Uniquely Presbyterian – Bruce Hamill

Bruce Hamill has written a response to Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Rt Rev Richard Dawson’s comments in the Autumn edition of Spanz about what is distinct and unique about the Presbyterian tradition.

Richard’s musings in the most recent edition of Spanz (Editor’s note: read the article here – pg 3) helpfully focused a discussion that has been brewing for some time among Presbyterians in a period of declining interest in denominational difference.

Those particularly invested in the denominational institutions feel this decline and have been soul-searching for a while. Richard’s use of the term “DNA” is helpful. It reminds me that although a few might convert to Presbyterianism for reasons of belief, most of those doing the soul-searching are those who have grown into the particular patterns and codification of values from childhood or at least over many years.

I don’t usually get into such discussions, partly because my own Presbyterian DNA is a bit thin and partly because I think these questions of tribal identity are fraught. However, Richard’s list of values prompted me to think about why these particular ones might be the focus of a discussion of Presbyterian identity.

It strikes me that no one would become Presbyterian because of their commitment to either the incarnation or the scriptures. Any of the main Christian traditions have as strong a claim to these things. They come with becoming Christian rather than Presbyterian.

Similarly, the matter of a national and international identity does not distinguish Presbyterianism from many other “tribes”. Moreover, many would regard a national or global identity which is not the body of Christ in its (eschatological) unity, as at best, incidentally, or at worst problematically, related to their primary identity in Christ. I have mixed feelings about whether this national/international branding is a good thing, but the fact of such an identity (and structure) is not a distinctively Presbyterian thing.

The other two points of Presbyterian distinction seem to me to require greater specification. With respect to a “flat leadership structure”, it is probably more accurate to say that we believe in a flatter leadership structure than the Catholics, but not as flat as the Anabaptists or the Brethren. In other words it is a particular form of flat structure we believe in. Now when it comes down to that level of analysis you wonder whether for most this is a matter of historical idiosyncracy rather than deep or core theological distinctiveness. I have met Presbyterians for whom this is their defining concern. They puzzle me. Similarly, I think that our commitment to the laity is something many other traditions would affirm in their own ways.

I note then that these discussions of identity often lump together minor points of difference which are part of our DNA with broad theological commitments which are not really points of difference from the affirmation of other tribes. It might be that we (for the sake of difference) are prone to give a disproportionate loyalty to these minor distinctions. It might also be that hidden in these broader theological commitments is a loyalty, not to the incarnation and scripture per se, but to a particular brand of the magisterial reformed reading of those doctrines. There is a difference there, but it is often not acknowledged in these discussions. I suspect the real points of distinctive identity are hidden here. After all, if the centrality of scripture and incarnation are not points of difference then I suspect they don’t really belong in a discussion of a distinctively Presbyterian identity.

Perhaps it is better to separate discussions about Christian identity from discussions about Presbyterian identity. It seems to me that this distinction is really important to maintain.

3 thoughts on “Uniquely Presbyterian – Bruce Hamill

  1. Hi Bruce, I appreciate your thoughtful analysis. When addressing a similar question in our parish magazine I compared the way in which denominations distinctively exercise power:

    Where does the power lie?
    In the February Record, I made the comment that “every Christian community larger than a family needs to choose some way of organizing itself”, and while those ways may seem many and varied, when you ask the question “Where does the power lie?’ they fall into three broad categories.
    In the most basic form the power lies with the congregation, which is regarded as the local expression of the Body of Christ. While there may be a church council elected by the congregation, and the congregation itself may own allegiance to a particular set of assumptions and beliefs (a denomination), each congregation is independent with regard to ordering its life, hiring and firing its pastor, and deciding who can belong.
    Denominations favouring a congregational polity include Baptist, Brethren, Churches of Christ, Congregational, Pentecostal, and Quaker.
    When researching how the Open Brethren handle pastoral care without a ministry, I was intrigued to discover a structure at congregational level very like our own. However, there was a wide variety in the openness to outsiders in the three Wellington congregations I visited, ranging from a very warm welcome to open suspicion and reserve, such as might be experienced by a press reporter.
    Each of these denominations usually has a national support structure with varying levels of formality, but without the authority to over-rule the local congregation.
    At the other end of the scale are those churches where the power is personal, and lies primarily in a hierarchy of roles or positions. The best-known series, in descending order of authority, is that of Bishop, Priest, and Deacon. The bishop has the leading role in the regional Diocese, where both priests and deacons operate under the bishop’s authority.
    The relationship between these roles was clearly seen when my son-in-law Karl was ordained by Bishop Justin, in the cathedral, first as deacon, then as priest, and then more recently when he was inducted by the bishop as vicar of St Paul’s, Waiwhetu.
    There are also ancillary roles to assist the bishop in the running of the diocese and the hierarchy operates within the context of a series of councils or synods, gathering periodically in a national General Synod chaired by the bishop, who for the time being has been appointed as Archbishop. The Roman Catholic church is international and the hierarchy extends right up to the Pope, the bishop of Rome.
    Then thirdly there are those denominations like the Methodist and Presbyterian churches which are national in structure, and conciliar in form, where the primary power to decide lies in a series of councils, rising from that governing the local congregation, but which is responsible to the regional body, in turn accountable to the national body, in our (Presbyterian) case, the General Assembly.
    In our church ministers and elders (or parish councillors) are jointly responsible to the Presbytery, which is made up of a minister and an elder from each congregation.
    The Presbytery determines who will be the representatives at the Assembly, itself equally divided between elders and ministers. These representatives are not delegates, but are free to make their prayerful decision only after hearing the discussion. Absentee voting is ruled out as being inadequately informed. This understanding holds at regional and local level.
    I continue to be a Presbyterian because, having checked out the various ways in which authority (power) and responsibility are organized and exercised both in the wider community and in a range of Churches, I put my trust in the way we do it.
    Of course, this doesn’t stop councils making errors, poor decisions, or adopting positions that other Christians may call in question, nor after more reflection, changing their mind.
    Each way of organising has its own strengths (and weaknesses) but our way seems to be fairer and less open to abuse, closer if you will to early New Testament models, than any other form. I also think it more likely to produce a gathering where what the Spirit is saying to the Church may be more clearly heard, today as ever before.


  2. Hi Reg, thanks for your comments. Let me try and summarize your points (not to disagree but to check I understand correctly). (1) for the body of Christ to be the body of Christ there must be a congregation-transcending institutional structure and thus congregationalism is flawed (2) the criterion for deciding on which structure to adopt (in a congregation and in relations between congregations in the wider institutional structure) is based on which best avoids abuse of power and so an analysis of where power lies is the best reason to choose Presbyterianism over other traditions (3) Presbyterianism is the best structure for just power distribution in this sense (as I read it you assert this but do not offer argument for it). Am I hearing you roughly correctly?


  3. One more thought/question. Do you want this question of power within a social system to be the primary criterion for choosing churches or does it fit somewhere down the heirarchy? For example, if I were to think that the Presbyterian understanding of the Gospel (as expressed in the Westminster Confession) was inferior to the notion of theosis in the Greek Orthodox tradition, however I thought that the Presbyterian system was safer with respect to abuse of power, should the power criterion be the most important one, or should the nature of the Gospel take priority?


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