Could a super presbytery alter Northland’s ecumenical ethos?
By Paul Titus
To overcome shortages of people and resources the New Zealand Methodist and Presbyterian Churches are moving toward larger regional administrative units. In some parts of the country consolidation has taken place, in others discussions are underway.
Now, moves to create a Presbyterian super presbytery that would encompass Northland, North Shore, Auckland, and South Auckland have raised some concerns about how it will affect Cooperating Ventures (CVs) in Northland.
Northland is home to 19 Union or Cooperating parishes, most of which have Presbyterian and Methodist components. By contrast there is just one straight Methodist and two Presbyterian parishes in the region.
The ecumenical nature of the church life there has led to a somewhat unique structure of governance and oversight. Churches Together in Northland (CTN) is an ecumenical body that serves as Methodist synod, Presbyterian presbytery, and Uniting Congregations’ joint regional committee.
CTN is made of a number of working groups and is led by a three-person presidium, which includes Methodist superintendent Rev Peter Williamson and Presbyterian Rev Peter Dunn. The work groups handle such tasks as ministry and pastoral care, finance, property, and social issues.
Peter Williamson says CTN and its work groups work very well, and is part of the identity of the region’s churches. There is anxiety about how effective it will be if Presbyterian input shifts to the super presbytery.
"There could be financial consequences, and questions about oversight and pastoral care.
"Northland is a conservative region theologically, and it has been difficult to find suitable Methodist presbyters for appointments. There has been a drift toward Presbyterianism in the region, and this might make it difficult for Methodist oversight."
Peter Williamson says larger regional administrative structures may, in fact, work well. It is possible that a new Presbyterian super presbytery will be mirrored by a Methodist super synod with similar boundaries.
He is concerned, however, that the super presbytery has been presented as a fait accompli and there are still many issues to be worked through including what degree of regional autonomy Northland will have.
Peter Dunn says the attraction of super presbytery is that it would ease the lack of resources and isolation the Northland churches face. It would make it easier to handle difficult problems such as complaints and judicial reviews.
"It could have financial consequences. We might end up paying more to the synod than we have to the national church but we would expect to get more in return, such as regional mission enablers or other resource people we do not have at present.
"There are strong local regional relationships in Northland and I would expect them to continue under a super presbytery. CTN has created a sense of close collegiality, and I think if we can maintain flexibility in regards to governance we can allow the CVs to continue functioning well," Peter Dunn says.
Creating larger regional administrative bodies could also allow Northland CVs to develop stronger ties to CVs in Auckland, he believes.
It seems clear that Northland people want to maintain some sort of sub-region to exist within the super presbytery. It could involve some delegated authority to Northland-based work groups, particularly in relation to property and some areas of ministry oversight.
Executive officer of Uniting Congregations Aotearoa NZ Rev Peter MacKenzie says if a super presbytery is created, some committees should be retained in Northland for local expressions of church.
"The situation in Northland is only as special as that in Wairarapa, the West Coast, and Gisborne, where isolated rural communities have developed similar ways to work together. They are unique solutions to unique local characteristics. CTN is not unique in that regard.
"Both the Methodist and Presbyterian churches are moving toward larger regions, and I would despair if that comes at the expense of such arrangements in rural areas. Certainly some things are best done in cities but we should not have all our planning driven by city situations," Peter MacKenzie says.
Former moderator of the Presbyterian Church Very Rev Garry Marquand was one of the authors of the proposal that Presbyterian Assembly passed that has led to the creation of larger synods. He says super presbyteries are not imposed from above but they are negotiated and emerge from local initiatives.
Garry believes CTN will not cease to exist and that all parties are committed to maintaining Northland’s ecumenical ventures.
At least half of its members would have to agree if CTN is no longer to carry out the role of presbytery. CTN will hold its next meeting on May 15th.