A recent paper presented at the URC’s Mission Council suggested that: “the URC’s particular contribution to the life of the Church in the UK at the present time will lie in its grasp of its Reformed identity and that this has the potential to lead to the renewal of the Church and its outreach into the world.” I am at best ambivalent about this statement and at times feel quite distinctly opposed to it for a number if reasons which I will now state in brief and subsequently expand on a little
- I do not personally identify as “Reformed”
- I do not believe the URC is, ever has been or should be “Reformed”
- I believe others are better placed than us to make the contribution suggested in the UK
- I believe we do have a distinctive contribution to make that a definitive identification with the Reformed tradition would interfere with.
Any meaningful discussion of this matter will require some level of agreement on what being “Reformed” means. My feeling that currently no such agreement exists. Different participants in the discussion have radically different ideas of what the Reformed tradition is, so I will state the one I believe to be most useful as clearly as I can.
In doing so I recognise that my idea of what that tradition represents is formed out of a particular experience. I am an ordained elder of the Church of Scotland as well as of the United Reformed Church and my academic theological training took place at New College, Edinburgh, an institution that remains a training ground for Church of Scotland ministers (there were around twenty of their candidates there when I was and I was the only URC ordinand). New College attracts students from the Reformed tradition from all over the world, especially from the US and from Korea, where the numbers of Presbyterians are particularly large. Few from the Dutch Reformed tradition go there, but there are some.
This profound connection with the Presbyterian strand of the Reformed tradition inevitable influences what I take that tradition to mean, but the context also means that I have had to struggle with what distinguishes us from Presbyterianism while recognising that Presbyterianism is not, despite what it might think, the only tradition properly regarded as Reformed.
The first thing to say is that I believe that to be a meaningful term “Reformed” has to connect in real way with the fairly tightly defined circumstances in which the in has its origins. It refers, in my view, consistent with the usual use of the term in Church history, to those varieties of Protestantism that are continuous with the reform of the church in a group of city states in Switzerland and Western Germany, most particularly Zurich, Geneva and Basel but also prominently including Strasbourg.
It is essential to the Reformed tradition, in my view, and I am by no means eccentric in this view, that it is part of the “magisterial reformation”, which it is to say it belongs to that part of the overall movement of reform that was carried out by or with the civil authorities and which imposed Protestantism on an entire political entity by force of law. This basic assumption of the Reformed tradition is explicitly stated in all its main Confessions including the Westminster Confession that is so basic to Presbyterianism.
From the very beginning the Reformed tradition was self-consciously in opposition to the radical reformation and to anabaptism, the wing of the movement that rejected, among other things, the idea of a Christian political order and compulsory and universal church membership. The radical reformation favoured a model of the church that rejected the existing social order as corrupt and withdrew from it into congregations of the elect, separate and apart from the reprobate. The Reformed tradition set its face against and often persecuted these radicals, affirming the Christian vocation of the civil authorities and in Scotland succeeding in eliminating all traces of dissent.
I would argue that the two main bearers into modernity of the Reformed tradition, properly so called, are Scottish Presbyterianism and the Dutch Reformed, both of which passed through seventeenth century Confessionalism with their doctrine of the relation of church and state very much aligned to that of Calvin, whose Geneva church came to be the primary definer of what it was to be Reformed.
This is not to say that the influence of the Reformed tradition was not more widely felt. Anglicanism, through Cranmer and Bucer, was deeply shaped by the Reformed tradition, which on the Protestant side of the rift opened up by the Reformation, was seen as the main alternative to Lutheranism if one were not to go over to anabaptism. If one wanted to maintain a strong link between Church and State then being Reformed was a kind of default position until the rise of a distinctive Anglican theology. Similarly some from the anabaptist tradition came to feel the attraction of the coherent and complete “Calvinist” system worked out by Calvin’s successors in Geneva, so that one comes across “Reformed Baptists” and other anabaptist/Reformed hybrids.
Something like this is found in the Savoy Declaration, which affirms a Westminster Calvinism apart from its sections on Church and State and Church government. On this basis it is possible to argue that English Congregationalism should be seen as part of the wider Reformed tradition. I am unconvinced by this. It is clear that those independents who gathered in 1658 wanted that to be so but in my view the issue of Church and State is foundational to the definition of the Reformed tradition and that the subsequent history of both English Presbyterianism and English Congregationalism prove this, as both struggle with what it means to be both dissenting and Reformed and discover that they are in fact incompatible.
My contention is that the struggle with the established church fundamentally transformed Congregationalism in England such that it ceased to be, in any meaningful sense, identifiably Reformed. It will always be possible to redefine the term “Reformed” so that it includes rather than excludes the Congregationalists and as a consequence also includes the United Reformed Church, but I would contend that to do so has two bad consequences that are better avoided.
First it leads to such a weakening of the determinate sense of the term that it stops being useful in distinguishing one tradition from another and second it distorts the real history and current character of our denomination. I would prefer to insist, as many of those who call themselves Reformed in fact do, that being Reformed requires agreement to some quite specific things, in particular Confessional subscription at some level of strictness, agreement with the quite definite doctrines set out in the classic Confessions, the so called “Covenant Theology”, with its strong emphasis on divine sovereignty, its adherence to sola scriptura (as against the Lutheran admission of some traditional elements), its affirmation of a Christian polity (as against anabaptism) and so on (including the doctrine of predestination, which is not, though as distinctive of the Reformed tradition as is sometimes thought, Luther also being predestinarian),
Second it distorts what we are and should be. Our Basis of Union, while recognising our historic connection with the Reformed tradition nowhere commits us to it. It acknowledges that some of our forebears valued the confessions without saying that we should do so. I believe this to be appropriate to our being a united denomination which has roots in a number of tradition, including the Anabaptist and Restorationist alongside the Reformed. To assert the singular importance of a Reformed tradition redefined so broadly as to allow it to incorporate the non-Reformed elements we historically include distracts us from searching for our particular vocation and task. This is especially unfortunate and unnecessary when there are plenty of others at least as well qualified as we are to contribute a distinctive Reformed identity to the UK scene.
Putting aside the Church of Scotland for a moment there are those within the Church of England who look back to Cranmer and the Reformed strand in Anglicanism and there are the neo-Reformed who wish to reassert a distinctive Reformed identity. Here I would point especially to the successors to New Frontiers, who are certainly now more numerous than we are and who take their Reformed identity very seriously indeed, with extensive discussion, for example, of the place and role of Arminianism in the Reformed tradition.
I do not believe that there is nothing of value in the Reformed tradition, but I do not either believe it is an adequate basis for moving forward into the new period that is opening up, a period in which the Pentecostal descendants of the Methodist tradition are rapidly moving to being the dominant Protestantism. Our calling, I believe, is to carry the hope of a Christianity reunited, of a new life beyond a confessionalism defined by the issues a time long gone. This new Christianity will be shaped out of but not by the old denominational identities and as a denomination defined by the ecumenical hope that is what we have the responsibility to seek and to embody.