Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

How to tell the story of Presbyterianism in a post-denominational age

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. No one tradition or movement seems to be able to claim to be consistently on the side of the angels.

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

Presbyterianism's sense of purpose has often been both source of unity and a focus for division. Although I resist the idea that the church is primarily defined by its mission (even if that is a cause I wish to champion); a sense of what we are called to be and do is one 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 narrative - the story of what has and has not been 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 its gift of worship almost from another world.

The story is part of a wider Reformed story which includes other churches influenced by Calvin and the 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 who are British in origin, who share more elements of Presbyterian identity than many realise. The implications of both need to be taken seriously as 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 celebrated and understood if we are to deal with our ecumenical diversity within as well as what is without the walls of a once tidy system.

Of course it never was that particularly tidy! Reformed Christianity emerged out of the 16th century 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 as fundamentally about the struggle in every generation to seek to know  worship and serve God as God intends 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 has its dangers. Every generation sees different heroes and villains in the past, and sometimes it is the peacemakers who failed and even the heretics who lost who today may be seen to have been guardians of a Christian truth we can now better appreciate.

John Roxborogh