Studying Presbyterian and Reforming Christianities

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 How should the story of Presbyterianism be told?

Presbyterian history is marked by conflict, which may be attractive when it produces stories of heroes resisting evil and folly, or repellent when closer study exposes the cost, confusion and compromise of complex events. The conflicted nature of Presbyterian history makes it interesting by its drama, but it also presents challenges if one seeks to do justice to its diverse caste of characters.

Many don't want to know about complexity or heroes with feet of clay or that being good or bad correlates poorly with truth and error. Of course there is good and evil, and there are attractive and unattractive personalities, but our task here is more about understanding than condemnation. We do have to do with human complexity as well as with simple profound verities.

Presbyterianism's sense of purpose has often been both a source of unity and a focus for division. Although I resist the idea that the church is primarily defined by its mission rather than a relationship with God (even if that is a cause I wish to champion); a sense of what we are called to be and do is an important key to our renewal as it is to our identity and history. Mission is not the only question we should ask of the past, but it is also closely related to  the story of the intention of the church in different times and places and the adventures and characters along the way.

Every generation has its own perspective. I seek to tell this story with both a global perspective and a special focus on places familiar to me: New Zealand where I live, Scotland where I studied, and Southeast Asia where I was privileged to teach. The story of the Celtic and Medieval Church in Scotland is included because I believe it is important for understanding the Reformed faith in Scotland and its renewal today, especially as Celtic spirituality leaps across the centuries to present us with its gift of worship almost from another world.

The story is part of a wider Reformed story which includes other churches influenced by John Calvin and other Swiss Reformers, not all of whom were necessarily Presbyterian in organisation. These traditions include Congregationalists who are often now part of Presbyterian churches in New Zealand, Britain and around the world. Also Baptists, particularly those British in origin, who share more elements of Presbyterian identity than many realise. A good many Presbyterians today are Congregationalist in their polity and Baptist in their practice of initiation into the community of faith. This needs to be celebrated and understood if we are to deal with our ecumenical diversity within as well as what is without a once tidy system.

Of course it never was that particularly tidy - and the call to do things "decently and in order" can invoke the dated paradigms of the past not just the security and fairness of agreed process. Reformed Christianity emerged out of a turmoil of reinvention of what it was to be Christian. It has an era of foundations, shares with Christianity generally an era of becoming a global faith, and now faces issues of diversity and renewal. Each of those phases is important, especially as people seek the simplicity of the founding era in the face of complexities which are sometimes just the nature of the case in a fluid global era.

My aim is to see this story as fundamentally about the struggle in every generation to seek to know  worship and serve God as God intends in our time and to cope with different visions of what obedience to the mission of God means and requires. Faith always has an incarnation in a culture and is tested in a political and social environment.

We need to remember and understand past events, and use our imaginations to grasp something of the urgency and power of past visions. Yet we do not necessarily need to act out old battles and animosities in order to learn from the faith of those who came before us. The transference of anger and indignation between past and present can stir dangerous emotions. Every generation sees different heroes and villains in the past, and sometimes it is the peacemakers who failed and even the heretics who lost the battle (if not always the war) who today may be seen to have been guardians of a  truth we can now better appreciate.

If this seems strange, or even impossible, then there are many important examples of what it means to acknowledge the respect that is due to all those who helped make us who we are. The Old Testament itself often needs to be read this way. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address honours those who fought without reference to the side they were on. 

Being a historian is a high privilege, even if it sometimes means being the heretic in nearly every gathering, too often aware of inconvenient truths which bolder voices overlook.  Yet even historians never know it all and never know enough. We too do not always get it right. Yet if what we do know makes us more aware of God's patience with all of us, perhaps we will be closer to the saints of every age and tradition than we might dare or like to think.

John Roxborogh, March 2011