Not so long ago, out of the blue, and to my horror, someone asked about what kind of things act as markers of Free Presbyterian cultural identity.
I don’t know if I can explain why I find that such an incredibly difficult thing to talk about.
It’s not like there are none, but I don’t have a good feeling of which ones FPs would (a) readily recognise as such or (b) submit to having pointed out in public. There are things that FPs do, in common with other conservative churches, because of believing they’re required in scripture, but if they’re scriptural, then they don’t really count as cultural. (Primary example: the Lord’s day. Primary example 2: exclusive psalmody.)
On the other hand, there are FP-ish things which aren’t unique to FPs but are generally characteristic of a traditional Highland way of life. Primary example: scones, porridge, tea, not in that order. Brose. Ew. Non-teuchie FPs can think of their own.
So, what then? Part of the problem is that FPs only exist as a distinct grouping because of 1893. So they share with the other post-Reformation presbyterian denominations a certain something that I can’t very well define but which basically means being as indistinguishable from the rest of society as possible except in the areas where a Christian as such can’t be involved. (Like the quaint local custom of drinking yourself stupid every weekend.) The repudiation of monasticism at the Reformation (they weren’t really into refudiation in those days) continues to mean for the Scottish descendants of the Reformation that the most spiritual and holy lives are lived in just normal surroundings. Scottish presbyterians persistently fail to be enthusiastic about homeschooling their children, for one thing, and have largely succeeded in avoiding creating a mini “Christian” sub-culture – it’s not just FPs who find it a bit embarrassing to try and express your Christian identity through evangelistic t-shirts.
The other problem though is that FPs are rarely rewarded for existing as a distinct group within the Scottish church scene, and nothing puts an FP on the defensive like mentioning the fact of their distinctness. For this to make sense, we need to talk about 1893. But 1893 is horribly confusing as it relies on a fair amount of prior knowledge of the relationships between such terms as Church, State, Free Church, Disruption, Establishment, Free Presbyterian, and Confession, and one thing that FPs can’t do is dumb down matters of such tremendously serious moment. They just can’t. (But see here, if you insist.)
Still, it perhaps wasn’t so much the principles under dispute in the 1893 controversy that cause the problem, as the emotional or attitudinal context. To their surprise and undying disappointment, the FP founding fathers did not in fact find themselves supported by people who had virtually guaranteed to join them, and some unkind comments injudiciously published about them by the leading lights of the liberalising Free Church evidently cut very, very deep. Ever since, there has been among FPs the perception of a need to continually justify themselves, in the full expectation that a lot of flak will need to be taken in the process, even from their closest denominational cousins. FP contra mundi, they might have said, except they didn’t think of themselves as particularly heroic, just deeply conscientious. So asking FPs to name their unique characteristics is a bit like asking turkeys to vote for, erm, that pagan festival we don’t celebrate.
Cautiously then I could suggest things that most FPs would recognise even if they’re not unique markers of FPism, like hospitality on a large scale, involving lots of home baking, often but not exclusively around communion seasons, not usually being teetotal but having a great deal of reservation about drinking, with special worry reserved for drinking in pubs, failure to watch pretty much anything on tv other than the news and the weather, being deeply mortified by all that is superficial or ostentatious, especially in religious matters, pessimism in most things church-related except when talking about the millennium, calling ministers Mr not Rev but expecting them not to appear without wearing a dog collar, saying DV or one of its homely equivalents after every reference to future time, grace sitting down before and after meals, family worship morning and evening, and a grapevine of such efficiency that everyone knows everything that’s happening in your life practically before you know it yourself.
In all of which, it is important to add, the main thing is the commitment to the historic confessions, whether Westminster or the comparable creeds of the continental churches – something that is shared, thankfully, with many other denominations now and in the past. The rest is all more or less peripheral.