How do decision get made in the Uniting Church? Part 1: Polity, What’s Polity?

There’s a story some friends who work in the Church of Scotland’s Assembly office once told me. Apparently a junior staffer from the City of Edinburgh Council phoned the Assembly office to find out who is the head of the Church of Scotland. The person who took the call didn’t know and asked if anyone else did. The Principal Clerk happened to be walking past and offhandedly put in, “That would be the Second Person of the Trinity”. A few days later a gilded invitation to a civic reception arrived from the City of Edinburgh Council addressed to “The Second Person of the Trinity, Church of Scotland, 121 George Street, Edinburgh”.

It’s a nice illustration of an important aspect of the Christian Church.

One way or another, every church would affirm that Christ is its head and every church puts in place procedures and governance structures to be open and obedient to Christ’s rule. These procedures and governance structures are what we mean when we talk about “church polity”.

In broad terms, there are three main forms of church polity: episcopal polity, congregational polity and Presbyterian polity.

In episcopal polity the church is governed by Christ through bishops. The bishop has personal pastoral, sacramental and administrative authority over a region of the church, called the diocese. The bishop presides at confirmations, ordinations, consecrations and key meetings, and licenses, deploys and supervises the clergy. The bishop has significant executive authority, even in those episcopal churches which provide for consultative processes and shared decision-making in some areas. Episcopal churches include the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches. Interestingly the Methodist Church is often regarded as having a modified episcopal polity, with the annual Conference performing the functions of a bishop and the Conference President having significant executive authority. (American Methodism actually has bishops, unlike the British Methodism more familiar in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.)

In congregational polity the congregation is self-governing under Christ, as the embodiment of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic church in that place. It calls and installs its minister and any other officers that may be needed for its life and mission. It may cooperate with other congregations for larger mission initiatives or for mutual benefit, and may even create a formal union with a network of congregations in a region. But it remains essentially self-governing. Churches with a congregational polity include Churches of Christ, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches (as well as Congregational churches, obviously).

In presbyterian polity the church is governed by a hierarchy of courts or councils. The congregation is led by a council of elders who are elected from among the members and chaired by the minister (sometimes called the “teaching elder”). Elders and ministers are all presbyters (from “presbuteros”, the biblical Greek word translated into English as “elder”) ordained for life to their roles. Congregations are linked together and accountable to each other within a region called a presbytery. The council that oversees the region is also called a presbytery. The presbytery’s membership is made up of the minister and an elder from each congregation and any other minsters not in congregational charges in that region (such as theological college staff or chaplains). The presbytery is like a collective bishop in some ways: ministers are responsible to the presbytery for the conduct of their ministries and presbyteries are responsible for the ordination and induction of ministers into their pastoral charges. But episcopal functions are also located with the local minister and congregation. The local minister conducts confirmations and ordains elders. The local congregation calls the minister of its choice and its council of elders, or “session”, oversees the life and mission of the congregation.

There are variations of each of these three types of church polity, but essentially every church’s pattern of organisation and governance can be located with one of them. The Uniting Church in Australia has a modified presbyterian polity. I’ll say more about that in part two…

For the moment I have just one thing to say about UCA polity. The success of the Uniting Church’s missional vision has meant that we have members and leaders across the life of the church serving with different assumptions about how the church is organised, how decisions are made, and where authority is located in the Uniting Church.

I regularly offer lectures and seminars to groups of UCA leaders – ministers, pastors, ordination candidates, board members etc. It’s my habit to invite people to indicate what denomination/s provided them with their primary formation as Christians. In every case (since the late 1990s) the vast majority of participants in these groups were formed as disciples and leaders in denominations other than the UCA and other than the three denominations that formed the UCA. They might be Anglican, Catholic, Salvation Army, Pentecostal, Baptist or whatever. But they are usually not Uniting Church in Australia.

That’s wonderful! The UCA was always envisioned as having porous boundaries. More of a movement than a denomination; a missional movement. And that’s how it has turned out – at least in terms of the emergence of leaders.

But it also means that leaders (and many members) bring with them into the UCA assumptions about how decisions are made and where authority lies that may well be more episcopal or congregational than the UCA’s modified Presbyterian polity.

Mostly that doesn’t matter very much. Occasionally – when something contentious happens – it can matter a lot.

council of nicea