How Did We Get Here?

After Union

Sylvia Siu
5 July 2023

We finished our last episode with Union, which was actually the division of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. Today we’re going to glide through the 80s and into the turbulent 90s. But – for the sake of focusing on just the matter of inclusion of women in the eldership, we’re going to have bypass some really prominent, adjacent issues: the reversal of the ordination women in 91, and the heresy charge against Peter Cameron. I wish I had the time to go through these two historic movements in more detail because I think they really significantly impact our Presbyterian church culture – both in the way women experience church, and in the tone we employ when we debate what we now call ‘the women’s issue.’

Maybe that’s an article for the website once this season wraps up.

But I also want to acknowledge that for the most part, the men and women I mention in this and future episodes are battle weary. On both sides of the debate, there is a lot of pain, a lot of grief, and still-open wounds. I’m trying to tread carefully as we study their lived experiences, which have, for better or worse, shaped the culture of our denomination today. 

So, what happened after Union?

At the PTC Melbourne Minister’s Conference of 2004, Rev Bob Thomas explained that the crisis that faced the Presbyterian Church after Union was two fold: firstly, it’s continued existence, and secondly, what that existence would look like.

He explains,

“Would the Presbyterian Church of Australia get back to its roots and be evangelical and Reformed, or would it be a moderate, traditional type of Presbyterian Church?...The only valid reason for us to continue was to get back to our roots and be Evangelical and Reformed. So that crisis was upon us almost straightaway.”

So, the remaining Presbyterians – those from the reformed and evangelical camp – worked in earnest to reform the Church and purify her theology. I’m sure that happened in the day by day preaching and ministry of the Church, but also, most tangibly, through the Courts of the Church. How did they do it? Thomas explains, 

How did we do it? We did engage in serious prayer. We used to have regular monthly prayer meetings in various manses and would pray for the whole situation of the church. We became very serious in our study of the Scriptures and of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Older ones mentored younger ones. We had help from the Sydney Diocese. We learned to support one another and back up one another. If one of our younger men was under attack by the old guard, one of us would get up to defend him and to deflect the attack. We broke the gerrymandering that the traditionalists had in the assembly, and we waited on the Lord's timing. We made decisions regarding positions on committees, boards and positions in the church. “The Crisis of 77”, a speech given by Bob Thomas at the Ministers' Conference held at Presbyterian Theological College, Melbourne.

This was serious work, and we see their persistence in the Minutes of both the State and Federal Assemblies – especially throughout the 90s. The Denomination attempted to make a stand on many significant theological issues– including the incompatibility of the Masonic Temple with the gospel and the Presbyterian response to the Charismatic movement that was growing in Sydney. But the most persistent opposition was directed towards the inclusion of women in the formal offices of the Church.

Confusion reigned over whether the States, or Federal Assembly, had powers over the office of eldership. When the GAA opened up the eldership to women in 1967, most of the States followed their lead. But now, as these States attempted to restrict women from eldership, it seemed unclear if they had the power to do so.

In 1984, the GAPCQ rescinded their decision to include women elders.


But then in 1985, members of the PCQ petitioned the GAA, asking them to rescind the PCQ’s 1984 decision to rescind their previous decision to include women in the eldership. Did you get that? In 1984 PCQ said “no more women elders”, and the petitioners asked the GAA to tell the PCQ “you must have women elders.”

But, the GAA could not act on the matter, because The Basis of Union – we’ll learn more about that, a little later in the episode - expressly put eldership in the “governance” basket – that is, a matter for the States. This is important, because it’s going to come up again further down the track – but for now, what you need to remember is that the GAA – the Federal Assembly - is concerned with issues of doctrine, and the State Assemblies issues of governance.

The 1985 GAA received two other Overtures regarding the formal offices of the Church, and so they formed an Ad Hoc Committee, called “Office In the Church”, to consider them. This Committee returned to the Assembly three years later (1988), explaining that because of the diverse range of opinions held by Committee members, the Committee had put out 6 different papers on the matter.

Rev Bruce Christian, who convened the Committee, explained:

The replies [received] reflect exactly the same diversity of opinion which exists among the members of the Committee…One thing is clear: every individual or group holding strongly to a particular view point does so from what is believed to be an obvious biblical, theological, historical and/or legal perspective! …. The prospects of arriving at a consensus on any one of the issues are very slim, and would remain so even after a considerably longer and more detailed debate. At least this seems to be so in the present climate of the Church. Threatening the peace of the Church.


