Doug Gay on reforming Scottish Presbyterianism

Doug Gay has been in Edinburgh giving the Chalmers Lectures. The first two of these are now available online (see below), and the third and final lecture will be given later this week (I’ll link to it once it’s available). Together, they are an informed, intelligent, lucid, timely, and hope-filled challenge not only to Scottish Presbyterianism (the prime focus of his reflections) but also to the wider church.

I am grateful to Doug for giving these courageous public lectures, and to The Church of Scotland for making them available to a wider audience. I look forward to reading his forthcoming book on the same subject, Reforming The Kirk: the Future of the Church of Scotland.

A Presbyterian take on Episcopacy

The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk, 1891A guest post by Graham Redding

What is the primary function of a presbytery? Section 8.3 of the Book of Order describes it in terms of facilitating and resourcing the life, worship, spiritual nurture and mission of the congregations for which it has responsibility.

Noticeably absent from the above description are references to: (1) the function of governance, or oversight; and (2) to the presbytery as a court of the church.

It could be argued that these things are implied rather than stated – for example, the Book of Order says that “a presbytery may exercise executive, judicial and administrative functions” (8.2(1)), and that, in performing its functions, a presbytery “may exercise its authority” over its constituent churches and in relation to any matter committed to its charge by the General Assembly (8.2(2)). However, the word “may” seems to suggest that these things are occasional and optional rather than integral to the role of presbytery.

One suspects that the governance role, including that of being a court of the church, has been deliberately downplayed so as to avoid portraying the presbytery in authoritarian terms, and to avoid weakening the primary emphasis on facilitating and resourcing the life and mission of congregations.

There is something to be said, however, for giving renewed emphasis to the governance role of presbytery. Why? Mainly because of the Greek word episkopos, meaning “overseer”. The word appears just a handful of times in the New Testament. In the likes of Acts 20:28 and Titus 1:7 it is used in close connection with the word presbuteros (“presbyter”, usually translated as “elder”), and seems to suggest that: (a) for the Apostle Paul the words episkopos and presbuteros were used interchangeably, and as synonyms for church leaders; and (b) a key part of the New Testament’s portrayal of the role of elders (presbuteroi) is the provision of oversight (episkopeo) of the church.

Different church traditions have understood this episcopal or oversight role in different ways. Some traditions have created a separate office of Bishop (which is presumed in the King James Version of the Bible when it translates episkopos not as “overseer” but as “bishop”). These are sometimes referred to as episcopal churches. In the Anglican Church, for example, there are three categories of ordained ministry: episkopoi (bishops), presbuteroi (presbyters or priests) and diakonoi (deacons).

It is sometimes said that, because the Presbyterian Church does not have bishops, we are a non-episcopal church. Not so. We just understand the notion of episcopacy differently. For episcopal churches, the episcopal function, and the apostolic authority that goes with it, is tied to a historical succession of bishops. For Presbyterians, episcopal oversight is provided not by an individual person but by a presbytery consisting of presbuteroi (presbyters/elders) serving as a kind of corporate overseer/bishop. Thus in our tradition it is presbyteries, not bishops, that ordain Ministers of Word and Sacrament through prayer and the laying on of hands; and it is from presbyteries, not bishops, that ministers and congregations take direction and correction.

Interestingly, in The Plan for Union (1971), which, had it been approved,[1] would have seen five denominations, including the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists, form one Church, provision was made for the office of Bishop. It described the office as “historic”, saying that “it is a symbol and agent of the unity and continuity of the Church and its ministry with the witnesses of our Lord’s death and resurrection.” It further described six episcopal functions, summarised as follows:

  1. To promote mission and evangelism;
  2. To provide pastoral oversight, particularly of ministers;
  3. To ensure the truths of the Christian faith are taught, and to state the doctrines of the Church;
  4. To ensure the norms of Christian worship are observed, and to encourage and guide new developments in worship;
  5. To be responsible for fostering recruitment to ministry, for the pastoral care of those in training, and to ordain those who complete their training and are appointed to ministry positions;
  6. To authorise presbyters and deacons to minister.

It is an interesting exercise to compare the above list of episcopal functions from The Plan for Union with the list of presbytery functions contained in section 8.4 of our Book of Order. The first thing that strikes one is the difference in number: six (Plan for Union) versus thirty-five (Book of Order). No wonder some of our presbyteries are feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced!

Secondly, although many of the thirty-five presbytery functions could be grouped to fall under the six episcopal functions listed in The Plan for Union, there are some notable gaps, especially around the areas of doctrine and worship. In regards to the latter, the Book of Order says the function of presbytery is to “facilitate worship” among the congregations for which it has responsibility by ensuring that: (a) the Scriptures are read; (b) the gospel is proclaimed; and (c) the sacraments are made readily available. But facilitating worship (whatever that means) falls far short of the sort of oversight and direction expected of a Bishop under The Plan for Union; and ensuring the Scriptures are read, the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are made readily available falls far short of “promoting the growing together of the whole Church in unity of spirit and worship” expected of a Bishop in The Plan for Union.

Thirdly, the functions of presbytery in the Book of Order are generally described in terms that are more passive than the corresponding episcopal functions in The Plan for Union. We have already noted that in regards to worship, but the same is true of mission. “Recognising new forms of mission” (Book of Order, section 8.4(1)(p)) is not as dynamic and proactive as “promoting mission and evangelism” (Plan for Union).

The net effect of all this is a weakening of the episcopal function in Presbyterianism. To be sure, we see it operating at a practical level when a presbytery performs certain tasks, such as ordaining and inducting ministers, or appointing commissions and settlement boards, or forming and dissolving congregations, but the Book of Order offers no explanation as to why these sorts of tasks are the responsibility of presbytery. In other words, the Book of Order tells us what presbytery does, but not why. And in the absence of the why, we are denied a larger view of the purpose and scope of episcopal responsibility, and we see neither how individual tasks fit within a larger framework nor what additional tasks might perhaps be undertaken to better fulfil the function.

In recent decades, the weakening of presbytery’s episcopal function has been accentuated by the erosion of presbytery capacity. Internal denominational conflict and institutional decline have had a devastating effect. Many congregations are at best diffident, and at worst distrustful, towards the wider Presbyterian Church, including the presbytery. Recent moves towards a smaller number of larger presbyteries and a deliberate casting of the presbytery role in terms of facilitating and resourcing the life and mission of local congregations, are attempts to address the capacity issue and to revitalise our structures, but they may yet prove to be masking the problems rather than solving them.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the corporate episcopal model is that it is very dependent on the amount of buy-in from the presbyters (ministers and elders) and congregations that comprise its structures. The lower the level of buy-in, the lower the levels of sustainability and effectiveness. And that is a major challenge for our denomination right now. I suspect that before too long we will find ourselves discussing not just how to restructure and revitalise our existing presbyteries (like flogging the proverbial dead horse?), but how do we understand the episcopal function today, and what structures and processes are best able to fulfil that function. It would be nice to think that we could have that discussion because we think it’s important, not because it’s forced upon us.


[1] For implementation, The Plan for Union needed the support of all five negotiating churches. Four supported it, but it failed by just a handful of votes in the Anglican Church’s House of Clergy. A second vote a few years later got the requisite level of support, but by then the House of Bishops had started to cool on the idea and in 1976 the Anglican Church’s General Synod voted not to proceed any further. That spelt the end of it, much to the regret of those who had spent 15 years or more promoting the vision of a united Church in this country. However, whilst denominational unity was no longer on the cards, congregational unity and cooperation was, and the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand (UCANZ) was borne with the purpose of advancing that vision. Congregations that wanted to embrace an ecumenical future had two main options: (1) Become a cooperating parish in which some or all of the partners agree to share ministry, worship, buildings and other aspects of local church life; (2) Become a union parish in which some of the partners (other than the Anglican Church) unite to form one parish.

This piece was first published in the September 2014 edition of Candour.

Resuscitating James Begg: a review of Kate Malcolm’s Pastorale

PastoraleKate Malcolm, Pastorale: being part of the life of James Begg as reconstructed by Kate Malcolm: A Novel (Wellington: Kate Malcolm, 2011). 369pp. ISBN: 9780473189969.

A guest review by John Stenhouse

Kate Malcolm has written a superb historical novel about one of her Scottish Presbyterian ancestors, the Revd. James Begg. The author trained in history at the University of Otago; it showed. One of the book’s many strengths is how well the author placed it in the historical contexts necessary to understand the life and times of James Begg and his family, church and nation. Historians are trained to avoid anachronism – language, ideas, objects and practices chronologically out of place in the period about which the author is writing. It is a tribute to Kate Malcolm that she avoided anachronism almost entirely.

Chapter one depicts young James Begg growing up the son of a Church of Scotland minister in New Monkland. The author’s account of a Scottish communion gathering conveyed a sense of the drama and excitement of occasions that caught up entire communities. Here, as elsewhere, Malcolm combined impeccable historical research with a novelist’s eye for her subjects’ inner worlds of thought and feeling.

