Well, that wasn’t how we expected things to turn out!
In July this year, ministers and elder of the Presbyterian Church in NSW (PCNSW) came together for General Assembly. There were many items on the agenda up for discussion (it was a week long meeting!) including deliverances by the Women’s Ministry Committee. But the big ticket item was the discussion on women elders (a deliverance brought forward by the Special Committee on Elders and Deacons - SCED).
On Tuesday morning, the first day of Assembly, we were prepared to hear a report from the Procurator (the PCNSW’s barrister) regarding his opinion on the legal standing of Overture (i) (regarding women elders). But instead, Rev John Irvin, the Clerk of the Assembly, addressed the Assembly.
The Assembly Committee had been warned that the processes by which the Healthy Complementarianism paper (brought to the Assembly by SCED in 2022, and then distributed to PCNSW Churches) had possibly intersected with the Church’s requirements in regard to Work Health and Safety Laws – in particular, the Church's responsibility to protect workers and volunteers from psychosocial harm. How would the Assembly address this warning? Rev Irvin encouraged the Assembly to “hit pause…and plot a new path forward”.
Then, the moderator, Ben Greig, addressed the Assembly. As I read my notes from his address, I’m reminded of the heavy emotional weight in the room – distress, frustration, confusion and I think, even anger. Ben called us to prayer. My notes capture this summary of what he said:
“We cannot face this ourselves. It would be foolish to think any top table can lead the way – only the Lord can. God has shown us straight, direct that what is required now is utter dependence. Only God will have the solution, the best thing we can do is commit ourselves to prayer.”
And so we did pray, in small groups, for several hours during the Assembly Pause, and while the Assembly met in closed court. We confessed our prayerlessness and self-dependence, and the ways in which our church has, through generations, engaged on this issue combatively and unlovingly. We prayed for the women elders, who have served their churches faithfully over the years. We prayed for the commissioners and committees who have worked over the years to encourage the Assembly to reform its governance to be in line with "healthy complementarianism". We prayed for the Trustees and Business Committee, that they would move with wisdom, conviction, and pastoral sensitivity. And we prayed that not only would God find the solution, but bring peace to His Church.
When the Assembly reconvened in closed court, it was decided to defer consideration on all matters pertaining to Healthy Complementarianism until legal advice had been received.
Because of the breadth of "healthy complementarianism", the “pause” also impacted some of the deliverances (and work) of the Women’s Ministry Committee. The following deliverances by the WMC (redacted to remove any mention of “healthy complementarianism”) were approved later in the week as consent agenda (that means, approved by vote, without debate or discussion):
GANSW 2023 BB Min 83
83. Consent Agenda arising from Minute 34: Pursuant to notice, the Rev. John Irvin moved:
That the Assembly:
Determine that the following items be treated as Consent items:
From the Women's Ministry Committee (using the same clause numbers as in the original Deliverance)
a. The course of study for Deaconesses
b. The process of appointment/deployment of Deaconesses
c. The language and process for Deaconess trials
d. The process for Commissioning
e. Whether the definition of Deaconesses includes those serving in paid and unpaid positions within the denomination
f. The process when a Deaconess moves Presbyteries and/or changes employment
g. The governing body which oversees the welfare of Deaconesses
h. The inclusion of Deaconesses in the provision of vocational training, loans and grants by PCNSW Committees.
i. The ways in which Presbyteries and other bodies could best provide care and welfare to Deaconesses and Deaconess Candidates and be encouraged to do so proactively
The advice we received at Assembly was to pause all communication regarding “Healthy Complementarianism”, but we have since been assured that we can continue the work we’ve been commissioned to do by the Assembly (that is, to promote Healthy Complementarianism in the PCNSW). Our podcast, More Than A Cake Stall – Season 4 (which pertains to the discussion on women elders) will be on hold until the Assembly resumes.
At the end of the week, the Assembly did not formally close, but paused with a plan to reconvene – we’re still not sure when that will be – once the legal advice has been received and a clear path forward is established. The commissioners will then consider the several overtures and deliverances that pertain to “healthy complementarianism” – including women elders.
Until the Assembly meets again, we should continue this pause as we began it – in prayer for our Church, for the Assembly, and for the Lord’s will to be done. Will you join us?