“Threatening the peace of the Church.” That’s how Bruce ended the report – this matter was clearly dividing the Church – not simply tearing it down the middle, as Union did, but threatened to fragment it into pieces.

In 1988, there were three separate overtures related to women’s ordination – the results which were finalised in 1991. The Assembly Clerk received Communications from the federal PWA and local church sessions, who encouraged the Assembly to put the debate on women’s ordination aside for the sake of unity and to focus on evangelism.

These two communications created the impression of a dichotomy – either get your theology straight, or do evangelism.

The 1988 GAA clearly separated out women’s ordination to Word and Sacrament from women’s ordination to the eldership, ensuring that they had the power to make the decision on ordination. The Minutes recall:

MIN 108 … The Assembly declares that ordination of women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament is a doctrinal matter and

Min 122… Appoint a Committee… to prepare an overture on the matter before the Assembly and present it to the House tomorrow morning …
Minutes of the GAA 1988

You see, in the debate some proponents for women’s ordination argued that as Presbyteries ordained ministers, the matter could only be decided at the Presbytery level. Some argued that it was a governance issue, and therefore a matter for State Assemblies. And so, the 1988 GAA took it on themselves to declare that ordination was a doctrinal matter, and therefore determined by the GAA.

Before we move into the 1990s, we need to make one more stop in the 80s –at the 1988 GANSW, where a report was presented by a “Committee on The Spiritual Condition of the Church”, who had spent three years encouraging

“..frank discussion amongst its own members and requested information from people who through their experience are able to make informed statements.

Their report is heartbreaking. It reads,

It would be impossible to deny that discord and bitterness exist in our Church, and that these sins are hampering the proclamation of the gospel and the upbuilding of the people of God, but it is not correct to say that these faults have rendered the Church totally ineffective.

They also identified that

Some of the potent sources of unrest that were identified [were]
(a) The experience of Church Union, [which] taught people to think in a political fashion.
(b) [That] Having experienced the trauma of division, it [was] easier for people to face division again…
(c) The opinion has been expressed that division in the Courts of the Church is much more common that it was in the past.


It’s upsetting, isn’t it. The politicization of the Courts of the Church reveal an underlying trauma which stems from Union – a trauma that almost created a level of indifference to division in the Church. The division was more entrenched than previously experienced and more intense. It’s important that at this end of the debate, we remember the discord and bitterness, the grief and tension experienced by the men and women who went ahead of us, the context of the decision that were made.

At the 1991 GAA, the Federal Assembly were ready to make a once-and-for-all decision about the ordination of women to the Word and Sacrament. The Assembly began and an urgent question was raised: was the political division that had become so entrenched in the Courts of the Church preventing the Church from doing important gospel work?

The out-going Moderator thought so. In his opening address, he denounced that the Church had spent so much time fighting over secondary issues:

I believe that the issues which have caused such polarisation in the Church in recent years are of secondary importance, and that the Church needs to concentrate on matters of primary importance - prayer and evangelism. My prayer is that the Lord will bring us to a common mind so that the Church may be empowered by His Spirit for her task. However, despite the things which at present are hindering our effective witness, I believe that there is great cause for optimism.
Moderator’s report: Alan C Stubbs 1991 GAA

I’ve invited Rev Bruce Christian to help shed some light on the struggle the Church faced.

Bruce with the gift of hindsight, do you agree with Stubbs’ assessment that the debates of secondary importance “hindered the effective witness of the [Presbyterian] Church?”

Yes, I think Alan Stubs is 100% right, I am in agreement with what he says. The problem is, how do we solve this problem? We all agree that this is a massive problem, obviously our main concern is preaching the gospel. We’re living ina world that’s rejected God and rejected the gospel and we’ve got an extra importantce to spread the gospel and share it with as many people as possible, and anything that hinders that is a problem. So if the Church gets bogged down in other issues, that’s going to hinder it to some extent. But some of these other issues aren’t things we can walk away from.