After making a name for himself as a powerful preacher, James Begg joined the Free Church exodus out of the Church of Scotland during the Disruption. Here the author nicely captured the volatile mix of social, intellectual, political and theological tensions between the Moderate party and the Evangelicals, led by Thomas Chalmers, who reluctantly led the latter out of the established church in 1843. Academic historians who have difficulty understanding how deeply past generations felt about theology, politics and their interconnections have sometimes written accounts of such controversies that are too dry, dispassionate and cerebral. In Malcolm’s telling, by contrast, we can feel the anger of the Begg family when well-heeled Moderates and their supporters imposed a minister on an unwilling congregation. The author brings to life the Disruption – probably the most important event in nineteenth-century Scottish history – by refusing to confine theology to the private sphere of heart, home and house of worship. Weaving together theology with politics, law and social history, Malcolm brings our Presbyterian past to life just a few years before Free Church folk founded the Otago settlement. It is worth remembering that the Evangelical party left the Church of Scotland because they did not believe that the dominant Moderate party was keeping the church in vital contact with the mass of the Scottish people. Free Church visions of society as a godly commonwealth did not suddenly disappear; this tradition significantly shaped Otago, Southland and New Zealand history well into the twentieth century.

While the author writes about her subjects with empathy and understanding, she avoids hagiography. She depicts James Begg as a gifted and passionate preacher and dedicated pastor but not as a plaster saint. I found myself cringing at how harshly this Presbyterian patriarch sometimes treated his eldest son, Jamie. Sensitive and uncertain, Jamie responded to his father’s disapproval by withdrawing. It is a painful story that illuminates a shadow side of Scottish Presbyterian culture.

One of James Begg’s sons, Alexander Campbell, emigrated to Dunedin, where he played a lively and sometimes controversial role in Presbyterian church life as a staunch defender of tradition. Strongly attached to the Westminster Confession, A. C. Begg encouraged southern Presbyterians to try the Revd. Professor William Salmond and the Revd. James Gibb for heresy in 1888 and 1890 respectively. Begg’s support for prohibition, Bible-in-Schools and strict Sabbath observance annoyed working class radicals such as Sam Lister, whose Otago Workman newspaper regularly attacked ‘Ace’ Begg as a domineering old bigot.

Modern New Zealand historians have tended to side with Lister. In a famous article appearing in Landfall in 1953, Auckland poet-historian Robert M. Chapman, who later became professor of political science at the University of Auckland, identified Scottish Presbyterians and English Evangelicals as the main carriers of ‘puritanism’ to New Zealand. And puritanism, claimed Chapman, was the root of almost evil, plaguing society with interpersonal violence, marital discord, family dysfunction, female frigidity, latent homosexuality, patriarchy, self-hatred, and the ‘dominant mother.’ During the 1950s, with his friend and fellow poet-historian Keith Sinclair, Chapman translated into history and the social sciences the anti-puritanism burgeoning in literary circles since the 1930s. During the 1960s and 1970s, as the universities expanded, antipuritanism grew into a powerful new orthodoxy. Many of our writers, artists, historians and social scientists sought to save us from puritanism (or Calvinism, as they sometimes called it) and the churches that brought it here. Just how far this antipuritan crusade transformed attitudes to our Scottish Presbyterian forebears may be illustrated simply. In The Land of the Long White Cloud (1898), William Pember Reeves, our most influential nineteenth-century historian, praised the Revd. Thomas Burns, spiritual leader of Otago’s Free Church pioneers, as ‘a minister of sterling worth.’ In 1959, by contrast, Keith Sinclair’s Pelican History of New Zealand described Burns as a ‘censorious old bigot.’ Had Burns changed so much in sixty years?

‘Amor ipse intellectus est,’ wrote Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a saying we might translate into English as ‘love itself is the knowing faculty.’ In a labour of love, Kate Malcolm has rescued one of her Scottish Presbyterian forebears – and ours – from the condescension of posterity. This beautifully written book deserves a wide readership.

Christian Perspectives on Marriage

Christian Perspectives on MarriageLast year, the Council of Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand asked the church’s Doctrine Core Group to provide the church with a discussion paper on marriage. That group decided to approach the task by inviting a select and representative number to write a brief response to the following question:

‘What do you believe lies at the heart of a Christian doctrine of marriage, and what are the key biblical and theological considerations that inform your position?’

The discussion paper is now available for download here. It is offered in the hope that the statements therein might provoke deeper engagement with the complex issues about marriage in New Zealand church and society.

The risky business of being ‘reformed’

end of the lineIn her book Moving Forward, Looking Back: Trains, Literature, and the Arts in the River Plate, Sarah Misemer describes the trains of Argentina as symbolising ‘the dialectical influences of the forward trajectory (progress/future), while at the same time embodying the backward glance (regression/past)’. When travelling on an old train in particular, despite being aware of the technology that makes such eccentric carriage possible, one can have a sense that even though one is moving forward, there is also the sense that one ‘travels into a quaint and less mechanized’ world, escaping backwards in time.

The same theme is picked up by artist Michael Flanagan in his brief essay ‘The Backward Glance’. He explores the intersection between time and memory, suggesting that our vision of the past operates akin to the view of a disappearing landscape glimpsed from within a moving train: ‘How can the Past ever be anything but a mystery … We see life as if from the end car of a speeding train, watching through the rear window as the tracks slip away beneath us … everything passing, receding, disappearing into a point on the horizon’.

Insofar as this is true of our experience of train travel, the same might be said of our thinking about Christian community – we can lament that our past ebbs too quickly. Such lament can encourage the creation of romanticised images, like those of nineteenth-century artists George Angas and Gottfried Lindauer who Europenised the New Zealand landscape. Flanagan calls this the ‘nostalgia problem’.

At the other end of the train are those who seek to drive on, aware only of what lies in front. Like perpetual teenagers, they are those for whom the past is forgotten and irrelevant; indeed, it is not even part of their being today.

But here the analogy breaks down, particularly for those of us who profess to be concerned with the project called ‘reformed’: we have no tracks upon which to travel, and even the existence of the train itself is not a sure thing. Entirely bereft of the familiar and the certain, the reformed – i.e., that churchly tribe of which Presbyterians form the largest part – are concerned to live entirely dependent upon God’s speech, upheld solely by the Word who continuously calls us into being. To be reformed is to be always open to the risky possibility that what one hears from God tomorrow might be entirely at odds with what one heard yesterday.

Such a situation poses a real challenge – and opportunity! – for a tradition concerned to confess the faith by way of formal statements. One of the hazards of writing confessions, for example, is that institutions are then tempted to build upon them, to trust in them, to look to them to do the work of safeguarding whatever it is that the institution most values – to turn the living Word of God into a ‘thing’. Even the desire to confess and embody our unity in Christ can mask efforts which are at core idolatrous: namely, to locate the unity of the Body of Christ in something – in a ‘thing’ – rather than in the person of Christ himself and his claims upon us, claims which precede and bring under judgement all our efforts.

The Christian community is called to be at once more free and more bound than a train. It is called to be entirely unburdened from all efforts to keep it from falling off the rails, and it is called to be entirely bound to him who alone brings it into love’s true freedom.


This piece first appeared in ‘Theology Matters’, Spanz 58 (Winter 2014), 16. A pdf version is available here.

Two Presbyterian seminaries showing some leadership

pcusa‘Where there is forbearance, there is a table set around which we can pray, study, listen, share, debate, and mutually form one another, subjecting ourselves to the work of the Spirit as we pass the common loaf … Perhaps the one thing worse than those in disagreement sitting on the same pew is those in disagreement NOT sitting on the same pew’.

Deeply concerned about the ‘polarities’, ‘deeply divided positions’, ‘growing sadness’, and ‘widespread pain and anxiety’ that is said to be characterizing the PC(USA), and in light of next month’s General Assembly in Detroit, the faculty at both Columbia Theological Seminary and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary have both issued unanimous public statements calling upon the church to take seriously its first mark – unity; and they have identified some of the concrete characteristics of such action as mutual forbearance, forgiveness, and hope.

The statements can be read here and here.

Tragically, they speak not only to the challenges facing the PC(USA), but also to those threatening to put asunder those whom God has joined together in other parts of the Presbyterian family, including that part here in New Zealand. Gratefully, they speak a word of humility and of hope.

Academic position: Dean of Studies and Lecturer

kcmlApplications are invited for the position of Dean of Studies and Lecturer at the Knox Centre for Ministry of Leadership in Dunedin, New Zealand. The Knox Centre forms and trains theology graduates for ministry and leadership in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. This includes running a two-year internship programme for people training for the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. As Dean of Studies, you will handle course enquiries and manage the ordination programme’s curriculum. As Lecturer, you will teach at least one paper in the ordination studies programme, preferably in the areas of Theological Reflection and/or Presbyterian-Reformed Studies. As well as having the requisite skills in administration and education, you will be familiar with the Presbyterian-Reformed tradition, you will have a proven background in Christian ministry and leadership, and you will have either a D.Min or a PhD in Theology. A full Job Description for this position can be obtained from the Registrar. Applications can be submitted to the Principal. The position is available from 1 January 2015. The closing date for applications is 16 May 2014.

