Mixing Litigation and Christian Faith: Definition of a Christian

Nov 14, 2002 03:00 AM EST

A Supreme Court judge has been asked to define what a Christian is in a row between the Presbyterian Church and the school council of elite Scotch College.

Justice David Byrne was told yesterday a person was not a Christian unless they attended church regularly and took an active role in the congregation.

Robin Brett, QC, said if a person called themselves a Christian, it was not enough to be baptized in the church and attend only at Christmas and Easter.

Appearing for the Victorian general assembly of the church, Mr. Brett said his clients were keen to ensure the council of the school adhered to Christian principles.

"People who don't regularly attend or don't take part in the congregation life cannot accurately be described as Christians," he said.

The dispute is the latest in a long-simmering power struggle between the church and the school council over control of religious adherence at Scotch.

Two years ago the turf war flared when the general assembly tried to veto the appointment of Shell director John Simpson to the council, but were ignored.

The general assembly claimed they had the power of veto on seven of the 17 places and that Mr. Simpson did not have a "vital church connection" -- meaning he was not Christian enough.

The general assembly has asked Justice Byrne to rule the council's decision to nominate and then appoint Mr. Simpson, despite its objections, was not allowed. But the council argues regular church attendance is not required for an appointment.

Mr. Brett read from the Old and New Testaments to persuade Justice Byrne that regular attendance at church was a non-negotiable part of being a Christian.

Council members did not have to come from the Presbyterian Church, the QC said, but they had to be committed Christians.

Mr. Brett said the general assembly had recently rejected two further council nominees on the basis they had no vital church connection and the dispute had to be settled.

"The school council are happy to appoint people who are committed to some of the articles of the school but they don't really care about Christian ones.

"That's an issue of principle," he said.

Simon Whelan, QC, for the school council, said they would argue the case was unnecessary because Mr. Simpson had served his term and had since been re-appointed as an "old boys" nominee.

The hearing was expected to continue today.

By Norrie Ross