The big thing with sharing the gospel is, what the world is interested in, is how we relate to each other when we disagree with each other. I think that’s the thing we’ve got to do with all of this, to relate to each other well. I want to come back to that in a minute, but I want to say something first. I have a friend who grew up in the Catholic Church, and he said to me “as kids, in the Roman Catholic Church, we were told that the Catholics must be right and the Protestants must be wrong, because there were so many different Protestant churches. But then, when I became a Christian, I found out why you Protestants do have so many differences: it’s because you think seriously about what you believe, and that’s what causes the differences. There’s things we’ve been debating about for years and we’ve never been able to solve it: about whether baptism should be available to children under the covenant or whether it should be reserved for people who are adults and can make a decision for themselves. We’ve never solved that problem, so we have different denominations. We can’t live together, because of governance, we can’t live together with a difference of opinion like that. But there are other things we differ on, that don’t affect governance in the same way. I have good friends, and we differ on things that are important to both of us – one is on the interpretation of Genesis 1, the Creation story, and what that really is. But that doesn’t affect the way we operate as a Church, and the way we relate to each other as we disagree is important for our witness to the world.

Philippians chapter 4:5 has been a really important verse to me. It says, “let your moderation be known to all men, the Lord is at hand.” And the word moderation is translated in English translations 1000 different ways. I’ll teach you a bit of Greek. The Greek word is, ἐπιεικής, and it only occurs 5 times in the New Testament and one dictionary describes it like this: ἐπιεικής is the way you relate to each other when you have a difference of opinion. And the New English Bible translates it like this: let your magnanimity be known to all men. Now, magnanimity isn’t a word we use these days, so that isn’t a very good translation. But it really hits what the Greek word means. I don’t know any Latin, but I think magnanimity comes for “big life” – magna means big and anamous means “life”. So, big heartedness. It’s about how you agree to differ but resolve to love.

I think we’re never going to solve this problem we’re dealing with about ordination of women and women in the eldership. Now the difference is, with this women’s question, is that it does effect the way we operate as a Church. We either have women elders or we don’t have women elders. I mean, we can agree to have a difference of opinion, but when it comes to the structure and governance of the Church, we’ve got to make a decision.

And Allan Stubbs is right, we’ve got to let this not stop us from showing the world that we love the Lord Jesus, and we want other people to love and know the Lord Jesus as well. 

So, it sounds like we weren’t magnanimous or, you know, generous with each other then, when these debates were happening. Is that a fair…

Well, that did occur, where we feel strongly about it. It’s important to us. We don’t just brush it under the carpet. We say we’ve got to deal with this. But we haven’t always related well to each other, as we’ve debated it I think. In our fallen human nature, when we’re excited about something, it’s hard to it’s hard not to really hammer it home.

I was leading a Committee to deal with this problem right through the 1990s. We met for 10 years and we didn’t solve the problem, and we had to report to the GAA that we couldn’t solve the problem. But we had people on the Committee of different persuasions and we got on well together in terms of the way we spoke to each other, the way we listened to each other, read what each other wrote. We took it seriously. But at the end of the day, we had to give a report and we couldn’t… we differed on what to put in the report.

But if I get back to how we relate to each other, if I could just say that the first Church I went to, when I was ordained, there were already women on the eldership, there were already women elders there. And they knew how I felt about it, that I wasn’t happy with the Church ordaining women to the eldership, the women knew that, but we got on really well together. I let them do all the things that elders do. I had to say to myself, “If I’m going to be part of the Presbyterian Church an the Presbyterian Church says it’s okay for these women to be elders, even if I disagree with it, that’s what I’ve got. And I either leave, or I make it work. They felt a little bit awkward because of what I believe, but I hope I never did make them feel like they weren’t wanted or valuable in what they were doing.

And then, I went to another Church, another Congregation, that already had 3 women elders on it. When they were wanting to call me, I made it clear what I believe, and they knew that, and again I worked well. And one of those three women was my most faithful elder, and the most helpful elder of all. She was the one who has always at the prayer meeting, always at the Bible Study, she was just wonderful. A single women, and she was such a great help to me and such a great encouragement to me. And we could work together, even though she knew what I believed and I didn’t change what I believe. You can do that at a local Church, but it’s very hard to do that in the Assembly. Allan Stubbs is right, but I’m not sure we could’ve done, in hindsight I’m not sure we could’ve done it differently.

