An Instructive Trip Down Under

I have always been a Presbyterian. The first church I attended in 1982 was Presbyterian. The church I was baptised in was Presbyterian. When I took office in another church several years later, I served in a Presbyterian Session. My theological training was also in a Presbyterian college.  And my first pastoral experience was in a Presbyterian congregation, and so was my first pastorate.

Thus, it may sound surprising if I tell you that I had never in these twenty-eight years as a Presbyterian attended a Presbytery meeting! Over the last ten years of our existence as a branch of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Session has received several invitations to attend a presbytery meeting with the EPC and also the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). But we had thus far not been able to go for various reasons.


The Invitation

When the invitation from Pastor Connors came for us to attend the July 2010 Presbytery in Launceston, we were once again keen to go, but did not make any plans due to the many pressing demands on our time and energy. Towards the end of May, however, things were starting to settle down a little, and Elder Thiam Chye brought up the invitation again. He urged me to go as a representative of our Session. I was somewhat reluctant as I thought it would be best, on the basis of the principle of plurality in Presbyterianism that the Session be represented by two members even if we were just going to be observers. But that was not possible given the present circumstances; and finally upon some creative persuasion by our Elder, which he might have picked up from William Farel, I decided to go after making arrangements to have the pulpit supplied during the whole period.

I am thankful for the opportunity to attend this Presbytery, especially as it would be the Presbytery that will conduct the licensing trials for the EPC ministerial student, Dr David Torlach. The Presbytery, we must understand, does not have a fixed membership unlike the church Session. It comprises of a minister (teaching-elder) and a ruling-elder sent from each of the congregations that are to be represented.


The Constitution of the Presbytery

The Presbytery of July 2010 comprised Rev Mark Shand and Elder Robert Davidson representing Launceston; Rev Chris Connors and Elder Philip Greatbatch representing Brisbane; Rev Philip Burley (emeritus) and Elder John Torlach representing Winnaleah; and Rev David Higgs (on sick leave) from Brisbane. Rev Chris Coleborn (emeritus) was associated with the Presbytery for the purpose of the licensing trials of Mr Torlach. Sydney was not represented due to the present difficulties facing the congregation.

I would be an observer. What this means is that I would be able to attend all meetings when the court was open. In general, Session meetings of the church are closed unless opened due to the many sensitive personal and disciplinary issues that are discussed during the meetings. On the other hand, Presbytery meetings are open unless closed.


First Impression

The Presbytery commenced with Sabbath evening worship together with the hosting congregation in Launceston on 18 July 2010. Pastor Connors, the current moderator, preached a challenging message on the importance of evangelism.

The next morning, the Presbytery was constituted with scripture reading, prayer and a psalm. This was followed by a presentation of credentials or letters of commendation by the sending Sessions.  

It was quite an experience to see our usually light-hearted and easy-going Australian brethren solemnly doing all things “decently and in order” (1Cor 14:40) during the meetings! All motions, questions and discussions were directed to the Moderator. A presbyter who wished to move a motion would say: “Mr Moderator, I move this and that.” As this motion is made, the appointed clerk (in this case, Rev Mark Shand), would type out the statement word for word.  Then another presbyter would second the motion. The Moderator then opens the motion for discussion. If there were no discussion, the matter is put to a vote, and all in favour would say, “Aye.” The Moderator then announces that the motion is “Carried.”

The Moderator does not move any motion, nor does he vote. Should the moderator wish to move a motion personally, he must vacate his seat and the previous moderator will take over until the motion is carried or prevailed against. He has a casting vote in case the court is split evenly on a motion. But as Rev Connors shared with me later, it would be very unwise for the Moderator to use the casting vote as it would have the potential of causing division in the Presbytery. What he should normally do would be to give more time for further discussion before calling for another vote.

Initially, having been used to rather informal church meetings all these years, I found the experience rather strange and thinking of how such a formal conduct of meetings would go down in our context. I wondered if I should or would even dare to introduce such a practice for our Session. Would it not be quite inefficient and would any of us in the Session be prepared to move motions? But as I thought about over the next few days, I began to see the value of such a manner of conducting the meetings. I think we will need time to get used to it if we are ever going to implement it (perhaps when our brother Linus is ordained and we have started another congregation); but I can think of several benefits of eventually adopting this practice. In the first place, I can see how it ensures that every member of the Presbytery is involved in the decision-making process. In the second place, I can see how it will ensure that the decisions of the Presbytery are clearly expressed, carefully decided upon, and accurately recorded. In the third place, I can see how it would be closer to what the apostle Paul meant by doing all things decently and in order.