Position: Director, Presbyterian Church Schools’ Resource Office

Applications are now invited for the position of Director of the Presbyterian Church Schools’ Resource Office. In 2011, an office was established to strengthen and support the Christian character of the thirteen schools and colleges around the country that are affiliated to, or associated with, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. This role consists largely of supporting chaplains and religious education teachers in their work, and the compilation and development of curriculum resources.

The office is run by the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership on behalf of the church schools. It is currently located in Auckland, but can be relocated if necessary.

This is a half-to-two-thirds-time position.

The successful candidate will have a theological qualification, a teaching Diploma, and proven experience in chaplaincy and/or teaching. Knowledge of, and/or ministry within, the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed tradition will be an advantage.

Enquiries about the position (including requests for a job description) should be directed to the Principal of the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, the Very Rev Dr Graham Redding (phone: 03 473 0784; email).

Applications should be submitted to the Principal of the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, either in hard copy (address: Knox College, Arden St., Opoho, Dunedin 9010) or electronically (email) by 15 November 2013.

On the doom of Sabbath breakers

Sabbath Breakers, 1671An oft-recalled feature of nineteenth-century life in Scotland was reverence for the Lord’s Day. This, of course, in itself, was no new phenomenon. It had long been part of Scottish (and indeed British) Christianity. Nor was it either particularly distinctly Presbyterian, or even Protestant. But this reverence took on new passion and legal seriousness in Victorian society. And the unearthing and recalling of such stories – in their various incarnations and evolutions – makes teaching church history a heap of fun. Consider, for example, the horrifying testimony of Robert Wallace (who had been minister of two Edinburgh parishes, professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University, editor of The Scotsman, and Member of Parliament) from his Life and Last Leaves:

It would be impossible for me to describe the feeling which was created in my mind by the weekly recurrence of our Sabbatic observances. All of a sudden everything that I had been doing last week had become wicked. Latin, Greek, Mathematics, were now wicked; so were marbles, ‘tig’, and races; so were walking, except to church, laughing, singing, except psalms, playing the flute, ‘fiddle’, or any instrument of music, reading newspapers (specially wicked), or anything except the Bible and ‘good’ books. There was scarcely anything that was safe to do from our rising in the morning until our going to bed at night, except reading the Bible, singing psalms, saying or joining in prayers, hearing sermons preached in church or at home. Breakfast, dinner and tea were permitted, because they were necessary to the execution of the sabbath programme; but even during these meals we were not to speak our own words or think our own thoughts. To me the day was a terror, it was so difficult to keep it perfectly; and I knew the doom of sabbath-breakers … On Sundays we were usually engaged for fifteen hours in round numbers, directly or indirectly, connected with the special avocations of the day. Of these, fully seven were devoted to exercises of Biblical worship, including the reading of ‘good’ books, tracts, sermons, and other literature having a Biblical reference; three hours and a half to conversation on the sermons, services, and other religious topics; two hours and a half to preparations for worship, dressing and changing our dress, and walking to and from church; and two hours to meals. I am distributing the conversation, of course, over the journeying and the meals, and allowing each its strict quota.

And we might add further examples: of using only one beater instead of two; of only washing the face, of the fact that the Free Presbyterian website doesn’t operate on the Sabbath, etc. Or that delightful story recalled by George Mackay Brown, in Letters from Hamnavoe, about John Louttit, Kirk Officer of the Secession Church and ‘Sabbath Breaker’:

Last week we followed the Rev Peter Learmonth through Stromness, to find out the number of ale houses along the street in the year 1839. He was somewhat shocked and shaken to discover that there were 38.

This week, we will take a sideways glance at another ecclesiastic figure from the early nineteenth century. There he stands, John Louttit, Kirk Officer of the Secession Church, appointed 22nd March 1814, with a harpoon in one hand and the big Kirk bible under his other arm.

The Kirk Session had given long and anxious consideration to the appointment of its first Kirk officer. They debated the matter for six months and more. He must above all be a pious and good-living man. The election fell upon John Louttit. His salary was to be one guinea a year, plus threepence at every baptism.

For more than eight years we must assume that John Louttit performed his office faithfully and well: carrying up the bible to the pulpit on the Sabbath, keeping the new building above the Plainstones swept and garnished, touching his forelock to the elders in the kirk door.

Then, suddenly, a dreadful thing happened. On 15th October 1822, John Louttit was charged with Sabbath profanation. It was as if a thunderbolt had fallen into the sheepfold.

What had happened, it seems, was that early one Sunday morning John Louttit was lighting his blink of fire in his house at the pier (and it was a terrible job sometimes to get those red peats from the side of Brinkie’s Brae to take light) when he heard folk running along the street, and the sound of boats being pushed down the nousts. ‘Tutcut,’ said John Louttit. He made his breakfast, a poor meal of bread and buttermilk. (You could hardly live like a king on a guinea a year.)

More young men ran past his window. Oars splashed in the harbour. The women – who should have been putting on their best grey shawls for the morning service – were clucking like hens in every door. John Louttit heard the word ‘whales’. That was the cause of all the excitement. There was a school of whales somewhere in the west. The pagans of Stromness were setting forth – Sabbath or no – for the great round-up and slaughter.

John Louttit, putting on his stiff white collar, debated the matter seriously. He was one of the best whale hunters in Orkney. Nothing delighted him more than to yell and clash metal behind a blundering panic-stricken herd; until at last, in blind panic, they hurled themselves to death on the beach at Warbeth or Billia-Croo. Then it was time for the knives and the barrels. John Louttit saw in his mind’s eye, with great vividness, the red whale steaks. Well salted, a man could live off them all winter. He could sit up late, over a yarn and a dram, by the light of a tallow candle that came out of the whale also.

Sabbath profanation was a serious matter. On the other hand, a man was permitted on such a day to do ‘works of necessity and mercy’. Winter was coming on and John Louttit’s cupboard was not overstocked. A guinea a year was not a princely salary … John Louttit removed his stiff, high, white collar. He took the sharp flensing knife from the cupboard. He put on his oldest moleskin trousers; they were likely to be well spattered with blood before sundown. John Louttit took down the oars from the rafters. He went gravely down the steps to his dinghy.

The minister had to carry the bible up to the pulpit himself that Sabbath. A week after the original charge, John Louttit made a second appearance before the Session. It is recorded that, at the meeting of 22nd October, ‘he did not express that sense of the evil of such a notorious profanation of the Lord’s day as was wished or expected. It was agreed that he should be rebuked before the congregation on Saturday first.’

That is the one brief tantalising glimpse that we have of John Louttit. There is no end to the story. We have no idea whether he was sacked in disgrace, or reinstated; if so, perhaps he had to give all his whale meat and tallow to the poor, and go on living piously and poorly on his salary of fourpence a week.

Now it is all very well for us ‘moderns’, for whom Sunday has all-too-often come to be little different from other days of the week, to respond to such Sabbatarianism with a polite smile, but it is worth asking ourselves whether an institution like the Evangelical Sabbath could have persisted so long as it did if it were not at least partially successful in meeting the religious and other needs of God’s people during the late nineteenth century.

Some resources on early Presbyterianism

Despite the considerable freedom and trust that many of us teachers enjoy in shaping our courses pretty much how we’d like to, it’s pretty difficult, if not irresponsible, to teach a course on Presbyterianism without at least one lecture on John Knox. To neglect this thundering prophet and consummate politician during such a course would be like trying to teach someone about the history of fishing without ever mentioning Izaak Walton. And, of course, those doing research on Knox have much welcomed the recent studies on the sixteenth-century reformer by Rosalind Marshall and that by Richard Kyle and Dale Johnson. And then there is T. F. Torrance’s noble attempt (in Scottish Theology and elsewhere) to make Knox appear as a Barthian after his own image (an attempt, to be sure, which is nowhere near as pathetic as Eric Metaxas’ remarketing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in American evangelical drag). But despite these stimulating studies, I confess that I have simply never found preparing lectures on Knox to be particularly interesting. I certainly expect my students to have a working knowledge of one of their major ecclesiastical grandpas, and of the massive events that led up to the birth of their ecclesial identity in 1560, and of the exciting and formative decades thereafter. And it is true that one simply cannot tell this story with an absent Knox, or, equally importantly, with an absent Andrew Melville. (By the way, Melville is himself the subject of a number of recent and much welcomed studies. See, for example, Steven J. Reid’s impressive volume, Humanism and Calvinism: Andrew Melville and the Universities of Scotland, 1560–1625, and the essay by Ernest R. Holloway III, published as Andrew Melville and Humanism in Renaissance Scotland, 1545–1622, both of which I found enormously helpful in filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge of this much underestimated giant of the tradition.)

I recently did some teaching on early Presbyterianism, and was committed – as I increasingly am – to approaching the subject ‘from below’. In my preparation, I draw heavily upon a number of very helpful studies. I want to draw attention to three of those. First, Margo Todd’s The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland. There is no question to my mind that Todd’s is an exceptional study, unmatched in its scope and accessibility, and enormously helpful for gaining a sense of the bigger picture, and that with just the right level of detail so that you feel that you’re not being fed propaganda and/or sloppy work. The macro level vista is both the study’s strength and its greatest vulnerability, for while its overview nature superbly introduces us to themes and challenges associated with the subject, the book does not particularly assist readers to appreciate some of the geographically-specific features at play. In other words, it’s a bit like having a fantastic cookbook on Indian food but which makes little distinction between the Punjabi and Udupi palettes.

