Happy Anniversary! [after a fashion] and A Most Basic Right.
The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC) in this country began with a merger which took place on this day, June 13, 1782, between the Reformed Presbyterians and the Associate Church, two groups which derived directly from secessions from the Church of Scotland. Both groups entering this union were small and it was not until 1804 that the newly formed denomination had sufficient strength to constitute itself as a General Synod. Admittedly it’s a more complicated history than this short account would imply. As the ARPC grew, there were eventually four Synods and one General Synod. But today the ARPC officially looks back to the 1803 formation of the Church’s Synod of the South, since the other Synods eventually merged into the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.
But to make a point with today’s blog, let’s look more closely at the Associate Presbyterian side of that 1782 union. The Scottish Reformation dates to 1560. Then in 1733 came the First Secession, which came about when the 1732 General Assembly approved a highly controversial Act which inferred with a congregation’s right to call its own pastor. This First Secession was led by Ebenezer Erskine, and the departing group named themselves the Associate Presbytery. By 1745, the Presbytery had grown to the extent that it could now be constituted as a Synod. But no sooner had blessing come than division again brought humbling. The Associate Synod was split in 1747 over the Burgess oath. The sticking point was a clause in this oath which some took to mean they approved of the established or state-supported Church, the Church of Scotland. Those opposed to the Burgess oath were called Anti-Burghers and these took the name of the General Associate Synod, or in the American colonies, the Associate Church.
As one Scottish historian has observed,
If the Scottish parliament had accepted the 1st and 2nd Books of Discipline at the time of the Reformation in 1560, the troubles which beset the Presbyterian church in Scotland in the ensuing centuries would never have happened. These were almost all caused by patronage – the right of a patron to appoint the minister in each parish. The Books of Discipline had lain down that the minister was to be chosen by the parishioners and that no minister was to be intruded against their will.
Unfortunately, the Parliament of the day was made up of men with vested interests – the landowners in those parishes and so while, initially, the Crown had assumed the right of patronage, landowners soon acquired that right. For a while, after the execution of Charles 1 in 1649 and throughout Cromwell’s Commonwealth, congregations were allowed to choose their ministers, but, after Charles 11 was restored, an act of 1662 re-instated patronage.
It also required all ministers who had been appointed since 1649 to acquire a patron. A quarter of the clergy refused to do so and so were deprived of their livings and it was these men who formed the backbone of the Covenanters, out of which movement, the Reformed Presbyterian Church emerged.
And so we want to stress the importance of that right of a congregation to call its own pastor. Presbytery has the right to keep an ill-suited man from the field, but the right of the congregation to call its own pastor can be considered the more foundational right. And basic rights can often become ignored rights, and once ignored, can sometimes be lost or surrendered when we forget just how important they actually are. Let’s take a look at how this fundamental right has been inshrined in the Constitutions of Presbyterian denominations over the last four and one-half centuries:
First Book of Discipline, Church of Scotland (1560)
Fourth Head—Concerning Ministers and their Lawful Election
It appertains to the people, and to every several congregation, to elect their minister. And in case that they are found negligent therein the space of forty days, the best reformed kirk—to wit, the church of the superintendent with his council—may present unto them a man whom they judge apt to feed the flock of Christ Jesus, who must be examined as well in life and manners, as in doctrine and knowledge.
Second Book of Discipline, Church of Scotland (1578)
Chapter 3—How the Persons that bear Ecclesiastical Functions are to be Admitted to Their Office
5. In the order of election, it is to be eschewed that any person be intruded in any of the offices of the kirk contrary to the will of the congregation to whom they are appointed, or without the voice of the eldership. None ought to be intruded or entered in the places already planted, or in any room that vakes not [is not vacant], for any worldly respect; and that which is called the benefice ought to be nothing else than the stipend of the ministers that are lawfully called and elected.
Then crossing the ocean, notice how consistently the American Presbyterian Churches have reiterated this core right of the congregation, each denomination taking up the very same wording in paragraph six of a document called the Preliminary Principles:
Preliminary Principles, Paragraph 6.
VI. That though the character, qualifications, and authority of church officers, are laid down in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the proper method of their investiture and institution; yet the election of the persons to the exercise of this authority, in any particular society, is in that society.
These denominations are:
(1.) Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1789)
(2.) Book of Church Order of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1936)
(3.) Book of Church Order of the Bible Presbyterian Church (1938)
(4.) Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (1973)
[in 2008 the PCA made a small change, deleting the words “and institution”]
Note that the OPC and the BPC both come out of the PCUSA tradition where the Preliminary Principles were drawn up in 1788. Yet while the PCA comes out of the Southern Presbyterian tradition, those Preliminary Principles were seen as so important that our founding fathers included them as part of our Constitution. Curiously, the Southern Presbyterian Church had rejected the Preliminary Principles as early as 1867 and declined to include them in its Book of Church Order, viewing them as innately congregationalist in nature and as only befitting a nascent church. Time was limited but surprisingly, I did not see, in a quick scan, a similar provision in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Form of Government. If it is there, I would appreciate someone pointing it out.
To read the full text of the Preliminary Principles, comparing the text as adopted by the above denominations, click here.