The way a church governs itself is called ‘polity’. Yet polity is more than just constitutions and charts of accountability; it is self-understanding. It is often because denominations have different polities that misunderstandings can arise in Ecumenical Shared Ministries. When an Ecumenical Shared Ministry works to find a way in which it can govern itself as it is getting established, it will find itself working with several understandings of what it means to be church, what values are involved in governance, and who is involved in oversight. It is helpful to try to understand how the different denominations understand themselves and what rules govern their life, before a mutually satisfactory form of governance can be found that will be appropriate both for the congregation and for the denominations involved. Denominations assign authority differently, so that some matters that are the responsibility of the local congregational ‘board’ or ‘vestry’ in one denomination might be the responsibility of presbytery or synod, or of the national church, in another.
It is also important to understand that the same names or titles don’t necessarily mean exactly the same thing in all denominations. Presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church do share some, but not all, of the features of Presbyteries in the United Church; for example, the UCC has Conferences of several Presbyteries, with authority of their own. An Anglican bishop and a Lutheran bishop share some characteristics but have somewhat different authority in relationship to congregations.
The congregation is the local worshipping body in The Presbyterian Church in Canada, and is governed by a session, which is made up of members of the church who are elected and ordained to the office of elder. Elders are ordained for life, but some congregations opt for ‘term service’ for the elders on the session. Each congregation will have either a Board of Managers elected by the congregation or a Finance and Maintenance committee appointed by the session, to oversee property and financial matters. Property is held by trustees of the local congregation and it is only when a congregation ceases to exist that property vests with the Trustee Board of The Presbyterian Church in Canada at the national level. Only the presbytery has the authority to ‘dissolve’ or ‘amalgamate’ a congregation. Sessions and ministers are separately accountable to the local presbytery. Presbyteries are made up of all active ministers and a representative elder from each congregation. The presbytery is the primary decision-making body regarding all aspects of congregational ministry and oversight of clergy. There are 45 presbyteries across Canada, two of which are non-geographic Korean language presbyteries. A listing of all presbyteries with contact information may be found here. Presbyteries are grouped into 8 Synods which, in addition to having the authority to oversee the work of presbyteries, often focus on the provision of camping and educational resources. The General Assembly is the highest court of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. It meets annually for one week at the beginning of June and establishes policy and doctrine for the denomination. It is also the highest appellate level court. One-sixth of ministers from each presbytery, and an equal number of elders make up the voting commissioners to the General Assembly. Three Clerks of Assembly serve the Assembly and the church through the year and are available to advise on matters of church polity and law.
Ecumenical Shared Ministries are seen as a category of ministry within The Presbyterian Church in Canada and have been affirmed by the General Assembly (Acts and Proceedings 2010 p. 000). Ecumenical Shared Ministries agreements must be approved by a presbytery in order to function legally with The Presbyterian Church in Canada. Presbyterian clergy involved in Ecumenical Shared ministries are accountable to the presbytery for their work.
The basic unit of the church is the congregation, which are grouped in synods. Each synod holds a biennial convention that is its governing body, and every 4 years the synod elects a bishop who is the leader of the synod, along with a vice-president. 5 synods make up the national church, which meets in National Convention every 3 years; it elects a national bishop every 6 years, and is governed by the National Church Council between meetings of Convention.
The United Church of Canada expresses its polity in the Manual
The polity of the Anglican Church is laid out in the Handbook of General Synod, but each of the 29 dioceses and the 1 area ministry has its own ‘canons’ (church law). These diocesan canons are often available on the diocesan website.
The basic unit of the church is the diocese, a collection of parishes and congregations which are governed by a diocesan synod and led by a bishop, who is elected by the synod when there is a vacancy. In most dioceses, all licenced clergy are members of synod, and each parish elects a certain number of lay people. Parishes, which may consist of more than one congregation, follow the polity laid out in diocesan canons, and there are variations across the country. Most would have a parish council (called by a variety of names) made up of lay leaders and the clergy; in some cases the clergy chairs this meeting and in others a chair is chosen by the council.
Dioceses are grouped in 4 ecclesiastical provinces, each governed by a provincial synod that meets every 3 years and led by an archbishop (also called a ‘metropolitan’) who is elected by the synod when there is a vacancy. All dioceses are also constituent members of the General Synod, the national governing body which meets every 3 years and is led by a Primate (also an archbishop) who is elected by the General Synod when there is a vacancy.
Local Governance of Ecumenical Shared Ministries
Each ecumenical shared ministry will develop a written agreement describing its particular form of local governance which honours and, where possible, integrates the polity of each denomination. This agreement will be subject to the approval of the bishop (ACC & ELCIC) and the presbytery (UCC & PCC) and will be reviewed from time to time. The agreement will reflect the following principles:
- The offices of Trustees, Elders, Presbytery Delegates, Synod Delegates and Wardens shall be maintained in accordance with denominational regulations. Wardens will be elected and/or appointed in accordance with Anglican canons. A Ministry and Personnel Committee will be appointed in accordance with The United Church Manual. The relationship between the Wardens and the Ministry and Personnel Committee will be specified in the local agreement. The ELCIC requires ministry personnel to relate to a Board and recommends that the congregation also establish a mutual ministry committee, which in the case of Ecumenical Shared Ministries could include key leaders in the congregation (not necessarily just Lutherans).
- Where there are separate Church Committees and Board/Sessions, each will be set up to meet the requirements of that denomination. Where such a situation exists there shall be a joint meeting at least quarterly, or a quarterly meeting of a central committee.
- Where there is a single governing body, the various responsibilities of each office will be maintained, including finance, stewardship, buildings, membership, worship, Christian formation, and staff relations.
The formation of the Ecumenical Shared Ministry does not consist of the amalgamation of denominations, but rather the recognition of individuals from all denominations who participate in this ministry, working under the beliefs and doctrines of the two or more primary judicatories.
The faith and practice of each tradition, in worship and in governance, will be maintained, honoured and, where appropriate, integrated. In other words, individuals will be afforded the opportunity to grow and be nurtured in the traditions of their own church, and have the opportunity to appreciate a wider ecumenical experience. Honouring its individual traditions, governance and polity, the Ecumenical Shared Ministry will develop a governance model that is appropriate to its own membership and context, in consultation with the relevant judicatories.
In order to provide ongoing support and oversight, each Ecumenical Shared Ministry will be officially linked to its appropriate judicatory through existing denominational structures. The responsibility for maintaining this linkage will be shared between the incumbent priest/minister, the Bishop (or his/her representative) and the Presbytery (through its representative), and will be assisted by the clergy and laity in other Ecumenical Shared Ministries. All ecumenical shared ministries will be visited regularly by representatives of the Diocese (Anglican) Synod (Lutheran) or Presbytery (Presbyterian and United Church) as applicable.
Among the issues that should be flagged for special consideration are:
- Buildings & Property
- Support to Denominations