Which Matters More, Branding or Order of Precedence?

Old Life took a wee vacation last week thanks to (all about) my trip to Belfast which included delightful discussions with a historian who must remain anonymous for the sake of his good name and sightseeing with an old (not as old as mmmmeeeeeeEEE) friend who also deserves protection from tawdry associations with this blog.

I had the privilege of speaking informally with folks from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Those communions are not in fellowship thanks to the split in 1927 over liberalism in the PCI, a debate that has all the earmarks of the so-called fundamentalist controversy in the U.S. In fact, W. J. Grier, who studied at Princeton Seminary with J. Gresham Machen, took some inspiration from conservatives in the U.S. to oppose the teaching of J. E. Davey, who taught church history and theology at Union College (in effect the seminary for Irish Presbyterians). When the trial against Davey failed, Grier led the formation of a new Presbyterian communion.

That parallel suggests that PCI is to the EPC what the PCUSA is to the OPC. But such reading of American dynamics into Ireland misses how different American Presbyterianism is. If anything, the U.S. equivalent to the PCI is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the American one that had Tim Keller speak at its GA). The PCI is more evangelical than the PCUSA and does not go out of its way to be inclusive. Whether it will ever go out of its way to discipline erroneous views is another matter.

Another difference is that the PCI’s moderator is tenth in the Orders of Precedence in the United Kingdom.

I have no idea how to reconcile the Wikipedia chart with the church’s website about political status in Northern Ireland. But I do suspect the matter has something to do with the Regium Donum, a “royal gift” from Charles II to dissenting Protestants (outside the Church of Ireland — Anglican) to support their ministry. In fact, the royal recognition of the PCI’s moderator means that he receives invitations to affairs in London held by the British government. I suspect it also means some sort of royal representative at PCI General Assemblies the way that the Queen still sends a delegate to the Free Church of Scotland.

This difference with the USA is striking. The federal government or POTUS never sends representatives or invitations to moderators of Presbyterian communions in the U.S. Not even the Presbyterians in the “Protestant establishment,” the PCUSA, have the standing that Presbyterians do in the UK. American Presbyterians are pikers compared to Presbyterians in the British Isles.

But we American Presbyterians compensate with celebrity.

Which raises the question whether a brand like Tim Keller has more influence in national (or urban) life than a royal gift. I am asking because inquiring minds want to know.

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Did They Give Rise to Secession?

So here is the problem (aside from Irish department stores stocking washcloths but Irish hotels not owning them, or that no one shows up in Dublin for evening prayers when the fat ladies aren’t singing). Political philosophers and historians have given lots of attention to Calvinism as an engine of modern liberal (read constitutional) politics. Whether it’s resistance theory, the Dutch rebellion, or the so-called Presbyterian revolution of the British colonies in North America, students of Calvinism believe they have a firm read on Reformed Protestant politics as an inherently rebellious outlook, one that won’t let any human authority encroach on the Lordship of Christ. (Why we didn’t celebrate 1861 along with 1776, 1689, and 1567 prior to getting right with race is a bit of an inconsistency.)

That sounds good in theory, and it certainly turns out Calvinist (New, Neo, or Denominational) in large numbers for Fox News. But it doesn’t make sense of history where context matters. Here, the case of Irish Presbyterians are instructive. They were Scottish in background and carried around in their devotional DNA the covenants that Scottish or English-Scottish monarchs had made to ensure the protection of the true religion (Presbyterianism) and the suppression of the false (Roman Catholic or prelatical/Episcopal). But in Ulster they encountered a set of realities remarkably different from Scotland or North American colonies. They were subject politically to English authorities who trying to subdue the Irish and who wanted more Protestants but did not want to provoke the natives. They confronted a native population that was firmly Roman Catholic. And they found themselves on the outside of an ecclesiastical establishment (the Church of Ireland) that was Anglican. If you turn to Scottish history for help, you alienate the English government and your stir up your Irish neighbors. If you want to be part of the ecclesiastical establishment (the way Upper Canada would try in the nineteenth century), you’re guilty of historical anachronism. The closest situation to yours is perhaps Philadelphia which when it comes along toward the end of the seventeenth century provides an attractive alternative to Ulster for Scots-Irish.

Here is how I. R. McBride in Scripture Politics: Ulster Presbyterians and Irish Radicalism in the Late Eighteenth Century puts the challenge of placing Irish Presbyterianism on the map of political theory in the West:

It would be convenient if an analysis of theological controversy could somehow isolate a single gene that programmed radicalism into the Presbyterian Church. Unfortunately, political affiliations were not structured by religious allegiances in any simple way, but resulted from a subtle combination of theological inheritance, social factors, and political circumstances. Ulster radicalism cannot be understood outside the experience of exclusion from the institutions of the state, the social conditions of the north of Ireland, and a deep-seated ambivalence towards a British government which was both the upholder of Anglican ascendancy and the ultimate guarantor of Protestant security. Presbyterianism, furthermore, was neither homogeneous or static, but was fragmented . . . Unlike the monolithic edifices of its Anglican and Roman rivals, this fractured culture allowed theories of both religious and political dissidence to take hold and flourish.