Bruce’s audio is a little bit garbled here, and then his internet cut and he dropped out of the chat. But, to quickly connect to what he’s saying next, he explains they couldn’t have done it any differently because there were a lot of wounds from a decision they had been ‘lumbered’ with – the 1974 GAA decision to ordain women that was made when the remaining Presbyterians had left the GAA and went into the Camberwell Assembly. If you’ve forgotten or missed that part of the story, you need to listen to episode 1.

And it would have been better if the pre-Union church had said, “look, this is a major decision that affects how we operate, why don’t we wait ‘til after Union to make this decision.” So, you know that didn’t help the way we dealt with it afterwards, because we were already upset, about that. We dealt with that emotionally.

So how do we navigate the tension between getting our theology right and proclaiming the good news of the Gospel?

I don’t know Sylvia! There’s no silver bullet, but I want to keep trying at it. I try to make it clear that I’m good friends with people I disagree with in terms of our agreement on the gospel, to stress the fact that we agree on what the gospel is and how important it is. If I do, if I really do believe in my heart that God made men and women differently and to complement each other, and not to be the same, and that ought to be reflected in my marriage and in the Church… if I think that the Bible says that clearly, than it becomes a theological issue that I have a Church that operates consistent with what the Bible says.

Bruce, earlier you made the observation that you thought we would never resolve this issue as a Church. Where does that come from? Is it just being battle weary?

We are battle weary, Sylvia. And, we wish it’d go away. I feel as if I’ve got to keep standing up for what I believe and no one’s convinced me otherwise. I’ve prayed, I’ve tried to keep an open mind but I haven’t convinced otherwise, so I’ve got no choice but to try and get the Church to see things the way I see them. But it’s not the sort of battle I want to do. Like, I’m not built for this. The Lord didn’t design me for this sort of thing. Well, in the middle of the Peter Cameron trial, one of my daughter’s said to my wife, “mum, the trouble with this is dad isn’t even enjoying this.” I didn’t enjoy it one little bit!

I just hope by the grace of God, we can keep working together even if we can’t, so like… we were never able to sort the Baptism problem, so we have a Baptist Church and a Presbyterian Church. Because that’s a governance thing and about the way that you operate, so you’ve got to have separate denominations. But I don’t want to have separate denominations in the Presbyterian Church over whether you ordain women or not. So I’m hoping we can keep the gospel alive, and encourage each other not to get weary about the gospel just because we’re weary about this battle.

Bruce, I think that’s probably the answer to the question about how do we keep that tension alive. It’s not to get weary about the gospel, even though we might be weary about these battles.

Yeah, yeah. And where we are agreeing on the gospel to sort one another flat out with it, and to demonstrate to a lost World that we support one another. That’s what I’ve tried to do, personally, but I… it doesn’t always come across like that in the Assembly because I’m nervous.

And I think the main thing, too, Sylvia, is that we stay on our knees and we just keep praying for each other and supporting each other when we disagree and doing what Allan Stubbs says and keep the gospel to the forefront and make sure that’s the main thing.

And despite his frustration about the battles being a distraction from the gospel, he said he still had optimism.

Yes! Yes, I loved that. I was going to comment on that, thank you. And I’m still optimistic. And I think the Lord has been good to us, despite all of these things. And it’s helped us to have these debates and to force us to love each other while we’re doing it. Well, we haven’t always succeeded at loving each other, but when we have, it’s been helpful.

And so, when the results of the 1988 Overture on the ordination of women were brought to the GAA in 1991 (BTW, the official term for gathering the responses is “return to remits”), it was evident that while Presbyteries were divided, the State Assemblies responded overwhelmingly against the ordination of women to Word and Sacrament.

The Assembly approved a motion brought by Rev Principal Allan Harman to “approve the ordination of men only…” with 116 votes for and 65 votes against. (GAA 1991, Min 75)

I know I said I’d gloss over the issue of women’s ordination, but the two issues were intertwined. The removal of women from ordained ministry increased the pressure on both camps of the debate in the GANSW to either affirm or deny its inclusion of women to the eldership.

In 1992, the GANSW moved forward with their attempts to define – or redefine - eldership. It might be surprising to you, but the first Overture on eldership that came to the GANSW, after the 1991 GAA decision on women’s ordination – came from members of the Assembly who supported the inclusion of women to the eldership In 1992, an Overture was brought to the GANSW from the Presbytery of Bathurst regarding eldership and the courts of the Church.