With Todd in hand, however, two additional studies assisted me to arrive at the subject with greater detail and a more pronounced awareness of the nuances at work. First, there is the remarkably entertaining Stirling Presbytery Records, 1581–1587 edited by, and with an stunning introduction from, the first-class historian James Kirk. Second, is John McCallum’s revised doctoral dissertation published as Reforming the Scottish Parish: The Reformation in Fife, 1560–1640 (in Ashgate’s St Andrews Studies in Reformation History series). Well researched (he draws mainly on largely-neglected kirk session minutes) and accessible writing presented with helpful charts is always going to be a winner when I’m preparing lectures. McCallum does what Todd doesn’t; namely, place the spotlight onto one region, a region (Fife) which is in many ways, as he argues, a reasonable snapshot – because of the diversity of Fife’s presbyteries and parishes – of the reforms and obstacles to reform that were taking place across the country. And McCallum’s focus on the themes of availability and training of ministers, of discipline (and the role of those ‘genuinely parochial institutions’ known as the kirk session) and of worship helped to bring those infant years of Presbyterianism alive for me, and helped – together with Todd’s and Kirk’s work – to fill in some important gaps in what has been a largely ignored period of the church’s life. I can only hope that additional studies exploring other areas of early Presbyterian life might be undertaken.

Some reflections on the 2012 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

It was indeed something of a Dickens of a General Assembly, about which I’d thought I’d share a few reflections.

There were a number of genuine springs of hope for which I give thanks:

  1. The powhiri and service of worship at the Church’s national marae at Ohope, hosted by Te Aka Puaho, was very special, overcoming all the challenges of weather, logistics and a crummy sound system. One of the real highlights for me was when Richard Dawson presented the new moderator, Ray Coster, with a copy of the church’s confession of faith, Kupu Whakapono, written in Te Reo Maori, followed by a sung version led by Malcolm Gordon. The Assembly was last held at the marae in 1984 – too long ago – and this Assembly marked, in a number of significant ways, including Wayne Te Kaawa’s rousing speech during the Assembly business time, a maturation in the church’s bicultural journey.
  2. The former moderator, Peter Cheyne, spoke well about the things that have inspired him throughout his moderatorial term: ministry and mission at the grassroots, the caring witness of the people of God in Christchurch, his ongoing concern for a church committed to discipleship and to raising biblical literacy.
  3. The decision to call upon a foreign government (i.e., the New Zealand Government) – and hopefully there are responsibilities here that the church might be able to undertake as well – to establish relocation strategies with the governments of Pacific island nations in danger of disappearing as a result of climate change.
  4. It is always a highlight for me when we welcome international guests and observers. This GA, we welcomed 16 guests from Korea, Burma, Chile, Vanuatu and Tahiti.
  5. The church backed the campaign by Living Wage Aotearoa New Zealand. Margaret Mayman made the point that ‘people and their work have a dignity that makes the labour market substantially different from the purchase of other goods. The price of a person’s labour shouldn’t be determined solely by the market’. This is good news for theologians!
  6. I always have a real sense of pride when ex-students rise to speak. They invariably do so with a neat combination of wisdom and wit, and I reckon that their fresh – and most often younger – voices offer one of the most important contributions to the discussions.
  7. The moderator modelled grace, good humour and appropriate dignity throughout. Well done Ray!
  8. I have mixed feelings about the GA’s decision to grant presbytery status to the Pacific Islands Synod. (Howard Carter expressed my mind well.) Given the decision, however, we might have marked this significant event with more carnivalesque fanfare than we did.

And there were a number of factors which signified that we had indeed entered an ‘epoch of incredulity’ – all-too-familiar territory for the church. Among these were:

  1. No real coffee. I fail to see how anyone can be expected to discern the will of God without real coffee. This is the one great tragedy of the GA!
  2. While I’m on the matter, the vote to support the living wage movement seemed to be radically undermined by the absence of any Fair Trade beverages.
  3. And while I’m on the matter of hypocrisy, the church’s rhetoric of concern regarding climate change seems at odds with our decision to have hundreds of people jump into aeroplanes to attend one of these gatherings and then think little of the environmental cost of such a decision. My minister – peace be upon him – raised a wonderful point about this incongruence. He could have also mentioned something about the number of forests we raped doing our holy business.
  4. Apart from the few extra-ecclesial matters that were discussed, the highest court of the denomination – charged as it is with the solemn and joyous responsibility of listening for and to the divine voice in the world – seems to be much more interested in clanging its own cymbals and blowing its own bassoons. This is not altogether unexpected for it is almost inevitable that anxiety would drive us toward Pelagianism.
  5. The processes of discernment employed by the GA seem to be particularly successful in turning otherwise fine and friendly souls into packs of frightened, blind and deaf wolves. Put otherwise, the church seems to lack the imagination – and/or the theological resources and/or the leadership – required to enter into processes of discernment in ways other than marked by an unholy cannibalism with make a stranger stare (and then walk away) and which perpetuate cycles of abuse from one generation to the next. Like modern day Israel, those who were once victims now employ the very same tactics that they learnt from their abusers, tactics which disempower others to equally ugly effects and cycles which can only be broken by the ministry of mediation and healing given to us in God. Such behaviour served to remind me that the gospel is not a set of doctrines or ideologies, no matter how carefully articulated and well-intentioned – and that with due fidelity to Scripture – but a person; namely, Jesus the Christ. When our ethics, processes, practices, decisions and speech are cut loose from him they roam in the desert of meaning out of step with the grain of the universe, a desert that breeds a kind of unholy desperation out of step with apostolic faith. I know that the Church is the glorious bride of Christ, and the most beautiful creature in creation, but she really can be an ugly and vexatious bitch sometimes.
  6. Much of the debate concerned vexed matters around sexuality and leadership. It is really disappointing – not least because it is most unprotestant! – that both sides insist on grounding their arguments in logic devoid of any kind of christology. Either way you walk, Jesus simply seems to make no difference. For those on the left, the argument seems to be grounded in notions of ‘natural justice’, while those on the right insist on the making their case on the basis of ‘nature’. (I am, of course, aware of St Paul’s words about ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ intercourse in Romans 1, but remain entirely unconvinced that Pauline anthropology would sponsor the argument as articulated by traditionalists.) I wonder what might happen were both ‘sides’ to sit at the Lord’s Table together – the most suitable place for debate, and for love making – and begin with a different question; namely, who is Jesus Christ? That said, I am deeply encouraged that some of the ministry interns are trying to do precisely that! I am also deeply encouraged by a number of signs that the hard lines that have characterised our church in the past show real signs of wear and tear. Perhaps a new vision of being church together may result, a vision unenslaved to those modes of modernity which insist on perpetuating irrelevant and outmoded structures of top-heavy leadership – we really don’t need a presbyterian pope! – and where the rhetoric of ‘servanthood’ and ’empowerment’ and ‘local’ continue to characterise where the real action takes place.
  7. Among the many motions upon which the recent GA was invited to discern the mind of God God (quite a bold if not ridiculous thought when you think about it that way) was whether or not an invitation ought to be made to our Church’s Doctrine Core Group to ‘prepare a discussion paper on the theology of marriage within the Presbyterian Church, and explore its implications for public covenants of same-gender relationships’ (Notice of Motion #133). Given the liveliness of this topic in wider NZ society, and a long-standing Presbyterian tradition of seeking the welfare of the city, one may not be surprised to learn that not a few who attended Assembly were profoundly disappointed and somewhat bewildered when this motion received the support of less than half of the voting commissioners. I was also surprised to learn that this significant matter was not even reported on the PCANZ website among the list of items discussed on Saturday. (NB. I am not suggesting that anything sinister or underhanded is going on here, but simply making the observation). There are many things one might deduce from such a decision of our church’s highest court, but I am not interested here in commenting on these. Rather, I wish to offer a few observations about how and why such a move is so foreign to the best instincts of our tradition.

