Misbehavior, Moral Failings, and Church Governance
By Barbara Meachin
Stories about church governance are not usually found on Page Six, but Session minutes from our founding years would certainly have qualified. 60 – 80% of them concern the (mis)behavior and moral failings of our members! The Session investigated offenses against both morals and religion, holding trials with witnesses if warranted. In the 1768 trial of a woman accused of intemperate drinking (the most common charge), her character witnesses said that she took only a daily quart of beer with a gill of rum “to refresh Nature” but they had never seen her drunk. The Session dismissed her anyway until there was evidence of genuine repentance.
They also discussed the disappearance of a red and white handkerchief, blue silk stockings and a blue cloak later made into a coat and trousers for a person who was, presumably, not the owner of the cloak.
Members’ faith came under scrutiny as well. In 1820, Mrs. Maria Townsend was asked to renounce her belief that even sinners would be forgiven and allowed to enter heaven through the grace of God. Presbyterian theology of the day was far more focused on sending the wicked to hell. She refused to recant, began attending Trinity Church, and was excommunicated by our pastor Dr. Gardiner Spring (see illustration–right). She responded with a polite note.
This all seems extraordinarily intrusive today. But until the late 19th century, Elders were responsible for monitoring the congregation very closely. They visited members in their homes, tested prospective members on their knowledge of Presbyterian doctrine, and – at least in the early years – decided who would receive the token allowing them to take communion.
The current denominational structure and division of labor among Elders, Deacons and Trustees along with clergy has evolved over time but much remains consistent. Even in Dr. Rodgers’ day, there was a hierarchy of presbyteries and synods that led the denomination. In 1809 when Brick Church split from the Wall St. Church, we had a full slate of officers. As we saw, Elders assisted the clergy in encouraging correct religious beliefs and moral standards. Trustees oversaw finances and the Charity School. Deacons served the poor and needy. There were no term limits: many officers served for life.
Today we elect officers for staggered 3-year terms, voting at the Annual Meeting on a slate prepared by an All-Church Nominating Committee. The numerous committees that run the church are then assembled from elected officers and the general membership. The Brick Church congregation includes an amazing array of financial, legal, managerial, creative and artistic talent that has benefited our church and community. A quick look at our Annual Reports shows the range of committees and their members. In fact, 30 % of us have been an Elder, Deacon, Trustee or committee member. This essential work is also greatly rewarding personally and spiritually. If invited to serve, do say yes.