share the responsibility for making decisions on behalf of the whole Church.
The terms Member (or Communicant member) and Adherent are used to explain the ways in which people can share the responsibility and privilege of belonging to the Church.
A communicant member is a person who has been baptised and has made a credible declaration of their faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour. This usually happens at a meeting of the congregation for worship, and is marked out by a clear statement of trust in the Triune God, and a promise to serve the Lord in response to His grace. [see the questions for members in the appendix].It is quite normal for some time to be spent in learning (or revising) the basic teachings of the Christian faith in preparation for membership. Members are also privileged to join in the choosing of their minister [See section 5] and their elders. [See below] They also promise to support the ministry and work of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, as they are able. The names of members of a congregation are listed on a Communicants Roll. A member may transfer from one congregation to another.
Adherents are regular attendees at a congregation, who have not become members, but who have been formally added to the Adherents Roll. Often they will be Christians who choose not to become member of the Presbyterian Church because they want to remain members of another Christian Church. Adherents may also be issued with a certificate of status and transferred to another congregation. A person cannot be a member of more than one local Presbyterian congregation at any time.
Members and adherents have the opportunity to develop fellowship with others as they worship together and share the responsibility to be involved in all other spiritual activities that build up the congregation. They also have the responsibility to place themselves under the leadership of the office bearers whom they elect. In particular, they are responsible to respect and encourage their elders and ministers and to provide adequate housing, travelling and stipend for their ministers.
Members and adherents have the responsibility to attend congregational meetings and the right to vote upon questions brought before them in a congregational meeting. Congregational meetings are ordinarily called by the Session [see below] and the minister ordinarily presides at them. The Session Clerk usually acts as the secretary for congregational meetings.
The congregation has the right to elect a selection committee to nominate a minister for a call. [See Section 5.] It has the power to call a minister, (although only communicants may vote), to approve or vary the terms of a call to a minister, and to select commissioners to present a call to a minister before the Presbytery [see below]. It has the opportunity to give reasons why the resignation of their minister should not be accepted and to refuse to consent to the induction of a minister.
The ruling and teaching elders in a congregation are the spiritual overseers for a congregation. In the Presbyterian Church, they are called a "Session" or "Kirk" Session. (The term Session comes from an old word referring to the sitting of a court and "Kirk" is an old Scottish word meaning Church.) Elders are elected from the communicant membership of the congregation, and must meet the biblical requirements for the office. As eligibility for election to the eldership is a matter of church government, under the Articles of Agreement the State churches determine the matter. In some of the State Churches, the office of elder is open only to men, whereas in others the office is open to both men and women. Once ordained, an elder remains so for life unless removed through a process of discipline. However, when an elder moves from one congregation to another, he (or she) does not have an automatic right to become part of that congregation's Session. Although an elder is ordained for life, an elder may only exercise that office within a congregation when elected by the membership of that congregation.
Session meetings are usually called by the minister, or by at least two elders through the minister. All meetings of the Session are "closed" and the discussions are confidential. The minister is normally the chairman or Moderator of the Session, and does not vote unless a vote is tied. In special cases, an elder may be requested to chair the meeting. One elder is elected as the clerk and is responsible for keeping the records of the meetings and for handling the Session business. Usually, the Moderator (or someone standing in for the Moderator) and two elders are required for a quorum. In some circumstances, particularly to help smaller Sessions, or when new congregations are beginning, elders from other congregations may be appointed to a local Session for a time. Elders appointed from other congregations are called "assessors". Where new congregations are beginning, such a Session is called an "interim Session".
The Session has many special responsibilities in promoting the spiritual life of their congregations. A general list is given below, but members and adherents should ask their Session for a fuller list.
• Exercise supervision over all activities and groups within the congregation and promote their spiritual vitality. This includes approving leaders of Sunday Schools , Choirs, Bible Study, and special purpose groups.