The Reformed faith is, according to John Leith, ‘not a fixed pattern of church life but a developing pattern that has both continuity and diversity’. Being reformed, in other words, is not so much about espousing certain doctrines or sharing a particular interpretation of the Bible but is rather about the fact that one has committed oneself to being involved in a certain kind of project: the project of renewing the faith according to the Word of God. So Michael Jinkins:

The Reformed faith is more an ongoing project than it is a tradition, a denomination, or even a communion, though it has elements of each of these. When we say, ‘We are Reformed,’ we are saying that we are Christians committed to a particular project. The Reformed project is concerned not so much with defining and defending such things as the uniqueness of a Reformed tradition as it is with recovering, in each new generation, Christian faith as God’s calling of humanity to new life in Jesus Christ. Such a mission reflects the commitment of John Calvin ‘to renew the ancient form of the church.’ Whenever the Reformed movement has become preoccupied with itself it has missed the point of its existence. The Reformed project exists to draw our attention to Jesus of Nazareth in whom God is revealed and through whom God redeems creation … This does not mean that there are no distinctive features of what we might call ‘Reformed faith.’ There are particular emphases that have distinguished the Reformed approach to Christian faith from that of other Christians. But these Reformed emphases remain just that: emphases. The most distinctive aspect of the Reformed faith is also its most catholic, or universal: its unflagging commitment to articulate the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The reformed project, in other words, is not about our beliefs, or our righteousness, or our values, or our interests, or our devotion, or our aspirations, or our hopes. The reformed project is about what the Christian faith is about – namely, the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is about who this God is and what this God is doing in the world. It is about ever calling the church catholic to fulfil our vocation as witness-bearers to this good news. So the reformed minister and theologian Karl Barth understood that in theological study we are ‘always to begin anew at the beginning’. And, for Barth, as for all those engaged in the reformed project, the beginning point is never a concept or a principle. The beginning point is always a name: Jesus Christ. One simply cannot arrive at the right answers until one sets off with the right question. And the ‘quintessential question’ (Bonheoffer) facing our church is not, ‘What can the Reformed tradition do to ensure that it has a future?’ Or, even worse, ‘How can we guarantee the survival of the Presbyterian Church?’ Rather, the right questions are ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’, and ‘What is he up to?’, and ‘What is he calling us to participate in?’ The Lutheran theologian Ernst Käsemann expressed this well when he wrote: ‘Wherever ecclesiology moves into the foreground, however justifiable the reasons may be, Christology will lose its decisive importance, even if it does so by becoming integrated, in some form or other, in the doctrine of the church, instead of remaining the church’s indispensable touchstone’. And Barth too is worth citing here at length:

Theological work is distinguished from other kinds of work by the fact that anyone who desires to do this work cannot proceed by building with complete confidence on the foundation of questions that are already settled, results that are already achieved, or conclusions that are already arrived at. He cannot continue to build today in any way on foundations that were laid yesterday by himself, and he cannot live today in any way on the interest from a capital amassed yesterday. His only possible procedure every day, in fact every hour, is to begin anew at the beginning. And in this respect theological work can be exemplary for all intellectual work. Yesterday’s memories can be comforting and encouraging for such work only if they are identical with the recollection that this work, even yesterday, had to begin at the beginning and, it is to be hoped, actually began there. In theological science, continuation always means ‘beginning once again at the beginning.’ In view of the radical exposure of this science to danger, this is obviously the only possible way. The endangering of theology is strong enough to cut the ground away from under the feet of the theologian time and again and to compel him to look around anew for ground on which he can stand as if he had never stood on such ground before. And above all, the ever-new start is the only possible way because the object of theology is the living God himself in his free grace, Israel’s protector who neither slumbers nor sleeps. It makes no difference whether theological work is done with attention to the witness of Scriptures, with the reassuring connection to the communio sanctorum of all times, and certainly also with a thankful memory of the knowledge previously attained by theology. If God’s goodness is new every morning, it is also every morning a fully undeserved goodness which must give rise to new gratitude and renewed desire for it.

For this reason every act of theological work must have the character of an offering in which everything is placed before the living God. This work will be such an offering in all its dimensions, even if it involves the tiniest problem of exegesis or dogmatics, or the clarification of the most modest fragment of the history of the Church of Jesus Christ, but, above all, if it is the preparation of a sermon, lesson, or Bible study. In this act of offering, every goal that previously was pursued, every knowledge that previously had been won, and, above all, every method that was previously practiced and has supposedly proved its worth, must be thrown into the cauldron once again, delivered up to the living God, and proffered to him as a total sacrifice.

Theological work cannot be done on any level or in any respect other than by freely granting the free God room to dispose at will over everything that men may already have known, produced, and achieved, and over all the religious, moral, intellectual, spiritual, or divine equipage with which men have traveled. In the present continuation of what was won yesterday, the continuity between yesterday and today and between today and tomorrow must be submitted to God’s care, judgment, and disposing. Theology can only be a really free and happy science in a continually new performance of this voluntary offering. If it does not want to succumb to hardening of the arteries, barrenness, and stubborn fatigue, its work should at no step of the way become a routine or be done as if it were the action of an automaton. Because it has to be ever renewed, ever original, ever ready to be judged by God himself and by God alone, theology must be an act of prayer. The work of theology is done when nothing else is accomplished but the humble confession, ‘Not as I will, but as thou willest!’

It ought come as little surprise, therefore, to learn that Barth protested against attempts to found a theological school of thought or a ‘movement’ that might advance his own project. In this Barth was simply being true and consistent with his reformed conviction, for to be committed to the reformed project is not to be committed to being ‘Reformed’ but to being ‘Christian’ (albeit in a reformed kind of way) and to loving the church so much that you direct all your efforts towards her continual hearing of the Word of God rather than assuming that what you heard yesterday is the Word of God for today. The Word of God, in other words, is not an idea or words about an idea, but the dynamic person of God himself who in the freedom of grace makes himself available to us.

Some reformed theologians – Shirley Guthrie Jr., for example – have drawn attention to a double crisis within the tradition – a crisis of identity and of relevance. In some churches so much value is placed on identity – i.e., on adherence to tradition which is then often reduced to a series of propositional truths, etc. – that it often leads to the suppression of imaginative and critical thinking, and to the church becoming both exclusive and judgmental of those who think and live otherwise, and unable to respond creatively and effectively to rapidly changing circumstances. New information or perspectives are discounted in attempts to safeguard doctrine, polity or practice. In the end, it’s often simply about power.

At the other extreme, in a quest for relevance, some churches jettison tradition and historical memory altogether, losing their identity in the process. Abandoning or rendering superficial the resources of history, tradition, liturgy, and theology leaves churches vulnerable to cultural forces that promote idolatry. A church that has lost its memory is in a state akin to senility and prone to repeat the mistakes of the past. Henry Chadwick once made this point powerfully when in the midst of a debate at the Anglican Church’s General Synod (1988) he famously stated that ‘Nothing is sadder than someone who has lost his memory, and the church which has lost its memory is in the same state of senility’. A similar point was made by Simon Schama who, in responding to the lack of historical instruction in Britain’s secondary education, noted that ‘a generation without history is a generation that not only loses a nation’s memory, but loses a sense of what it’s like to be inside a human skin’. And Jinkins also writes:

When memory exits so goes our identity, our grasp on those particular and idiosyncratic recollections that make us who we are, that make us human, that hold us in relationship with one another, that not only make sense of our past but also orient us in the world. When memory fails us we are reduced to confusion. We cannot move forward because we have lost continuity with ourselves and with those who are closest to us. The question is why anyone – and more to the point I want to make – why any church would choose to jettison the memory that makes us who we are. Having loved and lost those who suffered from Alzheimer’s, how could any of us wish for such a fate to befall our church?

Once upon a time, of course, ‘Presbyterians simply looked like Presbyterians. They were clean and well starched. They went to Sunday school and believed in predestination’ (Alston). We may well wish to distance ourselves from such a caricature but there remains much value in our distinctiveness that takes us beyond the straitjacketed stereotypes. Correspondingly, we might think of the habitus, or character, of reformed Christianity in conjunction with its cultural-linguistic identity, a trait George Stroup characterises as ‘family resemblance’. Here, reformed identity is not so much an outdated stereotype, nor a set of theological-ecclesiological propositions, but a family photo album that spans several generations. While no two members of the family are identical, as you become familiar with the family it becomes possible to intuitively pick out a member of the family. [I am very grateful to one of my many amazing ex-students, Rory Grant, for pointing me to this article.]

We might think of such generational family resemblance as an artifact of the narrative history of the tradition – the reformed ‘look’ similar because they have a shared history. However, shared history does not automatically equate to a fixed set of criteria or attributes that define reformed identity. We need to think here of a tradition characterised by both continuity and diversity.

In my teaching, I am keen to assist students to understand and value the characteristics that make the reformed faith distinct. Among these characteristics are (i) a commitment to being a broad church, and (ii) our strong emphasis on education and, relatedly, an expectation of an educated clergy.

Certainly, the reformed tradition is – at its best – a broad tradition, captive to neither the left nor the right of the theological spectrum. The reformed believe that the politicising of the body of Christ along lines which limit the love and availability of God are a scandal against the Table of the Lord. One place we see such happening in our context here in New Zealand is where those associated with more progressive expressions of reformed faith and who dominated our General Assembly and college for over half a century now find themselves on the margins and struggling to find a place in a sea of more conservative expressions of the faith. Regardless of where one sees oneself on the theological spectrum, this situation constitutes an ongoing challenge to our identity historically conceived. Also, as in many other places, increasingly our ministers and congregations come from non-reformed backgrounds. This basic ignorance of reformed identity means a loss of connection with our past, and that leaves us more vulnerable to both repeat its mistakes, and not free to celebrate, learn from and build on its strengths.

