The church that was born again

Australia has a church that, like its members, has been born again. The Presbyterian Church of Australia was “born again” 40 years ago when the Uniting Church was formed, and a big section of the Pressies “stayed out” of that newly formed denomination.

“Thursday 22nd June marks 40 years of a refocused and refreshed church,” the church’s leader, Moderator-General John Wilson, blogged recently. “The Presbyterian Church of Australia (PCA) is almost unrecognisable from what it was in the 1960s.” The term “Presbyterian” comes from the New Testament Greek for “elder,” and reflects the governing structure of this group of churches.

Rather than 40 years in the wilderness like Moses, the PCA has had 40 years of rebuilding in which it has transformed into a (nearly) completely evangelical church.

The PCA has a couple of alternative birthdays: 1901, which makes it 116 years old, because the church was formed in the year of Federation; or 1617, making it 500 years old, because the church traces its theology back to the European Reformation.

In 1978, there were three non-English-speaking background (NESB) congregations. In 2016, there were 22 NESB [congregations].

In 1977, there was a real mix of people who refused to go into Union, with two distinct flavours – evangelical and people who loved the Scottish heritage – “the bagpipes and haggis brigade.”

Looking back, Bob Thomas, one of those who marched out of a 1974 meeting that had voted for Union, and took part in the continuing of the Presbyterian Church, sees two victories: “Ridding the PCA of the dominance of ‘theological’ liberalism by staying out and then prising it away from the grip of the Freemasons (many of whom have come to saving faith in Christ, thus becoming ‘free indeed’).”

By removing many of the more liberal ministers from the PCA, the Uniting Church set the stage for today’s conservative Presbyterians. The story of the PCA is the story of a church returning to its roots. Today it is a conservative church, that has become more confident in its conservative evangelical stance – for example, moving to no longer ordain women in 1991.

Forty years of the reborn church is examined in Burning or Bushed, a new book by leading Presbyterians launched this month. The messiness of the Presbyterian votes for Union is recalled in an essay by Peter Barnes, editor of Australian Presbyterian. “The figures betray some confusion or ambiguity of thought – 75 per cent wanted to join the Uniting Church but only 61 per cent wanted to actually leave the Presbyterian Church!” A second vote was needed.

Barnes recounts that the status of the Bible in the proposal for a Uniting Church in Australia concerned many Presbyterians. He quotes Davis McCaughey, a Presbyterian who led the charge to Union (and later the governor of Victoria) saying the church “must be prepared to live without guarantees, without the guarantee of an infallible book, or infallible creeds, or an infallible church.”

“There are very, very few churches in Sydney who are effective at reaching Anglos. Where the growth is, is in multicultural areas.” – Mark Powell

Neil MacLeod, a leader who campaigned against Union, is also quoted: “A smaller church fast-anchored on the word of God will prove a far greater blessing to herself and to this land than a larger church uncertain of her foundations.”

The past 40 years of the PCA have seen the effort to bring that blessing into being.

In some parts of the country, it has been a struggle. A chapter on Western Australia reveals that only 600 people were attending PCA services in 2016. But the existence of a strong local, separate but quite similar “Westminster Presbyterian” group in the state needs to be taken into account.  In South Australia, Burning or Bushed sets out a tough journey with congregations that “continue to dwindle in membership and vitality” seeking to share Jesus.

But in Tasmania, which also had a tiny continuing PCA, a strong partnership with the university ministry of Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students has seen growth. Six new churches were planted from the 1990s, clustered around St John’s Hobart, which had been the only church left in the city after Union.

The three eastern mainland states have PCA branches strong enough to set up substantial theological colleges – Queensland Theological College, Christ College in Sydney and the Presbyterian College in Melbourne.

The PCA contains large and growing churches in each of these states, and has left its 40-year-old traumatic rebirth behind. Burning or Bushed has more details on NSW’s successes and struggles.

  • Between 1980 and 2015, almost 60 new churches were started. Fifteen of those since have been closed and seven are able to continue only because of their connection to stronger congregations.
  • In 1978, there were three non-English-speaking background (NESB) congregations. In 2016, there were 22 NESB “pastoral charges or home mission stations” with seven among the largest ten.
  • A dip: “Changes in communicant membership … typically indicate a progressive loss of members each year until 1999. By that stage, most churches had lost around 50 per cent of their communicants.”
  • Followed by a rise: “In most churches the rate of decline slowed in about 1999 and in many it has now been reversed.”
  • “Fast growth new plants” with strong leaders Bryson Smith at Dubbo, Paul Sheely at Albury,
    and Steve Cree at Lismore.
  • But Sydney has problems: “By 2015, for instance, only half of the churches in the Sydney Presbytery were sustainable in terms of their direct, free-will offerings.” However, a number of new church plants have been started recently, including Hornsby Presbyterian Church, Redemption Hill in Green Square and a new beginning for the Pressies’ oldest congregation, Scots Church in the CBD.
  • Success with multi-ethnic churches but, as Mark Powell from Cornerstone church explains: “There are very, very few churches in Sydney who are effective at reaching Anglos. Where the growth is, is in multicultural areas. Now that’s not all those Anglo churches’ fault; it’s hard ground.”