• Appoint the time and place for the meetings of public worship and for the observance of the sacraments. They also determine the suitability or otherwise of those who apply for baptism, and exercise due oversight over the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
• Admit persons to the membership of the congregation, or as adherents, and remove persons from these privileges when necessary as allowed for by the rules of the church. They also make sure that proper pastoral care is provided for all communicant members through visitation, encouragement and personal example.
• Provide and receive certificates of transfer when communicant members leave or seek to join the congregation.
• Ensure that appropriate diaconal help is offered where possible.
• Ensure that careful attention is given to suggestions for changes to the rules of the church. [See Overtures, Section 5]
A Session does not interfere with the work of another Session, but if the need arises, may advise another Session of its views on any matter.
Committee of Management
Each year congregations choose some of their members and adherents to look after the Church finances and property. This group is usually called the "Committee of Management" or "Board of Managers" or some similar name. The minister is usually the chairman, and the committee will elect a secretary and a treasurer. The number of managers is determined by the elders of the congregation and the elders are also members of the Committee or Board of Management (Managers).
The responsibility of the Managers is to maintain the property of the congregation, particularly its land and buildings, and to look after the financial requirements of the congregation. It is the responsibility of the Managers to ensure that proper financial records are kept. An audited financial statement of the congregation's finances must be submitted to the congregation every year. The Managers may ask the Session to call a congregational meeting to discuss the financial requirements of the congregation. The Committee must ensure that all church property has sufficient insurance cover, and that funds given or bequeathed to the congregation are appropriately used. Particular attention must be given to the terms of any bequest.
When properties are bought or sold, it is the responsibility of the Managers to ensure that everything is done in accordance with the rules of their State Church , as well as any State laws.
Other Local Committees
The Session may ask the congregation to appoint special committees to assist with the work of the congregation. When this happens, each of these committees is responsible to the Session and must prepare reports of their work for presentation to the Session and to the Congregation. Usually both communicants and adherents may serve on these committees.
At the Regional Level
Although many congregations seem at first to function independently, each one exists as part of a wider network of congregations within which it is able to develop its own special character. However, congregations have a responsibility to care and pray for other congregations and their leaders share the responsibility of making decisions for the whole Church. The minister (teaching elder) and one ruling elder from each congregation in a particular region meet together as aPresbytery . A Presbytery may have other members such as ministers who serve the Church in special ways, and when this happens, extra elders are elected in order to maintain equal numbers of ministers and elders. The Presbytery annually chooses one of its members to be the Moderator for its meetings, and also appoints a clerk.
A Presbytery has many functions, and only some of them are listed here:
• Has the responsibility for overseeing all doctrinal and disciplinary matters in its congregations. All complaints and other issues relating to the conduct of the ministry are heard by the Presbytery. It supervises all appointments and exercises discipline and pastoral care over ministers, and receives their resignation. The Presbytery also has special responsibilities when congregations are vacant. [See Section 5.]
• Exercises pastoral care over candidates who train for the ministry and as deaconesses. Presbytery receives applications, and sets special exercises in order to be convinced of these candidates continuing suitability for training.
• Acts as a decision making body and as a court for its particular region. The Presbytery also visits congregations within bounds to deal with difficulties if necessary. In some cases a Presbytery can remove ruling and teaching elders from their office in the congregation.
• Defines the boundaries for congregations, sets areas for evangelism and new congregations. Congregations are usually established to cover a geographical area (often referred to as a Parish), but the Presbytery may also establish special congregations for a particular language or cultural group. It also approves names given to churches and parishes or charges.
• Ensures that all directives of the General Assembly of Australia and its State Assembly [see below] are followed. This includes giving careful attention to all suggestions for changes in the rules of the church [See Section 5].
As well as its regular meetings, a Presbytery may call two types of special meetings. A special meeting may be appointed by the Presbytery itself for a particular activity such as the ordination or induction of a minister, or to discuss some special business. At a special meeting only the business specifically appointed may be considered. Such a meeting has a Latin name, and is called a meeting in hunc effectum [see definition in the Appendix] .