Breadth also means taking seriously the cultural, ethnic and social diversity in the Presbyterian family, and a commitment to making the journey together. We are all so much the poorer without each other. Shall the toenail say to the belly-button, ‘I don’t need you’? We as a church are yet to find ways where our full ethnic diversity is both represented and celebrated. There are challenges here, to be sure – translating all the English material into Korean and vice versa, for example – but it’s worth taking up as a priority for the next Assembly, and at presbytery level too. We as a church are all so much the poorer without our breadth.

If what I have witnessed at the past two GAs is any indication of things, the trust barometer of the church is pretty low. And without trust, the divisions shall only widen, and harden. I have also witnessed a people who – on all sides of each debate – care deeply for the church, who love the church and who are invested in its betterment and in the betterment of its witness to God’s love in the world. We must all do better to widen that affection not only for our own patch, or for the church in the abstract, but for the actual people that God has made us family with. This road will require forgiveness, apart from which there will be no future for the PCANZ. The Christian does not carve out his or her own story ex nihilo, or even with the likeminded alone. Jesus does not grant us the liberty to choose our friends. Rather, whenever Jesus comes to us he always brings his friends along with him as well … and he helps us to love them, to stake our very existence on the claim that I simply cannot be me without them, hence the deep existential pain born of the great mistrust between Abel and Cain. Remain unconvinced? Read 1 John! ‘Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’. To this end, it is my hope that the PCANZ might learn here from our brothers and sisters across the ditch in the Uniting Church in Australia and embrace the consensus model of discernment at every level of its governance. Enough said.

On the question of education, we might simply note that education was fundamentally important in Grandpa Calvin’s church, and in the early reformed movement more widely. In Geneva, for example, this is evident through the emphases on catechesis and the ‘sermon’, and through the establishment, in 1559, of the Genevan Academy which became the nursery of reformed movements in France, the Netherlands and Scotland. In 1536, at a town meeting, the Genevans also voted to begin what is considered to be the first public-run school. Such a commitment betrays the reformed assessment of all creation thriving as both under the sovereign government of God and as the ‘theatre’ of God’s glory, and sponsors the reformed determination to engage in public theology. The church has always faced the temptation to disengage from the world, to take a turn inwards and focus almost entirely on ‘churchly’ or ‘spiritual’ matters. One response to this turn here in NZ has been to try to carve out a space in university departments for Christian theologians with a proven record and proficiency in the area of public theology to contribute in a constructive way to public discourse around issues facing our nation (e.g., domestic violence, restorative justice, climate change, foreign trade, etc.). These strategic positions sometimes need to be funded from church sources but the positions I have in mind in NZ are already proving to make an important contribution to public discourse, and to model for local churches how they might go about doing the same in their contexts. For example, Chris Marshall serves as Head of School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies at Victoria University, a position initially fully-funded by a local church in Wellington. Also, the University of Otago has set up the excellent Centre for Theology and Public Issues which is headed up by Andrew Bradstock. One downfall of this model of subcontracting public theology to the university, however, is that it threatens to remove public theology from the life of the church. Does the church need to resurrect its Public Issues Committee, freshly conceived?

The matter of education also finds deep roots in the inclination of the reformed to insist on an educated and theologically-rigorous clergy and church. Historically, one of the real gifts that the reformed have bequeathed to the wider Church and to the discipline of theology has been the rigour with which it has undertaken the indispensable task of talking about God and about God’s work in the world. The twin temptations of abandoning this rigour and/or buying too uncritically into the humanist and enlightenment program with which it has sometimes been associated are real. But it is only to our detriment and – more importantly – to the detriment of the Church’s ongoing witness to Christ that the reformed would neglect this fundamental task. To speak of God in such a way that engages the real questions of our time is not a task for the faint-hearted or the frivolous.

Again, Jinkins:

One of the greatest gifts of the Reformed project is its commitment to the life of the mind in the service of God. From the first, Reformed Christians have sought to advance the best thinking in the face of superficiality, superstition, bad religion, social reactivity, and anxiety. As expressions of confidence that Christian faith and the promotion of knowledge go hand-in-hand, the Reformed project established the first programs of universal education, founding universities, graduate schools, and teaching hospitals as it moved across the world. Today the world’s problems have become extraordinarily complex, and many religious people try to prove their religious devotion by refusing to test their convictions intellectually or by seeking to silence those with whom they disagree. Now more than ever, we as Reformed Christians must foster the curiosity and intellectual openness that have driven us to think deeply, for there is desperate need for faithful people who are bold and unflinching thinkers, people who will use their best knowledge and concerted intellect to engage and mend a broken world.

So we are thinking here about the posture of the reformed to love God (and God’s world) with our mind, as well as with our heart, soul and strength. The reformed are typically those in the body of Christ who worry about what will become of Christian faith – and, indeed, of the world – if Christians fail to ask the tough, deep, critical, sometimes intractable questions about life. They are those who are ‘concerned about what it will mean for our faith if we choose to ignore life’s most profound mysteries and insoluble riddles’, who are ‘concerned about the integrity of the church if we abandon the curiosity that is unafraid to swim at the deep end of the pool, if we jettison a passion for ideas, for knowledge, and for wisdom for their own sake’ and who are equally ‘disturbed about what will become of society if persons of faith retreat from the public sphere, where ideas must fight for their lives among competing interests, where justice is served by vigorous argumentation and intelligent action as much as by high ideals’ (Jinkins). They are those who believe that the greatest heresy the church faces today is not atheism but superficiality, and its attendant ‘cult’. To cite Jinkins, again:

Occasionally I hear editors of church publications or church growth consultants arguing that Christian laypeople just aren’t interested in theology, or that laypeople aren’t interested in the history of their faith or, worse still, that laypeople simply can’t understand complicated ideas. Yet, when I speak in congregations around the country, I regularly encounter crowds of lively, intelligent laypeople hungry to know more about their faith. These are laypeople, incidentally, who in their daily lives run businesses and shape economies, teach, read or even write important books on a variety of serious subjects, argue legal cases before judges and juries, write laws that shape our common life, and cure our diseases of the mind and body. These laypeople are tired of being infantilized at church. They want to understand their faith more deeply.

The comments of the laypeople I meet, people who want to learn more about their faith, are often along the lines of what an elderly woman said … one Sunday after [Tom Long] had preached in one of the many congregations in which he speaks around the country. As he was making his way from the pulpit to the sanctuary exit, the woman stepped forward to greet him. Earlier in the evening, Tom had invited members of the congregation to share with him any messages they’d like him to take back to the future ministers he teaches in seminary. As this woman stepped forward, Tom greeted her with the question, ‘Is there a message you’d like me to take back to the seminary, something you’d like me to tell our students?’

‘Yes, there is,’ she said. ‘Tell them to take us seriously.’

Now, I know that not every person in our churches, or indeed in our society, craves to understand God (or anything else) more deeply. But I would also maintain that at the core of the gospel there is a sacred mandate – we call it the Great Commission – to go into all the world to make disciples, ‘teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20). The word disciple translates a Greek word that means ‘pupil’ or ‘willing learner.’ As church leaders, then, we have this duty, this mission, this commission: to teach, to kindle curiosity, to expand knowledge, to renew minds, to make our people wiser. And there are many, many people only too eager to learn.

The reformed emphasis on the importance of education needs to be tempered, however, with the kind of humility that many reformed emphasise concerning human personhood in general, and about the noetic effects of the Fall in particular. Truth (as the saying goes) is the first casualty of war. But self-criticism is among the first casualties of insecurity, especially those brands of insecurity that transform thinking people into an unthinking herd.

Christian faith, on the other hand, thrives on a spirit that resists taking itself too seriously. As G. K. Chesterton once suggested, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. Devils, on the other hand, fall under the weight of their own self-regard. Again, Jinkins:

A thinking faith is a self-critical faith. A thinking faith knows its own limits because it is guided by a comprehension of a basic reality: we are human. We are creatures. We are not God. Thinking faith’s recognition of human finitude generates reverence for transcendence and recognition of the limits even of its own claims.

Thinking faith is characterized as much by its humility and reticence as by its pronouncements. Along with its reverence for God and respect for others, it is characterized by a kind of irreverence toward its own certainty. One might regard thinking faith as a faith chastened by knowledge and experience. One would certainly regard thinking faith as a faith that has made its peace with ambiguity, because it cannot and it will not try to justify itself in the presence of God. But it is inevitable, for these very reasons, for a thinking faith to be thought ‘weak’ by some.

It has become commonplace in our culture for Christians to believe they can only prove their faith by claiming to know the mind of God. Yet, pretensions to certainty do not signal a superabundance of faith. They indicate, rather, faith’s vanity and paucity. Religious dogmatism is the child of insecurity.

All this is to say that it strikes me that there is something most foul and most un-reformed at work whenever a member of the reformed family of churches makes a decision to not keep engaging theologically, particularly with the very matters that it has just discerned are ‘fundamental’ to the Christian faith. That the recent GA made precisely such a decision (regarding NOM #133) strikes me as deeply disturbing.