The premise for their Overture was that the Church had “not seriously studied the nature and the function of the Eldership since 1967,” and because of the blurred lines “between doctrine and government”, and because confusion abounded as to whether the State or Federal Courts had responsibility for the eldership, They requested the Assembly to set up a Study Committee on Order in the Church to examine the nature of the Eldership and its relationship with the Church courts.”

MIN137 Presbytery of Bathurst Overture re The Elder and Courts of the Church, GANSW 1992

The Committee contained members of a diverse range of view points, but managed to come back, in 1993, with 2 different views on the eldership.

If you want to read their findings in more detail, make sure you check the show notes, but in summary, they found that there are:


Two prominent approaches to eldership, that while they have basic propositions in common they move to different conclusions about practices and the authority an elder can have to carry out certain aspects of the work of the Church.

One model sees the elder and minister as Presbyters, both of whom rule in the Church Courts. The elder should not be organisationally responsible for proclamation and the dispensation of the sacraments and, in fact, is not set apart for this purpose while the minister is required to take on the responsibility. While pastoral care often involves some teaching responsibility, an elder who preached would be seen to be taking on additional tasks to cover organizational deficiency.

I think we’d call this first model the “two tier model,” the elder’s ministry is limited: for example, there was no requirement for elders to be able to teach – in fact, those who did would be “taking on additional tasks.” Nor were they responsible for the sacraments – which in the Presbyterian Church are just baptism and Communion/Lord’s Supper. The other model is a one tier model, which :

…sees one office in the eldership with all elders or Presbyters ruling and some also excelling at teaching. There are some who devote more time than others to teaching so may be assigned, for practical reasons, special responsibility for the sacraments and the preaching office

The Committee noted that

Both models have long histories and advocates rely on both history and Biblical scholarship to justify their use. Often in a parish situation the first model is the one most known by older ministers and elders and expectations of the second model are raised by more recent ordained ministers. The Church needs to discuss these areas in relationship to the Eldership so that members are better able to understand the different views, and can with discernment enter discussion about these matters.

They identified a generational shift: the first model – the two tier model - was known by older ministers and elders and expectations of the second model were raised by more recently ordained ministers.

Their report was received by the Assembly, which also approved:

  • …the production of a booklet on the Elder and the Church Courts as comprehended in the report...
  • [fund the report, and]

3) Encourage sessions and congregations to use the booklet as a basis for discussion on the work of elders and particularly their involvement in the session and wider church.

Min 118, Report from the Order in the Church – Elders and Church Courts Committee 1993 GANSW

The following year, the Committee returned to the Assembly with an almost completed booklet, but their report to the Assembly explained,

… There has not been unanimity on the Committee about all subjects raised, or on the extent of

questioning which should be allowed about the functioning of the church courts. This is not

surprising when there is much debate about these issues in the Church at this time. Some members have not agreed with the final draft on some issues however the Committee in general has made considerable efforts to accommodate different views for the sake of getting [the] booklet in the hands of elders and interested church members... Order in the Church Communication 1994, GANSW. Minute 61, GANSW 1994

The Committee was thanked and discharged and the booklet published and distributed across the State.

If you’re interested, the booklet, titled “The Elder and the Church Courts, Presbyterian Church of Australia in the State of NSW” is available at the Ferguson Library. It helpfully spells out the two views on eldership that were outlined in the report, the Biblical use of terms such as Presbyter and Overseer, the history of debate on eldership in the Western Reformed tradition, but I couldn’t help but notice that there was not a single reference to gender in it’s 52 pages – a sure sign of the Committee’s divided opinion on the matter.

In 1997 – just three years later, another Overture came before the GANSW asking the Assembly

To give permission to Elders, set apart by Presbytery, to perform special pastoral work, including preaching, performing pastoral duties and administering the sacraments .

Mostly in response to the large number of ministerial vacancies in regional churches. The GANSW was challenging the GAA to allow elders to perform and administer the sacraments – a role that had been tied to the minister’s responisbilities.

As I read the Blue Books in consecutive order (including the booklet by the Order in the Church Committee), I couldn’t help but wonder if this Overture was a bid to open the pathway for women to return to administering the Sacraments.

Turns out, it wasn’t just me. Some members of the Assembly were concerned that if this Overture passed, women would return to performing the sacraments - in direct opposition to the 1991 GAA decision on ordination. Before the Assembly could vote, an amendment was moved to:

insert the word ‘male’ so that the Overture will read ‘male elders set apart.’

