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Re-Imagining Presbyteries – Love, Localism and the Munus Triplex

This post has been brewing for a while. Back before the Chalmers Lectures on Kirk Reform, it was the way so many folk within the Kirk spoke about presbyteries that irked me enough to start thinking more about structural reform. My take on church structures has also always been a big picture ‘political’ one. I am interested in them because I am interested in how power is shared and configured within institutions. I have other friends and colleagues who are much better presbyterian ‘geeks’ than I am and I lean on them constantly, because I am not an expert on the details of Church Law and procedure. My main interest is in how structures mediate relationships between people – so in what we call ‘polity’ and in ‘polity-making’.[1]

Over the years: I witnessed the brutal departing from a previous scheme of presbytery reform in the GA and was both startled by it and a bit intrigued. I watched the Barrier Act swing into operation or the threat of it be invoked at various times. I saw friends work for presbyteries and saw how that was for them. I worked in the URC for a while, taking part in District Councils and Regional Synods, so having an opportunity to be part of another system. I knew a number of URC Synod Moderators. I watched Fresh Expressions and Pioneer Ministry find institutional champions among certain C of E Bishops and saw how that affected support for them in particular dioceses.

When I wrote RTK and after the Special Commission/Radical Action Plan swung their weight behind presbytery reform, I always felt this was going to be a significant part of the reform journey and that it would be hard to get right. After being distracted for a while, three West of Scotland presbyteries asked me to give a talk, then there was an invitation from Andrew MacLellan and Sandy Forsyth, in their imaginative work for the then Presbytery of Dunfermline; finally it was an invitation to speak to Lanark/Hamilton Presbyteries – which pushed me to think more about this.

If I needed reminding, a long Zoom Presbytery of Glasgow meeting in December 2020, moderated with great patience and fortitude by William Wilson, reminded me of why these parts of our institution can take us to the edge. Even then, though, witnessing some passionately stubborn and heartfelt last stands in which folk appealed for their buildings to be given a reprieve, something tugged at my soul and reminded me there is a dignity and a humanity to what we do in our polities. The rubrics of congregations being ‘cited to appear’, the right to be heard ‘on the floor of presbytery’, the commitment to debate and talk and the ways in which we constrain and release one another in voting – these all reflect our belonging to the body of Christ, our ‘incorporation’[2] which brings not only mystical and spiritual bonds in Christ, but also political and social relationships, connections and responsibilities to one another (which I would say are also ‘in Christ’).

Writing RTK, I became interested in the possibility that the way forward into reform, had to come by way of taking our institutional structures more seriously, of treating them with real theological seriousness. It seemed that by doing this, we might find a perspective on them which could combine the courage to change them radically, with the wisdom to change them well.

In this post I want to distil some thoughts from the different conversations and contexts mentioned above and offer some theological reflection on the nature of presbyteries, as a contribution to the ongoing work of reforming them. There are a couple more debts I want to acknowledge on the way. The first is to my PhD student Scott Paget, whose work on theology and geography in relation to youth work is inspiring me to see the rich and underexplored connections between these disciplines. The second is to Adrian Shaw, who has done such important work for the Kirk in relation to climate change. His developing research interest in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland has reminded me of what a remarkable place they hold in the history of Scotland and of the Kirk.

‘Territorial Ministry’

The debates which took place not so long ago on the Third Article Declaratory[3], have their own place in the journey to reforming the kirk. I have a good deal of sympathy with those who worry about whether the commitment “to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry” is now unsustainable. However, one unintended consequence of their legitimate concerns may have been a tendency to view the concept of “territorial ministry” in an overly negative light.

At the very end of RTK, on the final page, I reflected briefly on what it might mean to live into a “territorial imagination” for the Kirk. I want to try to develop that idea here, building on those reflections on parish and extending them to presbytery.

This is what I wrote back then:

“One thing which I have not said much about, but which has been a major cause of reflection for the Kirk in the past decade, is its commitment under the 3rd Article Declaratory that “as a national Church representative of the Christian Faith of the Scottish people it acknowledges its distinctive call and duty to bring the ordinances of religion to the people in every parish of Scotland through a territorial ministry.”[4] Looked at through the lens of a systematic theology, the whole question of being ‘a national church’ does not bear too much theological scrutiny and is in fact, continually put in question by the classic ecumenical marks of the church, that it is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. A theological account of a ‘national church’ will have to come by way of a historical, contextual missiology and will understand itself, like the nation it is identified with[5], as only ever a provisional structure. Yet, like the nation, under God it may discern its having been called to a discipling, a catechising into being the church, into being a peculiar people, in a particular place.[6] Since mission is rooted in the loving heart of God, the mission of such a church is to love that place and those who live there. Without compromising its international vision of the church catholic or the global oikumene, our part in the stewardship of creation and in world mission is to be particularly expressed in the cherishing and inhabiting of this land, this language, this culture. Who will work to contextualize mission in Scotland if the Kirk[7] will not?