The matters to which NOM #133 are inviting the church to engage are not black and white, but brim with doctrinal, pastoral, ecumenical and ecclesial implications, not least around the question of our relationship with the State. We are a people called to have our agenda set not by the State but by God’s good news announced in Jesus Christ – news which ought to inform and give shape to all our life together and to God’s vision for a society in which human personhood is radically reconstituted after the image of One whose hospitality is most irresponsible, surprising and risky. I consider NOM #133 to be an invitation – perhaps even an invitation by God – to pause and to ask deeper questions about our identity as creatures and as church, and to grow as a result. I am not sure that we as a church together have asked those questions yet in a mode that leaves us satisfied enough to move forward on this divisive issue in a way that gives due fidelity to the gospel and to the hard questions that the gospel raises for us. I can only hope that this desire will not rest, and that ministers and others will seek to bring the essence of NOM #133 to their respective presbyteries (and invite other presbyteries too) with a view to an invitation then being made to the much under-utilised Doctrine Core Group to do some work on this question for us all. The invitation for this important work need not come from the GA though the fruit might well serve that court of our church.

[Image by Diane Gilliam-Weeks. Used with permission]

‘How precious did that grace appear’: a story from Down Under

It’s so good to hear stories birthed by, and which witness to, the kingdom of God in our midst. For many months now, Martin Stewart, a friend of mine and fellow Presbyterian minister who, with his partner Anne, is nothing less than obsessed with the crazy and wreckless and completely-irresponsible nature of divine grace, has been spearheading what is an inspiring (in every sense of that word) project. Some of that journey has been documented on Martin’s blog, and yesterday, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand posted the following media clip. I’m sharing the love:

On Sunday 14 August 2011 Presbyterian church-goers gave more than $70,000 – 365 $200 New World Supermarket vouchers – to homes in part of the red zone on the east side of Christchurch.

“The vouchers were given out to homes with no strings attached”, says the Rev Martin Stewart. “The homes are all in an area perceived as not needing help, so they hadn’t received much.”

After their regular Sunday church service, 130 people from St Stephen’s Presbyterian in Bryndwr, St Giles in Papanui and St Mark’s in Avonhead, went door-to-door to share the vouchers with people whose resources have been stretched more thinly than their own.

Martin says that “going over to that side of the city was sobering. There were many sad stories of struggle and wondering what is next. Without exception those who handed out the vouchers were touched by the welcomes they received”.

The Rev Martin Stewart, the driving force behind the project and minister of St Stephen’s and moderator of the Presbyterian Church’s Presbytery of Christchurch, says,  “$70,000 was raised, some donated by people from here but most from far off places like Scotland … and Auckland! Foodstuffs offered a discount enabling us to purchase even more vouchers”.

The idea for the vouchers came in April, Martin says, when Highgate Presbyterian Church in Dunedin, (Martin was formerly the minister there) gave him and his wife Anne money to distribute in Christchurch “as we saw fit.  The next day we gave the first $1000 of that money to a young family we did not know, and that we had heard life was tough for, in the damaged Avon loop area.  I wrote about it on my blog and then someone from Wellington sent $15,000 – it soon ballooned to $70,000.  It has been like witnessing the miracle of the loaves and the fishes right before our eyes”.

Martin says in many ways 365 vouchers to 365 homes is barely touching the need out east in Christchurch city.  “It really is like we have only got a little bit of play-lunch to share and there are 5000 people hungry.  But we sense that we are not alone in this enterprise.  We believe that Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ is in this and we simply don’t know what kind of ripple of hope the vouchers will generate in the lives of the people we share them with. We are sure something good will come of it and that in a multitude of ways people who receive vouchers will pay it forward in some way.”

A note on the Formula, Liberty of Conscience and the Declaratory Act

A guest post by Andrew Smith.

In 1930, the minister J.A. Asher and the elder J.S. Butler of the Presbytery of Hawke’s Bay supported an overture from the Presbytery to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. It read:

Whereas this Presbytery of Hawke’s Bay, being of the opinion that Question 2, appointed to be asked of elders on the occasion of their ordination to the office, having reference to the Westminster Confession of Faith, has given rise to considerable difficulty; has resulted in men declining to accept the office of eldership, who have been in every way qualified for such office, to the detriment of the interests of our Church; hereby overtures the General Assembly that Question 2 be omitted from the questions in connection with the ordination of elders.

An examination of the Year Book of the period shows that Question 2, asked of all office-bearers of the Presbyterian Church of the time reads: ‘Do you sincerely own and believe the system contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith; and do you acknowledge the said doctrine as expressing the sense in which you understand the Holy Scriptures; and will you constantly maintain and defend the same, and the purity of worship in accordance therewith?’

Perhaps some laymen being ordained to office found this question too much to ask. Even in the early parts of the twentieth century, the Westminster Confession, a document written in dense legal language several centuries old, was too impenetrable for them to answer Question 2 in good conscience. Unlike the Bible it had no ‘revised standard version’. Rather than omitting Question 2, the General Assembly moved to revise the questions for the ordination of elders. At the same time the Church of Scotland was proceeding in the same direction and the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand chose to wait on the parent church to create a new formula and adopted a similar one with questions replacing the Formula of Subscription in 1936. The new form of the formula read:

I believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and other subordinate standards of the Church. I acknowledge the Presbyterian government of this Church to be agreeable to the Word of God, and promise that I will submit thereto and concur therewith. I promise to observe the order of worship and the administration of all public ordinances as the same are or may be allowed in this Church.

The formula was not amended again until the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand in 2010 to read:

I believe in the Word of God in Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the Kupu Whakapono and Commentary, the Westminster Confession of Faith and other subordinate standards of this Church. I accept that liberty of conviction is recognised in this Church but only on such points as do not enter into the fundamental doctrines of Christian Faith contained in the Scriptures and subordinate standards. I acknowledge the Presbyterian government of this Church to be agreeable to the Word of God and promise to submit to it. I promise to observe the order and administration of public worship as allowed in this Church.

The General Assembly carried the motion that the Formula be reworded as above. While it was sent to the presbyteries and church councils, consideration to report back at the 2012 General Assembly it was adopted ad interim. There was some debate in the Assembly. My feeling is that the General Assembly did not compare the old and new versions of the Formula and that the new version has some innovations on which there could be improvements.

Firstly if the phrase in the Word of God in Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments needs to be added to the Formula then I think it should come after the subordinate standards. As it reads it conflates the authority of the Scriptures with that of the subordinate standards. While placing the Scriptures as pre-eminent is appealing, placing it as our ultimate authority is much clearer. Without further research, which probably goes back to the Church of Scotland’s version of the Formula, I suspect that the earlier generation decided that not placing the Scriptures here avoided controversy. Their intention is not without merit.

Secondly I suggest that the word conviction should be amended to read conscience. Liberty of Conscience has a long history in the Presbyterian Church going back to the Declaratory Act. It was first passed by the Church of Scotland in 1892, then by the then independent Synod of Otago and Southland in 1893, and by the united Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1901. Reading the Declaratory Act it seems evident that the church of this period had problems accepting that God elected some for salvation and some for damnation, especially those who died before the age of decision-making. This is an age when literature suggested that children came from heaven and if they died before a certain age that they could join the angels. Conscience has precedence in the Church’s terminology, conviction does not. To me conviction suggests belief or opinion while conscience is the prompting of the Holy Spirit. That is a significant difference.

Finally, I would strike out the words but only. To paraphrase the Gospels, what comes out of a butt goes into the sewer! But is a conjunction, a balancing word that contrasts a negative clause with a positive one, the negative clause coming first and the positive clause after the conjunction. Liberty of conviction is in the negative clause of the sentence, and the fundamental doctrines of Christian faith in the positive. The sentence reads like a big stick to police ordained ministers and elders. Agreement with this sentence suggests that too much liberty of conviction or conscience cannot be trusted. Conform or else we will have you thrown out of office! Removing it would encourage more faith in our leadership.

I believe that Asher and Butler’s overture in 1930 remains a challenge for the modern church and we still don’t know the answer. We have the Subordinate Standards of the Church. Our shared knowledge of them remains shallow. They are beyond our grasp of understanding: the words are too clever, too pretty. We might give more consideration to the Terms and Conditions taking out membership on Facebook than we do to the Formula of Ordination and to our Confessions. It lies in the too hard basket.

‘Scottish Seeds in Antipodean Soil: the development of Presbyterian worship in Aotearoa New Zealand’

Recently, I drew attention to a public lecture that Graham Redding would be giving on the development of Presbyterian worship in Aotearoa New Zealand. Last night, to a crowded room, Graham delivered what was a fascinating lecture in which he traced the contours and patterns of worship trends in NZ Presbyterianism from its Reformation and Scottish roots, through its early colonial characteristics, to the modern era.

Drawing upon a host of indigenous examples and personalities, notably Harold Turner, Helmut Rex, John Henderson and John Dickie (pictured left), Redding concluded that ‘there is a desperate need for a revitalisation of worship in the Presbyterian Church. In my view, if such a revitalisation is to be of enduring significance, it is unlikely to take place independently of a recovery of core liturgical principles that undergird and inform the practice of Christian worship. Our church needs ministers and liturgists committed to this fundamental task’.