A special meeting may also be called by Moderator and Clerk when a number of its members request a meeting to discuss something urgent. The notice calling the meeting must specify what the business will be, and no other business may be conducted at such a meeting. Once the meeting has been opened, it is up to the Presbytery to decide whether the business really is urgent, and whether the meeting should continue. Meetings of this type also have a Latin name and are called meetings pro re nata [see definition in the Appendix].
Each Presbytery also appoints some commissioners to the General Assembly of Australia. The number appointed will depend upon the number of charges in the Presbytery.
At the State Level
Within each State, the Church has an Assembly which consists of all ministers who are members of Presbytery, an elder from each charge and the officers of the Assembly. The Assembly officers are the Moderator (who usually acts as the chairman in all Assembly meetings), the Clerk and various other office bearers. These usually include a Procurator (a Barrister) and a Law Agent (Solicitor). A deputy clerk may sometimes be appointed. The Assembly is the highest court in each State, and has the right to determine many matters affecting the life of the Church except those matters which are determined at a national level by the General Assembly of Australia.[See Section 2.]
It is the responsibility of the State Assembly to superintend the work of the Church within its sphere and it is sovereign in all matters which pertain to the government of the Church. The Assembly usually appoints committees to carry out its ongoing work. The composition and function of these committees is defined by Regulations , and copies of regulations for various Assembly Committees can be obtained from the Clerk of Assembly. The regular committees are usually called Standing Committees and other committees called Special Purpose or Ad Hoc Committees may be appointed from time to time. Each Assembly committee presents a detailed report on its activity so that every member of Assembly is aware of its work. Questions can also be asked of each Committee. If any action is being recommended to the Church, these reports must explain what is being suggested, and include the wording for a proposed Assembly decision. The Assembly does not have to follow the recommendation of any committee, and is free to follow some other course of action if it seems appropriate.
The Assembly regularly meets at the time and place decided by the previous ordinary Assembly. However, it may also meet to deal with an unexpected issue if adequate members of the Assembly ask for the meeting and adequate notice is given to all Assembly members. This meeting would be called a pro re natameeting of Assembly. [See Presbytery, above.] An Assembly may also appoint some of its members to form a Commission of Assembly which has authority to deal with urgent matters in between Assembly meetings. An Assembly will usually have rules which ensure that as far as possible, it will function in an orderly and fair way. These are called Standing Orders . These Standing Orders are also helpful for Presbyteries Sessions and Congregational meetings as well. A copy of the Standing Orders will be available from the clerk of your Presbytery or the clerk of Assembly in your State.
The State Assembly is responsible for the oversight of all Presbyteries. It assigns the Presbytery name and approves their boundaries. It is also the responsibility of the Assembly to examine the records of all its committees and all presbyteries in its bounds to ensure that proper records are kept.
A State Assembly considers and transmits petitions, complaints and appeals. [See Section 5 below] It originates and transmits overtures and considers those sent down under barrier act procedure. It enacts decisions sent down by the General Assembly of Australia. It also deals with any other correspondence or communications that is appropriate for the Assembly to deal with. The State Assembly also appoints some of the commissioners to the General Assembly of Australia. The number appointed will depend upon the size of the State Assembly.
At the National Level
The General Assembly of Australia generally meets every three years, and is made up of Commissioners from every Presbytery and State Assembly. The Moderator of the General Assembly is called the Moderator General . As with a State Assembly, it receives reports from its committees which relate to particular areas of ministry. Some of these are the Presbyterial Inland Mission, Australian Presbyterian World Mission, the Reception of Ministers from outside the Presbyterian Church, and the College Committee [which supervises training for the ministry.] It is usual for all General Assembly of Australia committees to have representatives from every State.
The General Assembly hears any appeals or petitions within its area of jurisdiction which have so far not been satisfactorily resolved at a Presbytery or State Assembly.