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.