A number of people asked me for a copy of the Exposition of Presbyterian Church Order given at the ordination and installation of the Rev Dr Heather Walker at Rademon this afternoon. Our best wishes go to Dr Walker and her congregation as they begin this new ministry. A number also spoke to me about John Henry Lorimer’s ‘The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk’ which I am pleased to reproduce here.
It is my responsibility today to deliver what is called the Exposition of Presbyterian Church Order. This part of the service is required by the Code of Discipline to be delivered at all services of ordination or installation of both elders as well, in fact, as ministers.
It is meant to describe and explain the system that governs our church life which we term Presbyterian. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines ‘Presbyterianism’ as ‘a form of ecclesiastical polity wherein the Church is governed by presbyters’.
So what is a presbyter? Basically this comes from the Greek word presbuteros, which generally means elder, a word found in the New Testament as describing those who were given positions of leadership in the early church. In Acts ch.14 v.20-23 we see Paul and the disciples appoint the first presbyters in the new churches they founded:
When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch,
strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.
And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed.
The Greek word behind what is rendered here as elders is presbuteros a word also used by followers of the Jewish religion at the time who administered their synagogues through bodies of presbuteroi.
So this is the Biblical root for our system and our name. Of course, other ecclesiastical systems are also derived from the Bible, based on different understandings of different words and the different traditions that have grown up over the centuries. Presbyterianism really re-emerges after the Reformation when the reformers develop a system of church government that they presented as truest to the earliest formation of the church.
Presbyterianism begins in Geneva but spreads across Europe as the reformed church spreads. It can take different forms, in different places. In England historic Presbyterianism was based not round the presbytery but on what they termed the classis. English Presbyterianism was crucially important at one time, however else would we have got a document termed the Westminster Confession of Faith? But in the English-speaking world generally the Church of Scotland becomes the model and example of how a Presbyterian church is formed and governs itself.
One of the places we think of first when think of Presbyterianism is Scotland and particularly Edinburgh. The figure of John Knox played an important part in the development of Presbyterianism in these islands and Edinburgh was right at the heart of this development.
If you go to Edinburgh and visit the National Gallery of Scotland you can inspect many wonderful, beautiful and fascinating paintings, but one of my favourites there is entitled ‘The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk’ by John Henry Lorimer. This was painted in 1891 and shows a minister offering prayer over a group of newly ordained elders gathered before the pulpit in a plain church, maybe one not dissimilar from this meeting house. The minister and the elders stand in front of the pulpit situated at the centre of a long wall pretty much as in this building.
‘The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk’, John Henry Lorimer. (National Gallery of Scotland).
To me it exhibits something of the best of the Presbyterian tradition at its widest. It captures the simple but sincere piety of the occasion. There is a great humanity about the expressions of the people captured in the painting and the down to earth setting frames what is an encounter with the divine, something holy, as the new elders bow their heads in prayer.
But it shows Presbyterianism in action. Of course, any system can be a success if it is operated by men and women of goodwill but this is the system that history has bequeathed to us. If we take our system seriously and endow it with proper respect – without treating it as an end in itself – then it will not be a burden or a restraint on us but rather an effective means for the expression of our faith.
In our tradition the presbyter – or the elder – takes two forms:
the ruling elder
and the teaching or preaching elder, who is more commonly styled the minister.
Both are chosen by members of the congregation and both are ordained in the same way by the representatives of the presbytery which is really all the local congregations acting together.
In our system each congregation is managed by a committee and a session both of which are elected by the members. For us the committees are elected each year and look after the financial and material and organisational side of church business. The membership of the session, which comprises the elders and the minister, is elected for life and they have charge of the spiritual side of the church. It is the role of the minister to chair the committee and session, to be the moderator of the session.
Originally the elders shared in the task of what was called discipline, that is to say the oversight of Christian morality. But we would see that in modern terms as pastoral care, having care for the well-being of all the members of the congregation. Tied in to this the elders also have a part to play in the administration of communion and in visiting. But in both pastoral care and the administration of the sacraments the minister clearly has the central and essential role.
The elders also have a role in providing representatives to the other courts of the church, namely the presbyteries and the synods. And this is a key fact that all our church bodies are made up of both ministers and lay representatives, and the elders, as the lay representatives, play an equal part in the work of these bodies. So each congregation has one representative elder who attends the various courts of the church alongside the minister.
The Presbyterian system is a representative system with each level being made up of representatives of the basic unit, the congregation. It is a democratic structure with congregations at the base. Above that a representative meeting of ministers and elders make the presbytery and above that congregational representatives and ministers within a group of presbyteries come together to form a synod. In larger denominations than ours a group of synods would form a general assembly.
But the basic building block for the system is the congregation. This congregation has a long and impressive history tracing its origins back to 1713 and being associated with the pioneering academy run by Rev Moses Neilson which educated boys of all religious backgrounds, many of whom entered the ministry or the priesthood. This illustrates very well the role freedom of thought and openness to inquiry has played in the formation of our denomination across the centuries.
So for us each individual congregation belongs to a presbytery. This could be the Presbytery of Antrim which was formed in 1725 when the first Non-Subscribers – those who objected to the imposition of the Westminster Confession – were placed together in the same presbytery.
It could be the Presbytery of Bangor of which this congregation is a member, founded following the second subscription controversy again by those who objected to the Westminster Confession on principle. They took the view that the Bible alone was the rule of faith and practice. No secondary document was necessary because it would either be repeating what was already in the Bible and therefore superfluous, or it was introducing something new, which could be, they said, pernicious.
Or a congregation could be a member of the Synod of Munster which has the standing of both presbytery and synod within our system and is the third element in our basic structure.
The Presbytery of Antrim and the Presbytery of Bangor when they meet together – or when their composite ministers and representative elders assemble for a stated meeting – do so as the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster.
And when the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster representatives and the Synod of Munster ministers and elders gather together then they do so as the General Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the highest court of our church body.
This, very briefly, is the outline of the Presbyterian system as it has come to us. It is derived from the course of our history, it is rooted in the Bible and it symbolises – at its best – a system that is democratic and inclusive.
With this in mind we should thank God for our system which in the end exists solely to help us build his kingdom. As we gather under its auspices today we pray for God’s blessing on our assembly and the work we do in his name, on this congregation, and on the minister who this day we ordain.