It is possible to read the Kirk’s continuing commitment to the parish system as a form of imperialism, a desperate clinging on to the vanity of being a national church as the capacity to inhabit that role ebbs away. Sadly, there may be some truth in that. But there are other ways to live into a territorial imagination. Abraham Kuyper famously said, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[8] To be shaped by the logic and discipline of parish, is to believe that God loves every square inch of Scotland and every person who lives here. It is to believe with the Puritans that “every place is immediate unto God”[9] and to reject the logics which marginalise and stigmatise some places as bad areas, as sink estates or junkie ridden schemes, as ‘remote and benighted’, the middle of nowhere, or the back of beyond. At its humblest and best, the parish system is an affirmation that God loves Skaw and Skye, Whithorn and Whitfield, Drumchapel and Drumnadrochit, Cumbrae and Cumnock and it is a prayer for the coming of the kingdom into every corner of Scotland, that people in every place would know God’s will for them is life in all its fullness. However the Kirk has to learn to ration and rationalise its work in the coming years, it should never be because it has forgotten that.”


I still think that it all starts with love. “There is mission” says David Bosch, because God loves people.” Elsewhere, in words which have been much quoted, he says: “To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God's love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.” Our belief that God loves the world – the world God has made – is an affirmation which deserves to be expanded and expounded both globally and locally. In my wee book on preaching, God Be In My Mouth, one of the chapter headings echoes the title of Andrew Maclellan’s book Preaching For These People. In the quote above, the idea of ‘these people’ is set alongside ‘this place’. If the territorial imagination is reconceived not in any proprietorial or exclusive mode, but missionally, then with Bosch we find ourselves returning to trace the source and the basis for all we do, in God’s love for all people, which is only meaningful if it focuses down into the global/local affirmation of ‘God’s love for these people in this place’. There is a theo-geography implicit in our understanding of God’s love for the world. If our territorial imagination is shaped by Genesis and by the Psalms, then in this year when COP26 comes to Glasgow (to be held a few hundred metres from where I now live) we will be inspired again to consider God’s love for the earth and everything in it. This encompasses all that has life and breath, but a theology of creation should push us on to consider that if we can love the contours of a place, can love a piece of the earth, can love the kinetic conjunctions of land/sea/sky in which we live and make our homes; the very possibility of our doing that is grounded in the fact that God loved and loves those things first.

So I found myself, when speaking to the presbytery of Lanark (and with some worries that it might sound a tad eccentric) suggesting that when we thought about ‘the bounds of a presbytery’, we should first of all think of them as marking out an area about which we make the affirmation “God loves this place and these people who live in it”. Still feeling a tiny bit sheepish, I continued “What if we thought of a presbytery, parish and charge as each in their own way, an affirmation of love – in this case of God’s love for the Presbytery of Lanark and all that lives in it.” I then brought onto the Zoom screen a slide view of a beautiful Lanarkshire landscape, lifted from their presbytery website, beneath which it read:

“God loves… Lanarkshire, Lanark, New Lanark, Lesmahagow, Abington, Biggar, Carstairs, Carnwrath, Quothquan, Douglas… its mountains, trees, rivers, burns, fields, wild animals, farm animals… its women, men, babies, toddlers, school kids, young adults older adults, people with disabilities, seniors LGBTQ+, singles, marrieds, parents, divorcees, widowed, black, white, healthy, sick, rich, poor, good, bad, ugly, addicts alcoholics, adulterers, bankers, sex workers, kirk elders…”

My point was to try to offer a kind of ‘missional psalm’ which was richly (or ‘thickly’) contextual in the way it evoked both praise and compassion in response to our thinking about ‘these people in this place’.

I found myself delighted around the same time, reading/viewing a Tweet by Neil Urquhart in which he simply posted a short video of the Ayrshire coast at sunset (or was it sunrise) – hashtagged it with #BeautifulAyrshire and also tagged the twitter accounts of a range of local organisations from VisitAyrshire to the local Council. It was such a simple thing to do and yet in that moment it spoke to me of the ‘priestly’ function of the church, celebrating the beauty of its place and calling out to other local institutions, ‘this place in which we live and work is beautiful!’.

A few days earlier I had read, with equal delight, an email from Chris Rowe in which he spoke about his desire for the church in Colston Milton, a priority area in North Glasgow, to cherish the green spaces around it and to be aware of the habitats they contained, the bird and animal and insect life.