Debate ensued. The competency of the amendment was challenged and the Moderator ruled that the amendment was in fact, incompetent. The Overture did eventually go to the GAA, but with the amendment:

ensuring that only a minister or interim Moderator within the bounds of the Presbytery could authorise the elder [for the sacraments], and all such cases to be duly reported to the Presbytery.

But this was not the only Overture concerning elders that the 1997 GANSW considered. The next Overture was a pre-emptive response to discussion that would be had at the GAA, just a few months later. The Overturists petitioned the Assembly to

… reaffirm its commitment made at the NSWGA in 1969 (Minute 47) for women to be eligible to be elected by a congregation to the Eldership and subsequently be ordained to that office.

Minute 179 Debate ensued and the motion was challenged.

“The Competency of the motion was challenged on the grounds that it was not competent for the Assembly to pass a motion that implies it is possible for members of the house not to be committed to a law of the church.”

The Overture could not be passed because it meant that those who would not affirm the ordination of women would be disagreeing with the law of the Church, which at their ordination, they had vowed to uphold.

You see, those of us in the PCNSW who have taken vows, whether as ministers, licentiates, elders or deaconesses, have signed a document called “The Formula”, which declares that in the station given us, we

“shall…assert, maintain, and defend the doctrine, worship and government of this Church.”

The Formula, found in The Code, Appendix C page 282.

And so, “The Moderator ruled the motion incompetent.” The Overture could not pass.

Min 181 GANSW 1997.

Dr Helen Clements , who had stated the Overture, asked that the Assembly to note that the Overture had, in fact, been well supported before it reached the Assembly Clerk,

from Sessions and other church bodies in 63 pastoral charges or home mission stations supporting the Overture.

As well, 871 individuals wrote or supported parish letters.

So, although the Overture was deemed incompetent, the official records would minute the initial support given to the Overture.

But even that wasn’t the end of the debate. Immediately after, another motion was moved, by Rev Dr Ewen Brown. He asked

That the Assembly request the GAA to correct the inconsistency that exists about who may be elders in the church and declare that it is a matter of doctrine and government.


The competency of [Rev Dr Brown’s] motion was challenged… and ruled incompetent.

Even so, the exact same issue was debated just two months later at the 1997 GAA.

An overture was brought by 10 members of the PCV, who petitioned the GAA:

“to declare that the Bible teaches that godly men are the only lawfully qualified subjects for ordination to the office of ruling elder; and that future ordinations of women to this office would contravene the doctrinal standard of the Presbyterian Church of Australia; and that the General Assembly of Australia direct state Assemblies where necessary to bring their practice into line with this declaration.” Overture (i) GAA 1997

Before the Assembly had opportunity to debate The Overture, the Law Agent – Mr Simon Fraser - delivered a speech in response to the Overture. You can read the speech here – it’s incredibly helpful in understanding the legal foundations of the Presbtyerian Church of Australia – but I’ve asked Rev Dr Paul Logan, former Assembly Clerk, to help us unpack the speech.

Paul, what is the Law Agent, and what is their role in the Assembly?

Every Assembly has to legal officers – the Law Agent and the Procurator. The Procurator is the Church’s Barrister, he acts for the Church. For instance, after the decision was made about the ordination of women to ministry, there was a case that went to the Supreme Court of NSW to overturn that decision. So the Procurator acted for the Church in that case.

The Law Agent is the Solicitor for the Church. He does the conveyancing for the Church, he advises on matters of civil law and he briefs the Procurator when needed. We’re very fortunate the Law Agent we’ve had in Australia for 30 odd years not only has a head for the civil law, but he also has a tremendous knowledge of Church History and the situation in Australia. So we’ve been very blessed because of that.

Fraser refers to the Basis of Union and the Articles of Agreement – what are these documents, and what do they contain?

The Basis of Union contains the doctrinal structure for the Church for the GAA, and the Article of Agreement provides for the administration of the Church. The Articles of Agreement, which were revised at the 2001 Centenary of the GAA deal with matters of training of students to the ministry, the admission of candidates to the ministry, the reception of ministers who come from overseas and from other churches, overseas missions, relations with other churches, the national journal, Christian education, chaplains to the defence force and those sorts of issues.

