We have in the Presbytery office a beautiful, first printing, edition of the Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle which was published in Harrisburg in 1889. This work, published in two volumes, offers a fascinating glimpse at both the early history of our Presbytery and our congregations. I was especially drawn to an essay by Rev. W. A. West which discussed the political and religious landscape in Scotland, Ireland and England. What first motivated the Presbyterian migration across the ocean to the wilderness of Penn’s Land in the early 1700s? If one summary statement is possible to capture such a complex and rich history it may be this: The Presbyterians who left Scotland and Ireland for this new world were seeking to escape from the established church with a vision of creating a truly disestablished church. For example, consider this history which reflects the oppressive power of the established church in Scotland and Ireland.
“In 1661, at the re-establishment of Episcopacy in Ireland, the newly appointed bishops, with Jeremy Taylor as their leader, turned all the Presbyterian ministers out of their charges upon the ground that they had never been ordained. This ignoring of Presbyterian ordination carried with it a denial of the validity of any official act performed by a Presbyterian minister. For instance, the validity of marriage, involving the questions of legitimacy and inheritance. This wrong was not corrected until 1782. Second, In 1704 the Sacramental Test Act was passed, which required all persons holding any office, civil or military, or receiving any pay from the sovereign to take sacraments in the established church within three months after their appointment. This, of course, excluded all Presbyterians from civil and military offices of every kind.” (Centennial Memorial of the Presbytery of Carlisle, (Harrisburg: Meyers Printing and Publishing House, 1889), Vol. I, pages 49 and 50.)
The Presbyterians in Scotland and Ireland, our infamous Scots-Irish, responded to an oppressive, established church by moving to a new world, starting new lives and building new churches. Our American Presbyterian tradition was created by their vision and faithfulness, and their adamant rejection of establishment Christianity.
I was recently on a mission trip in Honduras visiting the congregations of the Presbytery of Honduras. As you may know, Honduras is a dominantly Roman Catholic nation. Statistics report that over 90% of the population is Roman Catholic, although there is serious debate about the value and meaning of that statistic. The Roman Catholic Church is a very established Church in Honduras. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church still today has enormous political and economic power. The Moderator of the Presbytery of Honduras told me a fascinating story. In the 1990s the Presbyterian Churches wanted to formally and legally consolidate their connection to one another by creating the Presbytery of Honduras. This required an application to the government for the Presbytery to acquire official standing as a church body within the nation of Honduras. (This is similar to our Presbytery’s legal standing as a religious organization in the eyes of the United States’ government.) But this application was held up for many years within the bureaucracy of the government. The Presbyterian minister who told me this story is convinced that the Roman Catholic archbishop in Honduras intentionally prevented the legal recognition of the Presbytery of Honduras. Over time, government officials changed, the Presbytery continually reapplied for recognition, some American Presbyterians advocated with the government on their behalf and now, indeed, the Presbytery of Honduras is officially and legally recognized as a church body in Honduras. But the Presbyterians in Honduras have an adamant disdain for establishment Christianity, not unlike our Scots-Irish ancestors. (Presbyterian leaders in Honduras were quite aghast when I described the often cordial and cooperative relationship between Presbyterians and Roman Catholics in America. The Protestant and Roman Catholic divide in Honduras continues to be very wide and deep.)
Both the story of the Scots-Irish rebellion against the established church in their day and the story of the Presbytery of Honduras’ fight for recognition against the established church in their nation encourage an important theological thesis which I have been pondering and researching: (1) The political, social or economic establishment of the church in any society compromises the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Establishment is a very slippery slope. (2) We in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are living through a traumatic era during which our church is being radically disestablished. (3) This may be the best thing that can happen to our church if; indeed, our goal is to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I believe this may be one of the most important theological discussions we can have in our church. Consider these questions: In what ways do you believe our church has acted as if we are an established church in American society? In what ways has our establishment functioned to compromise the truth of the Gospel? In what ways is our church now being actively disestablished from American society? Are there ways in which this is good for the church?