I had also seen a photo posted by Adrian Shaw of his newly acquired tower of green bound volumes of The Statistical Account of Scotland. It set me thinking about the expectation that Sir John Sinclair in the 18th century famously directed towards an entire country of Kirk Ministers, that they would give an account of their parishes. If you stay with that thought, it unfolds into an expectation of local knowledge, of attentiveness, of curiosity, of enquiry into what was going on in their place: farms, mines, mills, monuments, trees, geological features, fishing practices in rivers and seas, bird life, local historical sites, legends and folk tales – all kinds of things would finally make their way into these monumental volumes. But if Sinclair’s collated accounts could be seen to have a priestly function in their celebration of diversity in each locality, they also had (at times inadvertently) a prophetic function in what they recorded about enclosures and prices, about diets and housing conditions and educational opportunities.

What does it mean to nurture a missional territorial imagination, a theo-geographical imagination in relation to our presbyteries and parishes? If it begins, as I have suggested, with the love of God, then it will develop in both of these dimensions: the priestly and the prophetic.


The priestly includes both the explicit praise of the church gathered for worship when we affirm “all thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea” and the shared celebration of creation with our neighbours, through art and science, song and story, banter and chat. It shares in all and any celebrations of our place and its people.

Liturgically, for a reformed church like ours, where we compose most prayers afresh each week, there should be a strongly contextual element to our praise. We are the people who are called to praise God here! Who else will give thanks to God for this place and its people, will praise God for the beauty of this place and for the gifts of its folk, if not we who call this our parish, our presbytery. Of course, our praise should be centred around Jesus and anchored in our confession of the Trinity – but the Maker made this place and these people and by the Spirit, Jesus is really present here. If the Lord’s disciples do not raise their voices to praise God in this place, then these stones may have to cry aloud, because in every place God is there to be praised and is to be praised.

The priestly function of the church encompasses praise, confession and intercession – as the church in this place, turns to God ‘on behalf of’ this place. To labour the point again, who will pray for our place if not we who live here. To pray for a place and its people with conviction and integrity, we need to know it/them and to love it/them. Our everyday knowledge of our place and its people is what feeds our prayers and drives our prayers.


Alongside the priestly aspect of a territorial imagination and closely related to it, is the prophetic aspect. As the Kirk, we are a church of the Word and proclamation of the gospel to all creation is central to our understanding of ourselves and our calling. But the Great Commissions of Matthew 25 or Acts 1 with their global horizons, still need to be given local expression. Each ‘here’ is a context into which we are called to speak the Word of God, who loves that ‘here’; it is a microcosm of the world which has been reconciled to God in Christ. If we draw on Romans 8, we can also think of the Spirit of God groaning within each ‘here’, expressing the longing of creation in this place, to be set free from all that reduces or hinders it. Just as the priestly relationship offers an ecology of praise, confession and intercession, so the prophetical relationship offers an ecology of proclamation. We see the precedents for this in the New Testament, in Paul’s contextualised evangelism on Mars Hill and letters to particular churches and in John of Patmos’s understanding of how the Spirit speaks ‘to the church at Laodicea/ Linlithgow/ Larkhall’. This ministry of the church in speaking the truth in and to a particular place and its people, is also to be characterised by love and is a function of our love for our locale and our neighbours. Such speaking the truth in love, may also involve us in speaking truth to power and to those who have power in this place, over these people.

There is a rich theology of local evangelism to be developed here, which may include some remarkable feedback loops able to move us to gratitude or to repentance. Why has this part of the presbytery long seemed like stony ground? Why did so many folk go to the Free Church round here in the mid19th C? Why is there such a reservoir of goodwill towards the church in this community? Why has there been such a strong tradition of youth work here?

My understanding of the prophetic here encompasses both affirmation and challenge. Its core concern is to say and do what God is calling us to say and do, here and now. But inevitably and rightly, this will include a holy unease – a longing that life ‘round here’[10] should conform more and more to what it was made and meant to be. Our prophetic concern for our presbytery and parish areas, participates in God’s deep longing for these places and their people to know fullness of life. This is the sentiment in Fred Kaan’s great 1960s hymn for the healing of the nations, which senses God’s fierce opposition to “all that kills abundant living”. Here we also see the close connection between the priestly and the prophetic – our prayers leading us into prophetic speech, our prophetic speech driving us to prayer.

Within this understanding of the prophetic, we can also discern a Reformed, presbyterian parallel to the vision of ‘the Bishop’ as a missional leader within their diocese; the presbytery is charged with the episcope/oversight of mission within its ‘bounds’. This doesn’t have to imply a top down, centrally directed vision of mission. The main agents of mission within a presbytery will be local congregations and local church plants which should be operating from the ground up, driven by local initiative and vision. In a presbyterian system, all these local expressions of mission exist in relationship with one another; a relationship which encompasses mutual concern, mutual support and mutual accountability. The presbytery may also hold an overall concern for any places or people groups within its bounds who are not being reached or served by the existing network of charges and should be free to take initiatives to address that, without being unduly hindered by principles around ‘intrusion’. Many of our presbyteries have developed ‘mission strategy’ posts or committees in recent years and this is where we can lean into the theological underpinning for these. Evangelism in our region, pastoral concern for those who live there and a political theology concerned for poverty, power and planet are all part of a prophetic relationship to place and people.


