A late report on a long Presbytery



Cold autumn rain chases us up a slick set of steps into a long, low, bright room. Plastic chairs in neat rows face a low stage, an old-fashioned pulpit peering over its modern surroundings from the back of the platform. People mill. There’s a sound test and a missing spanner. We find seats on the less precarious of the chairs. We’re both on the bigger side of the scale, the minister and I, and he identifies the chairs requiring the least amount of clenched butt cheeks to sit on without them collapsing. As nine am rolls around, the rain settles into a steady drizzle. More people arrive, as reluctant as distant family at the funeral of someone they stand no chance of inheriting something from.

Tembisa, Saturday morning. We’re in a Presbyterian church overlooking the vast panorama of the township. The township is something else: crumbling houses giving sudden way to palatial mansions in bright colours, potholes snapping at the feet of children skipping over the road to chase along in excited bubbles of limbs, the slow wade of gogos about their business, bursts of greenery that are as much plant as weed. We passed at least three spaza shops on our way in. One of them was in a done-up shipping container; another had the prices of individual rolls and buns unevenly painted onto its façade. Despite the weather, people are out and about, the vendors at their make-shift street-side stalls, foil packets of cheap crisps in neat rows arranged alongside candy, matches, roll-on deodorant, medicine, sunglasses, fruit.

The church itself is that curious, charming mix between community hall, shopping centre and rich relative’s living room that characterise many township places of worship: big, shiny floor tiles, a low ceiling, lots of fluorescent lighting, a fair amount of stoic “make do”. Fancy drapery in the UPCSA colours decorate the entire back wall of the room behind the pulpit. There’s a sense of pride among the minister and his congregation that comes from having built something up over time, rather than inheriting it, like most churches out in the suburbs. A finished church, one might say, is a temptation to think that the church’s work is finished as well.

And yet: that a bunch of people from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds would choose to spend a Saturday morning at Presbytery is at least one sign that the days of miracle are not yet past. Deputised by our various Sessions, we Presbyterians gather once a month to indulge in the process that’s at the heart of Presbyterianism: meetings. Autonomy is outweighed only by the paperwork making it possible, and the paperwork is only made possible by the people who enjoy that sort of thing (not me) or who find themselves there anyway (me).

Like all meetings, Presbytery is a mixed bag. You get to catch up on news official, unofficial and inferred through meaningful looks and knowing eyebrows. You have the opportunity to put faces to names and/or email addresses. Presbyteries offer a second or third or fourth chance to catch the name of someone you’ve met twice before and who you always exchange pleasantries with, without your lapse being either obvious or awkward. There’s free food and the opportunity to pick fights over minutiae in the minutes. So there are obviously benefits.

As far as I can tell, the biggest drawback to this sort of thing is that at every Presbytery meeting there are people who really want to be there. They’ve brought paperwork and opinions, and they are Christian enough to share either, often without prompting, to whomever they think is most deserving. They do so at length, and often. They always have five more minutes to spare, come hell, high water or the general, seething consensus that they need to sit down.

A mixed bag, as I said.

The biggest issue at March’s Presbytery was the centralisation of stipends. There’s a real need for supervision with stipends: some churches feel that they need only pay their minister when they like them (and no minister is ever liked that much if we’re honest). A minister whose name I did not catch (but give me another Presbytery or two and I should have it) spoke very eloquently about the tension between “freedom” and “fairness” as far as stipends go. Rather too eloquently, I’m afraid; he mentioned a central stipend fund as a kind of assistance for those churches who can’t afford their ministers’ stipends, into which wealthier congregations could pay contributions. If centralisation is realised, I suspect that at some point that tension between “freedom” and “fairness” will be moved along to “fairness” and contributions will become mandatory, but I digress.

From the comments made, the gist of the antimony against centralisation is that you don’t load an already wonky bureaucratic system with more paperwork, lest it actually collapses. Faced with dissension, the meeting thus did the only thing it could: it set up a committee.

People who claim humans cannot turn invisible have never been in a room full of other people who might reasonably nominate them for a committee.

Four reluctant volunteers later, the moderator announced a leg stretch to try to revive the flagging faithful, which commenced the start of the “race to the toilets” section of the proceedings.

There are several things one needs to understand about this race:

  1. It is not, strictly speaking, billed as a race.
  2. Yet it is a race.
  3. You’re allowed to smile in a kindly manner while you briskly overtake a lagging elder.
  4. But do not smile so kindly as to elicit a conversation, which the elder will use as a means to get ahead in the queue when they finally reach the toilets.
  5. You had better pooped at home.
  6. You had better have brought your own toilet paper.
  7. For the minutes you’re in the queue, you are mysteriously deaf to the sounds of other people urinating.
  8. It is absolutely a race.

I came in fourth; a relief, because it means I was never faced with the decision of having to use the stall without a door.

Nothing very notable happened after that, and thank the Lord: my chair had started to register alarm as, quite against my wishes, my gluts decided to reward themselves with a break after their unusually stressful morning.

I imagine coming back from a Presbytery bears more than a passing resemblance to post-traumatic stress: the ring of voices, the threat of some errant paperwork resulting in a call-out from the Moderator, someone promising, “I’ll be brief” (a falsehood). And if the meeting itself doesn’t do it, then the consequences of your “unsupervised toddler” eating at the lunch table probably will.

Perhaps that is the Darwinian function of Presbytery meetings: to weed out the weak and ill-resolute.

To conclude, I offer this joke:

Q: How do you get Presbyterians to attend a meeting?
A: You make a typo in the agenda.

Warm regards,
Your neighbourhood Presbyterian