The intellectual inheritance of the Scottish Reformation offered a rich and complex legacy of resistance and radicalism which provided a common platform on which Presbyterians of all theological preferences could unite. The basic principle that Jesus Christ was the sole lawgiver in the Church, though applied in a variety of ways, was shared by all strands of Presbyterian opinion. In its most extreme manifestation, the older ‘prophetic’ theocracy called for Church and state to be brought together to create a society in social and political conformity to the word of God, a vision still shared by those groups which adhered to the Solemn League and Covenant. In an age of social and political disruption, it retained its attraction for poorer Presbyterians in the Synod of Ulster, the Secession, and most of all the Reformed Presbytery. The political theology of the Covenanters, which asserted that all government, temporal and spiritual, must be based on those patterns allegedly found in Scriptures, was violently at odds with the development of an erastian, parliamentary regime. . . .

In their insistence on the supremacy of individual conscience over received authority, the New Lights also regarded themselves as the genuine heirs of the Reformation heritage. The call to separate Christianity from human policy echoed the fundamental Protestant dichotomy between human corruption, evidenced in the false ceremonies and beliefs which had debased the Church, and divine truth as embodied in the Scriptures. While their political principles were no doubt derived from a common Presbyterians, however, they also reflected the rationalism of non-subscribing divinity . . . . Far more important to the evolution of radical ideology was the non-subscribers’ battle for freedom of enquiry, and their conviction that civil and religious liberty were inextricably linked. . . . ‘that religious is a personal thing – that Christ is the head of the church – that his kingdom is not of this world – that the WILL OF THE PEOPLE should be the SUPREME LAW’. Here was the authentic voice of New Light radicalism. [109-110]

The spirituality of the church keeps looking better and better.

First Turkey, Now Ireland — Sheesh!

The better half and I are in the middle of a week-long trip to Ireland that now has me working away as part of a visiting-faculty assignment at Trinity College in Dublin. We began the week in Northern Ireland with new and old friends. The new ones are officers and members of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (no relations to the communion of the same name in the U.S.) who were eminently kind and hospitable hosts during a day of interactions, both formal and informal. On Monday night I had the privilege of speaking at a rally to honor the 85th anniversary of the EPC. My topic was “Principle Presbyterianism Today.”

One of the curious features of Presbyterianism in Northern Ireland is that the conservatives (the Evangelical Presbyterians) who have the most affinities with Orthodox Presbyterians also seem to be a bit despondent about their prospects. The EPC began in 1927 during a theological controversy which saw the Presbyterian Church of Ireland fail to discipline a professor at the church’s theological college for teaching views that were clearly outside the Confession of Faith and heterodox more generally. The EPC has always struggled as a small denomination. But now that the Presbyterian Church of Ireland has become increasingly evangelical itself (though it still ordains women — which would make the PCI more like the U.S. Evangelical Presbyterian Church), the Irish EPC lacks the rationale and clarity of vision that once animated the church. If your target no longer exists, you may appear to be shooting blanks.

Although the EPC is small — it has about 400 members with another 350 regular attenders — its size is proportionally much larger than the OPC. If Northern Ireland has approximately 1.6 million people, compared to a U.S. population of close to 300 million, the EPC within a U.S. numerical setting would account proportionately for almost 225,000 people (if my math is correct). That means that the EPC is almost seven times as large proportionately as the OPC which has a membership of roughly 30,000. Since Americans are never at a wont for overestimating their influence, the smallness of the OPC has not left the denomination with a sense of insignificance. Mark Noll’s image of the Pea Beneath the Mattress has generally typified the mindset of Orthodox Presbyterians. I hope the Evangelical Presbyterians of Ireland can find a similar diminutive vigor.

One other set of reflections worth making for now is the lack of a Dutch Reformed influence on Scotland and Ireland. On Monday morning I had a “lovely” time describing Calvinism in the United States to a small (how could it be large) group of EPC ministers and elders. I went through the classic threefold division of Reformed Protestants in North America — the doctrinalists (Machenites), culturalists (Kuyperians), and experimental Calvinists (Whitefieldians and Edwardsians). My EPC interlocutors were quick to point out that the Kuyperian tradition of transformationalism has never been a presence in Irish Presbyterianism.

Of course, that does not mean that the Scots and Irish don’t have other resources for trying to do what Kuyper did. Thomas Chalmers and the Free Church of Scotland have maintained a notion of the establishment principle that affirms in a different way what Kuyper tried to express when he spoke about every square inch. And not to be missed are the incredibly complicated relations in Northern Ireland between religion and politics, hence the sheesh in the title of this post. I had thought after visiting Turkey that the notion of a secular Muslim state was sufficiently complex to merit further consideration. But to read as I am this week about the various Presbyterian versions of church-state relations, not to mention the endlessly fascinating and troubling history of Protestant-Roman Catholic relations in Northern Ireland since the initial push for Home Rule, makes my head explode (in a good way, of course).

What is interesting to observe at this point, though, is that for all of their claims about the Lordship of Christ, whether over the church or over the state, the Scots and their Irish Presbyterian cousins have never seemed to put much stock in epistemological self-consciousness. Why do you need philosophy and the arts when law and authority are hard enough to conjure?