A copy of the full lecture, ‘Scottish Seeds in Antipodean Soil: the development of Presbyterian worship in Aotearoa New Zealand’, is available here. I’ve also uploaded a copy of the audio which can be downloaded from here.

And while I’m drawing attention to lectures, here are the links to three lectures by Walter Kaufmann on existentialism:

The Presbyterian Research Network: Scottish Seeds in Antipodean Soil

The next meeting of the Presbyterian Research Network (14 April) will see Graham Redding speak to us on Scottish Seeds in Antipodean Soil: the development of Presbyterian Worship in Aotearoa NZ.

We meet at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Knox College, for drinks and nibbles at 5pm for a 5.30 talk, and are away by 7pm. All are welcome.

Subsequent meetings will consider the following topics:

  • 9 June 2011. The Demon Drink and the Christian: Yesterday and Today. Speaker: Geoff Troughton
  • 8 September 2011. How patterns of congregational life are changing. Speakers: Kevin Ward and Sarah Mitchell
  • 10 November 2011. The Challenge of Changing the Justice Landscape: how do we do justice honourably with victims, reduce recidivism and change public attitudes? Speaker: Janet Sim Elder

Presbyterianism 101 [updated]

While in the throes of writing lectures and two talks for the Going Further event, I’m also trying to put together a new course outline for the Presbyterian & Reformed course that I teach. And while, to be sure, such things exist in a state of constant flux and demand regular updating, here’s what (inspired by Marc Cortez) I’ve come up with so far.

Note: blind freddies and/or those viewing with ancient monitors may prefer to view a larger image. In which case, click on the blur below:

A prayer for the meeting of the General Assembly

As the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand prepares to gather for its General Assembly next week, it’s a time not only for reading through hundreds of pages of reports and recommendations, but also to be praying. So …

Almighty God,
in Jesus Christ you called disciples
and, by the Holy Spirit, made them one church to serve you.
Be with members of our General Assembly.
Help them to welcome new things you are doing in the world,
and to respect old things you keep and use.
Save them from empty slogans or senseless controversy.
In their deciding,
determine what is good for us and for all people.
As this General Assembly meets,
let your Spirit rule,
so that our church may be joined in love and service to Jesus Christ,
who, having gone before us,
is coming to meet us in the promise of your kingdom. Amen.

– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Common Worship, prepared by the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 805.

Stretching the Zonules: 100 years ago today, and more recent exploits

‘The question of providing religious services for summer holiday-makers in the country was before the Dunedin Presbytery at its meeting yesterday in relation, particularly, to the growing popularity of Warrington and contiguous seaside resorts.

A report submitted recommended that a tent be procured at Warrington, but this proposal did not seem to find general favour although the point has not been settled, the matter having been referred to a small committee.

The Rev. J. Chisholm said it seemed to him that more attention should be given to these seaside resorts in the future.

The churches were almost empty for a few weeks in the year, and unless more attention were paid to the young people they would form habits which would doubtless be confirmed, and that would be to the injury of their church.

The Rev. R. Fairmaid brought the matter nearer home than the northern coast by referring to Broad Bay and the Peninsula.

A young man had told him that a kind of pagan life was lived thereby the young people who gathered for week ends.

This was a deplorable condition from the moral point of view, and, so far as he understood, there was no service provided by their people in these quarters.

The committee appointed could perhaps attend to this matter, too.

It was pointed out by the Rev. W. Scorgie, in concluding the discussion, that there was a Methodist Church at Broad Bay and a Presbyterian Church at Portobello’.

[First published in the Otago Daily Times on 7 September 1910. Reprinted in today’s ODT]

Also, there’s some good reading around the traps at the moment:

  • William Cavanaugh on Christopher Hitchens and the myth of religious violence.
  • Matthew Bruce reviews Matthias Gockel’s Barth and Schleiermacher on the Doctrine of Election. [BTW: my own review of this book is available here].
  • Richard L. Floyd shares an appreciation of Donald Bloesch.
  • Kim Fabricius shares a wonderful Call to Worship.
  • Steve Biddulph on fatherhood.
  • Robert Fisk on ‘honour’ killings and on the pain of satisfying family ‘honour’.
  • Ben Myers shares a note on misreading.
  • Robin Parry (shamelessly) plugs a forthcoming book on universalism: “All Shall Be Well”: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann.
  • Luther is still bugging the locals.
  • Simon Holt shares a nice prayer from Ken Thompson about pigeon holes, compartments, and other places.
  • And Ken MacLeod offers a brilliant solution for distracted writers: ‘One of the major problems for writers is that the machine we use to write is connected to the biggest engine of distraction ever invented. One can always disconnect, of course – there’s even software that locks out the internet and email for selected periods – or use a separate, isolated computer, but I think something more elegant as well as radical is needed. What I’m thinking of is some purely mechanical device, that took the basic QWERTY keyboard with Shift and Return keys and so on, but with each key attached to an arrangement of levers connected to a physical representation of the given letter or punctuation mark. These in turn would strike through some ink-delivery system – perhaps, though I’m reaching a bit here, a sort of tape of cloth mounted on reels – onto separate sheets of paper, fed through some kind of rubber roller (similar to that on a printer) one by one. The Return key would have to be replaced by a manual device, to literally ‘return’ the roller at the end of each line. Tedious, but most writers could do with more exercise anyway. Corrections and changes would be awkward, it’s true, but a glance at any word processor programme gives the answer: the completed sheets could be, physically, cut and pasted’.

BTW: I haven’t abandoned my series on the cost and grace of parish ministry. If all goes to plan, I’ll be back posting on it this week.

Two items of note …

Two items of note:

1. Some historians of the Presbyerian tribe will be keen to know that the latest issue of The Historical Journal includes an article by Alasdair Raffe on ‘Presbyterianism, Secularization, and Scottish Politics after the Revolution of 1688–1690’ (Volume 53, Issue 02, June 2010, pp. 317–337). Here’s the abstract:

‘This article assesses the significance of Presbyterian ideas of church government in Scottish politics after the revolution of 1688 intrinsic right of the church: its claim to independent authority in spiritual matters and ecclesiastical administration. The religious settlement of 1690 gave control of the kirk to clergy who endorsed divine right Presbyterianism, believed in the binding force of the National Covenant (1638) and the Solemn League and Covenant (1643), and sought to uphold the intrinsic right. An ambiguous legal situation, the criticisms of episcopalian clergy and politicians, and the crown’s religious policies helped to make the Presbyterians’ ecclesiological claims a source of instability in Scottish politics. Meetings of the general assembly and, after 1707, the appointment of national fast and thanksgiving days were particularly likely to spark controversy. More broadly, the article questions two narratives of secularization assumed by many previous scholars. It argues that Scottish politics was not differentiated from religious controversy in this period, and that historians have exaggerated the pace of liberalization in Scottish Presbyterian thought’.

2. The other breaking story is that N.T. Wright has been appointed to a Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St Andrews.

Two worthwhile pieces on ministry

1. Kate Murphy reflects on whether youth ministry is killing the church:

‘when our children and youth ministries ghettoize young people, we run the risk of losing them after high school graduation … I think I’ve done youth ministry with integrity. But I may have been unintentionally disconnecting kids from the larger body of Christ. The young people at my current congregation—a church that many families would never join because “it doesn’t have anything for youth”—are far more likely to remain connected to the faith and become active church members as adults, because that’s what they already are and always have been’.

2. Joseph Small (who is no stranger to this blog) on why ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ ought be dropped from all Presbyterian usage:

‘Clergy and laity are two words that should never escape the lips of Presbyterians … Ministry within the church needs to be the responsibility of all the leaders — deacons, elders and pastors … Deacons, Small noted, have too often been relegated to serving coffee on Sunday and sending flowers to shut-ins … Elders “have become the board of directors of a small community service organization.” And … “What happened to ministers? They became clergy,” and clergy have ’emerged as the power in the church.” The divided role of ordained leadership in the church needs to change … and the walls between ordained offices torn down. Deacons are called to “leading the whole church in the ministry of compassion and justice … Elders should ‘share equally in the administration of the ministry of word and sacrament,” … [and] the “primary role” of ministers should be that of “teacher of the faith.”

Small said he favors use of the terms “teaching elders” and “ruling elders.” But … “ruling does not mean governing.” The correct meaning … “is rule like a measuring stick.” Ruling elders measure the congregation’s “fidelity to the gospel” and the “spiritual health of the congregation.” Small called ordained leaders in the church to be “genuine colleagues in ministry.”

Without collegial ministry, he said, the position of pastor becomes one of a lonely leader. He described the history of ministers in the United States as one of accumulated roles, where responsibilities always have been added but never withdrawn. Beginning on the frontier, Small said, pastors were called to be revivalists to “inspire and uplift.” When small towns grew on the prairie, the ministers were still expected to “know more about the faith,” but in addition to being inspirational preachers, ministers were expected to be community builders. As small towns grew into cities, ministers, he said, were expected to also be therapists, who helped those in the congregation “cope” with new stress.

As cities grew, ministers became “managers of an increasingly complex social organization called the church,” and today a pastor is expected to be a entrepreneur and innovator. “It’s just one more layer added on …’.