If Presbyterianism Disappears, We Will Just Invent It Again
By Rev. Janet Edwards
I confess, I grew up thinking there was a Presbyterian Church on every corner around the world. Actually, that’s close to what there was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1950’s.
I loved sitting each Sunday beside my Granpa, my mother’s father, in the fifth row on the lecture side at the Sixth United Presbyterian Church with its plush red velvet pew cushions, resonant organ, and complicated polished wood ceiling that my great great-grandparents had helped to build.
They came from Scotland as did thousands of others to this western edge of the Allegheny Mountains. The topography and weather were a bit like home and there was immense opportunity. They brought their sense (called Presbyterianism) of how people should organize themselves in churches, yes, and in other social structures, as well, that took root in Scotland through the teaching of John Knox, disciple of the Reformer John Calvin.
My father’s family came earlier, from England, with the wave of colonists whose story we told at school every Thanksgiving when I was growing up. They were escaping the dangers they faced because they also followed the teaching of John Calvin on what to believe about Jesus and, from that, how to live. The Edwards sons were preachers called to share the Gospel with native Americans in what became western New York. Eventually, sons found their way down the Allegheny River valley to Pittsburgh.
I can’t say when or where I learned the word, “Presbyterianism,” It could have been in Sunday School where I also learned that the most important things were to love God and to love my neighbor as myself. I had no idea what these meant. I do know that I committed myself to find out when I confirmed my faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit in that grand sanctuary and became a member of the Presbyterian Church with my Grandfather looking on.
In my quest, I came to understand that Presbyterianism was not all there was. As I grew, the horizon around me introduced Methodists, Episcopalians and a few Catholics. Eventually I understood that I lived in the Pittsburgh neighborhood with the largest Jewish population. A world religions course in college expanded my vision to include Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Taoists. Pittsburgh and Presbyterianism became a speck in a large world.
Did my heritage–does Presbyterianism–have any distinctive gift to give to this wide world, especially in the face of the steady decline of interest and membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) during my lifetime? When I was ordained in 1977, there were 92,792 Presbyterians in Pittsburgh Presbytery. Today there are 28,518. Before I die there could be none. Would that make any difference to anyone?
Presbyterianism emerged out of the Christian wars in Europe known as the Reformation. The structures and commitments that are its hallmarks come from a faithful effort to recreate the way the first Christians lived. And, having survived the rabid violence that erupted among those who all claimed to believe in Christ, the first Presbyterians created ways they hoped would allow those who disagree to live together peaceably.
From my experience, those Reformers bequeathed to us three related bits of wisdom that are the heart of Presbyterianism:
- No one person knows the mind of God,
- Community is key
- We are always being reformed.
For people whose fundamental commitment in life is to do God’s will, the conviction that no one person knows the mind of God drives us into community. This truth is what Presbyterians find in the Bible stories about the Hebrews, Jesus’ disciples and the first churches described in the New Testament. In other words, our best knowledge of God rises from the deliberations of a group.
And from this, Presbyterians recognize that no one group knows the mind of God either. This means groups need to gather together, too, for the best wisdom to emerge. When at our humble best, Presbyterians acknowledge that we, as a denomination, do not know the mind of God. This has made us leaders in Christian interchurch dialogue and, as the world has shrunk, in multi-faith engagement.
When the group becomes so central–when community is key–justice rises to the highest priority. Cornel West explains why:
“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
Presbyterians knew this from our beginnings since the Bible teaches that God is love and love at work in community is justice.
It is not by chance that eleven of the first state legislatures, when the colonies broke from the British in what was known by many at that time as “the Presbyterian war,” were called “General Assemblies,” the name for the central deliberative body in the Presbyterian Church. I confess my pride leads me to see a Presbyterian suggestion behind naming the General Assembly at the United Nations. Maybe a stretch, but the point is: striving for justice in the public square is imperative when community is key.
Presbyterians also know from both Scripture and tough experience that we have all “sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23).” With other Reformed churches, we acknowledge our faults, our imperfections, and we trust in God to unceasingly reform us to become better selves, to live more fully who God created us to be, both as individuals and in groups.
We embrace the wisdom of the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, “The only thing that is constant is change.” The Presbyterian Church has changed. Ordaining women and celebrating same-sex marriages are recent examples. And we know we will continue to change, maybe even disappear.
What cannot disappear–what disappears at our great peril and is under immense threat in these tribalist, libertarian times–is Presbyterianism. It can be called something else. It can be more perfectly lived out. But it is an essential gift from God to humankind that has helped individuals and communities thrive by knowing no one person knows it all, communities are crucial and change is inevitable.
The fact is, if Presbyterianism disappeared, we would just have to invent it again. Better to champion it now. Will you join me?
The Rev. Janet Edwards is a Presbyterian minister and is on the Board of Auburn.