In Reformed and Presbyterian churches the Presbytery is the governing body between congregations and synods or general assemblies. Typically comprising equal numbers of ministers and elders from each congregation they are presided over by an elected moderator. Ordained ministers in other roles (theological education, social services, church administration or retired) are also members, and equality in the numbers of ministers and elders is maintained by the appointment of additional elders.
Presbyteries have powers to select, licence, ordain and discipline ministers and to visit parishes. They implement national policies, deal with disputes and seek to resolve conflict. They debate issues referred by general assemblies and may overture general assemblies on issues of policy or discipline. They provide a voice for lay leadership. They may raise funds and employ staff. Their rituals transmit and modify narratives of faith, process and identity. They can be energising sources for mission on the frontiers of social and political geography and facilitate responses to religious and ethical challenges. As participatory forums, they can be arenas for party politics, personalities and conflict.
In a restricted sense the term may also refer to the elders and ministers of a particular congregation. “Womens’ presbyterials” were meetings held at the same time as presbytery. In Roman Catholicism, a presbytery is a residence for priests or religious, and part of the sanctuary reserved to priests.
Presbyteries are a form of conciliar polity and the theology of presbytery relates to synodality. Their origin and development as regional courts of Reformed and Presbyterian churches in 16th century Switzerland, France and Scotland was a product of political circumstance as well as theological principle and a distaste for religious hierarchy.
Reformed understandings of ecclesiology, ministry and mission, and perception of biblical and historical precedents for leadership and collective decision-making have generally included an awareness of the contextual nature of organization. Presbyteries whose vision for the lordship of Christ over the whole of society and of themselves as the elders of the new people of Israel is seldom narrowly religious, have nurtured participatory democracy and been threats to political powers. Struggles between church and state meant that a presbyterian theology of the church has often been defined by concern for autonomy, at times extending to support for freedom of religion in general. When the established church was presbyterian, presbyteries often had control of education and poor relief. Recently there has been a tendency to reduce the number of courts between congregations and general assembly and for ethnic synods to develop similar powers to geographically defined presbyteries.
Theology, politics, and the values and conventions of contemporary models of corporate organization continue to shape presbyteries. New conciliar paradigms are needed to realize the mission of the church in the face of social, intellectual and political change and the multicultural nature of Reformed Christianity as an African, Asian and Latin American not just European and North American faith.
There are parallels between the experience of presbytery and the development of democracy, as well as to the pitfalls involved in seeking to develop these structures in other cultures. Missionary presbyteries have been empowering of local Christian leadership, and sometimes of women, but they have not been spared the politics of control by local or expatriate forces or the sense of their being at times unnatural constructs in societies which are following their own political paths.
Early presbyteries developed most clearly where convictions about the “priesthood of all believers” combined with a vision for a biblically based Christian community embracing the whole of society (like Israel in the Old Testament) which lacked the alternative of a “godly prince” to implement the vision. Reformers gaining power faced huge questions surrounding finance, leadership, education, and lifestyle not just theology. Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances of November 1541 provided for a weekly meeting of pastors as well as of elders. In Scotland the First Book of Discipline of 1560 provided for General Assemblies and weekly “Exercises” in biblical theology. Presbyteries evolved in the 1570s from general sessions of elders and ministers operating across several congregations, and as an alternative to episcopacy as the office of bishop became entangled in conflict between the church and the monarchy. Puritans in the Church of England advocated local presbyteries. Support for presbytery became synonymous with the rejection of bishops, which also meant that presbyteries took over their roles. In 1581 the Scottish General Assembly decided to establish model presbyteries and the records of the Presbytery of Stirling created on 8 August 1581 still exist. The classic delineation of presbytery remains the The Form of Presbyterial Church Government drawn up by the Westminster Assembly and adopted by the Scottish General Assembly in 1645.
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