A transcript of my notes from an address to Wednesday Worship at Opoho Church this week on the 22th July 2015, being some thoughts on my research and description of the Public Questions Committee in the Presbyterian Archives.

I want to talk about the Public Questions Committee in the Presbyterian Church.  For a long time the Presbyterian Church had a voice that contributed to public issues.  Originally the Presbyterians talked about religious issues relevant to the national church — temperance and Bible in Schools.  Social and political questions came to General Assembly and a special committee was set up to report to the next assembly.  By 1912 it was suggested the process could be streamlined and debate in the assembly avoided by setting up a Committee on Church life and work.  General Assembly set up the Public Questions Committee in November 1917 in order that resolutions relating to public questions outside of purely Church business yet in the moral and religious aspect that the Church was intensely interested should be the fruit of calm consideration of some of the wisest among ministers and laymen.  In 1924 Public Questions became a standing committee of General Assembly.

The subjects that that Public Questions covered were wide ranging: ANZAC Day, Abortion, Alcohol, Biculturalism, Education and Religion, the Media. The three that stand out to me in describing this collection is the file on wrestling from 1936 — in the verge of a world war the Presbyterians were agitated by wrestling in Wellington as a family entertainment; the conscientious objectors files that start in the 1930s and report on the treatment of the Presbyterian individuals who resisted the militarisation of the age and stood up for pacifism when it was unfashionable (surprisingly, in a later age when peace and conflict studies is fashionable they are unknown); and the long commitment of the Public Questions Committee and International Relations to keep attention on South Africa in the apartheid era — a yearly commitment at the shareholders meeting of South British Insurance to divest from South Africa, and when this was impossible, to withdraw the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.  I’m riding several favorite research topics here as hobby horses.

The commitment to apartheid and South Africa may have been Public Questions proudest moment. It may have also been the line in the sand for conservative Presbyterians who saw radical Presbyterian leaders taking positions in politics, in opposition to our sporting contacts with South Africa, including Maori in the All Blacks, and taking a stand which conservative Presbyterians considered contrary to the gospel.  By 1981 Public Questions became a joint committee with the Methodists. In 2000 The Society of Friends and the Associated Churches of Christ joined what was now known as the Churches’ Agency on Social Issues.  The conservative bloc in the General Assembly was critical of a committee that they felt did not communicate with the church and did not represent the church.  Had the committee always been radical and to be feared, or did it become so?  It is hard to say.  In 2007 the Council of Assembly ended Presbyterian funding to CASI and it dissolved.  Between 2007 and 2015 the church’s voice on social issues has been silent.  Having Vision New Zealand, and the Inter-Church Bio-Ethics Council, and the Centre for Theology and Public Issues, which is supported by the Synod of Otago and Southland,means we don’t need to have a voice.  Somebody will do it for us.  In contrast the Salvation Army, a church less than half the size of the Presbyterian Church on current members has become the go-to people for media on social issues. When the Salvation Army makes its annual state of the nation address people take notice.

In the moderator’s paper, his encyclical, It’s A Matter of Faith, Andrew Norton talks about the loss of Voice as a deafening silence.

Sadly, when people do eventually speak it is usually on one topic alone; we come across as a Church that is obsessed with sexual orientation.  Our voice is perceived as a voice against.  Wouldn’t it be great if we discovered the voice of God today that is a voice for. Who will speak if we do not.

He raises some suggestions to regain a prophetic voice.  In the Presbyterian Church I see that an open, generous orthodoxy conflicts with an orthodoxy by subscription.