The third term in the munus triplex relates to the kingship of Jesus ‘the only King and Head of the Church’ and the scope for exploring its implications for the life of the Kirk is inexhaustibly rich. People have raised understandable concerns about both the absolutism and the maleness of the metaphor here and I want to be attentive to these, while also taking seriously the ways in which the metaphor foregrounds issues of power and governance. One of my themes over the past decade has been a defence of institutions and the institutional (also of denominations and the denominational) as a vital part of a non-docetic ecclesiology. I grew up in a fundamentalist sect whose very poor self-awareness of its own institutional identity was one of the structural features that made it easy prey for abusive and manipulative leaders. Polity matters, because polity maps relationships between people and power and seeks to make them visible and reformable. If our polity sucks, the answer is to reform it, not to indulge in escapist fantasies about being simply a spiritual ‘movement’ which bumbles along in some form of happy charismatic anarchism.[11]

Presbytery reform is a reform of our polity and we need to reflect theologically on how it can evolve in more Christ like ways, to reflect the loving, liberating reign of God and the character of the Good Shepherd. In RTK I quoted G. D Henderson’s suggestion that ‘presbyterianism asked too much and gave too little’ and I think there is a wide consensus that by the late 20th century, the governance of the Kirk had become too bureaucratic, centralised and ‘heavy’. This perception increased in strength as the church this governance was for decreased in numbers. Too many small presbyteries with high vacancy levels struggled to maintain presbytery structures and procedures. Councils with overlapping remits consumed the time and energy of too many members and struggled to adapt to key questions thrown up by decline, hampered by poor leadership and a poorly articulated relationship to other councils and to ‘central’ structures. Financial control was unsatisfactory and key budget areas were not delivering in the ways the church wanted. Investment in key areas was sluggish and half-hearted with no clear plan for reform of: work with children and young people; initial ministerial education; pioneer ministry; church planting and re-seeding/starting. CrossReach was a legacy ‘ministry’ which was caught in a twilight zone between church and state and preoccupied with survival in a challenging financial environment. There was confusion and sometimes discomfort about the Kirk’s congregations and ministries outwith Scotland and the UK.

Nothing that has happened in the past three years has changed my mind about the need for reform of governance and structures, but that does not mean we have got everything right. Institutional reform is a journey in which radical reshaping needs to be accompanied by ongoing reflection and evaluation. Reforms need to be adjusted and tweaked. Unforeseen consequences need to be taken into account. Different parts of the institution need to learn from other parts. Just as some parts of the institutional dysfunction before reform were related to people behaving badly, so some of how the reforms are undertaken and how they bed down will also be vulnerable to people behaving badly. ‘Kingdom’ governance needs to be animated and articulated in relation to ‘kingdom’ spirituality. Those with managerial roles and responsibilities need to remember their ultimate line manager is the one who is among us ‘as one who serves’. There is to be no Gentile ‘lording it over’ within our forums, councils or presbyteries. We should be pioneers in developing a gracious and co-operative culture of management, which empowers and values all parts of the body. This is also to be part of our witness to the world as the church of Jesus Christ.

So as the new presbytery structures are created and named and find their feet; as they employ people and make plans – if they are to do this in a Christ like way – after the example of Jesus the prophet, priest and king – then the culture, pattern and performance of governance is crucial. It is a deeply spiritual area of the church’s work in a way which the older designation ‘temporal’ tended to miss and we should pray for and encourage those who are taking a lead in implementing it.

Doug Gay – Trinity College – August 2021

Notes: [1] I owe that phrase to Harry Smart [2] our being embodied [3] Special Commission Report to the 2010 GA [4] [5] on this see my 2014 book, Honey From The Lion - Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism. [6] see the Scots Confession 1560 for the language of ‘particular kirks’ [7] This applies also to all the other Scottish churches, together and separately - I mean this inclusively - though I also believe we need to hear this as a distinctive Word to the Kirk. [8] Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty,” in Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, ed. James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 488 [9] I heard John Stott quote this, but have never found the source. [10] Counting Crows fans will nod at this [11] I mean ‘bless you if you can do this in a non-abusive, inclusive and Jesus honouring way’ but I’ve rarely if ever seen it work. More commonly, it leaves people vulnerable to abuse and control by others with no formal recourse.

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