The Articles of Agreement deal with the system of government in the Church. In his speech, Fraser explains that it is

“only in these specific areas where the powers of the General Assembly are supreme that the General Assembly may direct the State churches. … When in Article IV we find that the supreme powers of the General Assembly include doctrine, worship and discipline of the Church, the omission of government is deliberate.

Paul why did the Framers of the Basis of Union and Articles of Agreement deliberately omit government from the powers of the GAA?

Well, I think the argument follows the federation of the nation. Even though Australia became a nation on the 1st of January, 1901, the State still had their own constitutions. We had a case in this in the last few weeks, where the new NSW government has amended the NSW constitution to enshrine the public ownership of water resources. So there are two points of view. There is one point of view that the Federation of the Church in 1901, the Basis of Union superseded the State Church Constitutions; the other view is that the State Church Constitutions still stand.

One of the reasons for this is that how governments deal with property and finance differ from State to State. So, in NSW we operate under the Property Trust Act of 1936, and we have Trustees; where Western Australia has a different situation, where they have a body equivalent to our Trustees but the Moderator is chairman, and changes every year. Where is in NSW, the Trustees elect their own Chairman, so there is continuity. So there are those sorts of differences. So, partly because regulations and the way of dealing with property vary from State to State, so the Church omitted government. And of course, because the Presbyterial form of Church Government for instance talks about elders, and other church governors. And so it was a deliberate that the State Assemblies are still supreme in matters of government.

Fraser’s greatest concern with the Overture was that it would

“effectively rewrite the Federal Constitution of the Church...

If an issue of government can also be an issue of doctrine because there is a doctrinal element then would not the same apply to every issue which arises in the Church? A Church by its nature deals with the things of God. Sometimes these issues might be quite spiritual, other times they might be quite practical.' But there is always doctrine involved.... If the proposition is accepted that wherever there is an element of doctrine then the power of the General Assembly to be supreme in doctrine immediately applies, then we have transferred to the General Assembly of Australia supreme powers in the total life of the Church.

If the Assembly agreed to the Overture, it would be endowing the GAA with expansive, unchecked powers over matters that don’t even fall into its jurisdiction, and the precedent would be set – the GAA would have powers over the total life of the Church.”

After Frazer’s speech, the Overture was ruled incompetent.

The Law Agent’s speech made it clear that if women were ever going to be excluded from the Eldership, it would happen on a state by state level.

And so at the 1998 GANSW, two related Overtures were brought from the Presbytery of the Hastings. The first, Overture (vi) Concerning Women in the Eldership. The Overturists outlined Scriptural basis for their overture but also legal basis, resting heavily on the Law Agent’s 1997 speech by which they were able to determine that the States were not bound to the GAA 1967 decision on women in the eldership, and that States had the power to restrict admission to the eldership to men.

The Presbytery of Hastings overtured the Assembly to:

  1. Declare that only suitably qualified men are eligible to be ordained to the eldership
  2. Resolve to retain existing women elders in office
  3. Resolve that there be no further ordinations of women to the eldership of the PCNSW
  4. Direct that The Code be amended accordingly.

But the Overture didn’t even get to the vote. The minutes tell us:

It was moved, seconded and agreed that the overture be dismissed. (Minute 131 GANSW 1998)

The Second Overture from the Presbytery of the Hastings was concerning women serving on Assembly Committees (Overture viii)

The Overturists petitioned the Assembly that


  1. There is considerable debate within the Church concerning the role of women
  2. The Scripture excludes women from teaching and ruling men in an official capacity in the Church (1 Tim 2:11-12)
  3. This would eliminate women from serving as elders on Assembly Committees
  4. Scripture, however, does allow women to teach and serve in the Church, albeit not as elders (eg Judges 4; Acts 18:26; 21:9; Tit 2:3-5)

Now therefore the Presbytery of the Hastings humbly overtures the Assembly to take these premises into consideration and to:

  1. Allow each Assembly committee to co-opt up to four women communicant members of the Church to serve on it, with the possibility of additional women in some cases.

But, when their previous Overture – the one that bid to remove women from the Eldership did not pass – this Overture was “fallen from” – that means, withdrawn from consideration. Minute 159 GANSW 1998 – I

And so, we move, next episode to the 2000s, where I hope to cover 20 odd years of debate, bringing us to where we are today. I hope you’ll join us. 

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