Why Presbyterianism in a Post-Denominational Age?

I am often asked what is the point of studying Presbyterianism when people’s primary point of Christian identity is often their local congregation or else a movement or group that has been particularly helpful in their spiritual growth. People are sometimes unsure about the wider church as an organisation whose role in planting their congregation and providing leadership in its life is often forgotten. In an age when denominational loyalty seems a thing of the past, what is the point of studying Presbyterianism?

Those doing Presbyterian courses often ask this question. You may need to be reassured that what you are going to do will be relevant. Once you get going and interacting with others there is usually no question about the relevance to you own interests and ministry, however the question “Why study Presbyterianism” is still valid.

The first call on our identity is to be Christian, but in order to understand what this means for us we need to connect with our own heritage as well as with the wider history of Christianity and with the responses of Christians in general to the issues of our day.

We can think about who we are as a 21st century denomination by examining three sets of influences: our Reformed heritage, other parts of the Christian family and its various streams, and the cultures and societies that we belong to.

For some this means taking the significance of other Christian traditions and models more seriously. For others it means taking our context more seriously as a huge factor affecting our life, worship and mission. For others again, the critical missing element in re-growing confidence in who we are as a Christian church in the Reformed tradition is awareness of our own particular heritage.

If we ourselves do not address these needs, nobody else is going to do it for us. Understanding our heritage is essential for our health and our capacity to exercise wisdom in making changes. To do that we need to be able to identify our particular theological instincts, tell in fresh ways our stories of inspiration and of warning, and be clear about decision making processes as we implement change. These dimensions of heritage are still ours, even if they are often unknown, unexplored, or even seen as a little threatening. For those who feel that the church is itself a mission-field, then it might be also be said that no missionary should set out without preparing themselves with an understanding of the people God is calling them to.

A challenge in studying our heritage however is not just the question of recognising its importance, but of wrestling with the way our historical agenda has changed, and how the nature of the work is not the same as it used to be. As in other parts of our mission, the labourers also appear to be few.

Early historians of the Reformation, and many since, were concerned to demonstrate that their founders were good people, who suffered for Christ and for truth, and that those who opposed them either compromised or rejected the Gospel. Knowing this we it seemed we were justified in continuing not only in the faith they affirmed, but also in the attitudes they held to those who saw it all differently.

In the 19th century, Scottish history was seen by Free Church Presbyterians as a Christian struggle for political and religious freedom, and the persecuted Covenanters of an earlier time were seen as martyrs, not just to a different vision of what Christianity ought to be, but to the cause of freedom itself. This idea was so powerful that it overrode all evidence that whatever they may later symbolise, however tragic and heroic, Covenanters were not at all interested in freedom for any ideas except their own.

In a later ecumenical age continuities with other denominations mattered to some more than the differences they hoped the continuities would overcome. Presbyterianism was mined for examples of tolerant vision which were not always easy to find. The memory of the Covenanters was preserved mostly by those suspicious of what ecumenism was up to. There were stories of church’s uniting in mission not just dividing over principle. Historians themselves were still divided by competing visions of what the Presbyterian tradition was, different ideas of what it might become, and the need to provide the munitions of ecclesiastical conflict demanded by the different causes.

Some in this era were also troubled by how it could be that people who believed in God’s intervention in history in the birth death and resurrection of Jesus Christ could claim to be objective in a secular world which was impressed neither by miracles nor by providential notions of denominational progress. Of course secular history also had its myths that concealed deeper truths, and its own quota of erroneous visions. It is not easy being a historian charged with telling both your own people and others that your heritage is not what they want it to be!

More recently it has become a responsibility to acknowledge that our heritage is plural. Our people and congregations come from a range of Christian traditions and all their stories and viewpoints are important. We have joined with Congregational churches, and those from the Churches of Christ. Our membership is Anglican, Brethren, Methodist, Pentecostal and Baptist; not just Presbyterian. The Presbyterian / Reformed element may be the one that has gathered others, but it has not been left unchanged. When we own our heritage, we are also owning a cultural and Christian diversity which is part of an ever-present story.

It is difficult when , even in a post-modern age, people want new simplicities to frame the past - things which good historians are notoriously reluctant to provide. We are no longer about people categorised as simple goodies and baddies. That is not only unfair, it is also a denial of the evidence. We do still want to know how Christians survived, but not our own lot at other people’s expense. For most it is no longer surprising to know that our past is complex, our heroes were not all saints, and that many of those who opposed our ancestors were good Christians trying to serve God and the church as best they knew how in the circumstances. Today we have more histories which seek to tell the story how it was, though they are not always best sellers. A greater realism about the past should help us cope better with the complexities of our own time. In a post-denominational age we may not be wanting to prove that we are better than anybody else, but we will still be wanting to know who we are. Post moderns still want a narrative, but one which is authentic.

That is a task we need to address again. It is now nearly 20 years since a major history was written of the Presbyterian Church in Aotearoa New Zealand. We need fresh scholarship and a new telling of our stories. We need this nationally, we also need it regionally through Presbytery histories and profiles, and we need it in our parishes in renewal, conflict and growth, as well as in change and amalgamation. We need to tell the story of how Congregational and Pacific Island and Charismatic Christianity has changed New Zealand Presbyterianism. We may wish to explore our more dynamic relationship with Baptist traditions and the implications of the 1980s and 90s to be broader in that direction. We may wish to celebrate some of the other strategic moves in our reshaping and refocusing on congregational needs. We may wish to reserve judgement on how well we have handled contentious issues; historians in the future might see it differently from how we feel about it now. We may want to think about what from our past can tell us how to be a denomination that congregations of different traditions want to be part of.

If we lose our way to the past, especially our own, we lose our way to the future, including our own. The challenge here is also one of people. With very few exceptions, most of those of us in our church with doctorates in church history are retired or nearing retirement. Where will the future teachers and interpreters of our heritages come from?  Of course this is a responsibility for all of us, but in the midst of the renewal of our ministry and our congregations, we need to find space to encourage new generations of scholars and of ordinary Christians who will mine our amazing archives, record our oral history, and inspire our worship and mission.

Being Reformed is about asking ourselves in every generation what it means to be Christian. Studying our heritage is a necessary element in addressing that task.

John Roxborogh