Trial of Dr David Torlach

The trials of Dr Torlach were held in open court; whereas the deliberations in regard to the trials were held in closed court. I had the benefit of attending all the open court session and on a few occasions was asked by the Moderator to give some comments in private to the Presbytery before the closed court session began.

A considerable portion of the Presbytery’s time was devoted to the trials. It began on Monday with a closed court discussion of reports of supervising pastors and deacons; as well as some consideration of the work undertaken by Mr Torlach, as set by the Presbytery.

On Monday night, Mr Torlach preached his trial sermon on the appointed text, Galatians 4:19—“My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Gal 4:19). The whole congregation of Launceston turned up for the service. On the whole it was a useful sermon and very well received.

On Tuesday morning, the Presbytery reviewed the trial sermon in closed court; and on Wednesday, Mr Torlach was examined for 30 minutes each in 8 areas, namely, Bible Knowledge; Revelation; Theology proper; Anthropology; Christology; Soteriology; Ecclessiology and Eschatology. The plan was to have all the presbyters ask a question each in turn until the half an hour was exhausted, at which time if the Moderator deemed it fit, he could invite me as a visiting minister to ask a question too.

Pastor David Higgs opened the Session on Bible Knowledge with a kind word of assurance to Mr Torlach that he would like to begin the session with an easy question just so as to encourage the student. With all appearance of seriousness, he asked two inter-related questions. The first was: “In the second chapter of Nehemiah, there is a list of people returning from Babylon to Jerusalem. Enumerate the names.” The second was: “In the first chapter of Matthew, we have given for us the genealogy of the Lord Jesus (we should know the genealogy of the Lord!). List the names.” I am not sure, how long it took Mr Torlach to realise that it was a joke; but I would imagine that every second that passed by before Pastor Higgs broke out with a smile would have been quite tormenting for him!

Well, the rest of the questions dealt with during the day were not quite so challenging, but they were nevertheless not beginner’s level questions. Mr Torlach was for example asked to list the Judges and say something about each one of them, which he did. He was also asked to make exegetical comments on various passages of Scripture and to answer numerous theological questions. For example, he was asked to prove the doctrine of perichoresis and why it is an important doctrine; which again he was able to answer quite clearly.

On Wednesday, Mr Torlach was quizzed in six areas in 30 minutes slots as before, viz: Church Standards; History of the Reformation and of the EPC; Pastoral Theology; Apologetics; Christian Ethics and Philosophies; and Law and Practice of the Church. I am quite impressed at Mr Torlach’s grasp of church history as well as his familiarity with the various Scottish Confessions that pre-dated the Westminster Confession of Faith.

After a lengthy discussion on Friday, Mr Torlach was summoned before the Presbytery and given advice concerning the areas he should work on before being told that it has arrived at the decision to proceed with licensing. This was conducted quite simply with the moderator leading in prayer, the reading of scripture (the charge), and Mr Torlach taking the vows and signing the formula of subscription.


Other Business

It should be noted that the Presbytery was not entirely devoted to the licensing trials. When the trials were not being conducted, many other matters were also discussed, such as: correspondence, finance, contact with other churches, missionary work; anniversary celebration; etc. During the Contact Committee discussions, I was asked to address the Presbytery and also to read the letter which our Session wrote to the Presbytery. Both the letter and the address were very kindly received. We had requested help to provide our ministerial student, bro Linus, with some form of internship program in the EPC congregations and as well as a couple of ministers for his ordination trials in June 2012. Both our requests were received positively. 

The Presbytery finally ended on Friday evening with votes of thanks and a reading of the minutes of meeting. Yes, it was the minutes of the meeting that concluded!


The Sabbath After

On the Sabbath following the Presbytery, I was given the privilege of taking both services in the Launceston Congregation. Though I would much prefer to sit and listen to any of the ministers present, I felt it was the least I could do in gratitude after receiving so much by way of learning and hospitality during the week. I am thankful to the Lord that both messages were well received.


Conclusion

I thank God for the extraordinary week in Launceston. We need to seek the Lord’s wisdom and help to see if we might apply some of the procedures adopted by the EPC into our own Session and eventually Presbytery. But whatever the future may hold, I believe that in the Lord’s hand, this visit has brought our two churches closer together than we have been hitherto.

We are looking to having our brother Linus go down for his internship stint and also to enjoy the fellowship of a church that is so similar to our doctrine and practices and yet so different from ours in culture and experience.

 It is my prayer that the close fellowship our two churches enjoy will be used by the Lord, the King of the Church for our mutual edification, the advancement of His kingdom and the enlargement of His glory. Amen. Ω