This has been a real journey for me: to lands where my ancestors lived, lands I have read and studied about for years, and lands where the living faith of Jesus Christ continues, amid challenges unique to each nation and community I visited. It has also been a journey for me personally. I was reminded of that yesterday when I went to the town of Ahorey to see an old Presbyterian Church, and by God's grace (through the presence of a church member, Mr. Eddie Gillis), was able to go in.
This was a profoundly personal journey for me. I did not grow up in the Presbyterian Church, but came to it later. I grew up in, was baptized in, and ordained into ministry in a denominational tradition that, while having its roots in Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism, broke away from it. I grew up in a Protestant tradition known variously as "the Restoration Movement", "the Stone-Campbell Movement," or often (but not necessarily) pejoratively known as "the Campbellites." My college church history professor, the late Dr. Henry Webb, preferred to call it "the Reformation of the 19th Century." It is the religious tradition that gave birth to three main churches/denominations: The Churches of Christ (who are known for their rejection of instrumental music in worship); the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ (similar to the "Churches of Christ," historically, except with pianos and organs); and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I grew up in the second group mentioned above, though was ordained in ministry by the third group, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Disciples are a so-called "mainline" denomination today, one of the more liberal ones over all (though one may find local churches that may no reflect that). The Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ are more "conservative", and in many cases blend in with other evangelical groups. But even these generalizations do not really do justice to the tradition.
I went to Milligan College, in Tennessee, an excellent Christian liberal arts college that I am proud to call my "alma mater". It is a college affiliated with the "middle group" mentioned above. After attending Emmanuel School of Religion (now Emmanuel Christian Seminary, across the street from Milligan, and now a division of Milligan), I transferred to Vanderbilt Divinity School and completed my Master of Divinity surrounded by students in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I may not be quite as proud of my Vanderbilt degree (Vandy was academically a respectable school and I got a good education there, but its theological perspective was at times downright post-Christian). I was ordained by the Disciples (as was my wife a few years later, though her roots were in the Dutch Reformed tradition).
But I was never quite "at east in Zion" by the time of my college and seminary years, with regard to my "Campbellite" roots. So already in college, I was on a "journey of discovery." In order to understand better this tradition I grew up in, I decided that I needed to get a better grasp of the Presbyterian/Calvinistic heritage that Thomas and Alexander Campbell left when they established the churches now known as these three groups. This was journey that lasted years. As I began to study the Reformed/Presbyterian/Calvinist heritage (that was present in my own family roots on my mother's side of the family), I did not find it to be something that repelled me, but intrigued me, and began to make sense for me in a way that I had not experienced before. Given the ecumenical push of the Disciples, I decided initially to remain there, feeling that I could function there as one with more "Reformed" views. Over time, however, I came to the conclusion that I needed to bring my "external world" into harmony with my "internal world" theologically and ecclesiastically. I transferred into the Presbyterian Church, something the Presbyterians made very easy for me to do, given the "family resemblance" with the Disciples, for all the differences between them.
However, I love my "Campbellite" roots and connections. In that tradition I sat under and served with some very godly, Christ-loving folks (there were some real "loo-loos" as well, but I won't go there for now!). I learned from the minister in my younger years, Donald Daum, that the task of the preacher is to preach the Word of God, which he did. I learned from him and others like him to love God and to love his Word, the Bible. All that I learned from this heritage, even if I came, at a certain, to begin to read that same Bible in a different way.
This brings me back to Ahorey, in Country Armagh. The Rev. Thomas Campbell, father of Alexander Campbell, was the minister of this church in the closing years of the 18th century and first few years of the 19th. From Ahorey, he went to America, where he and his son Alexander broke with their Presbyterian roots. They were heroes of mine in my early years in my Campbellite upbringing. They still have a place in my heart, even if my own personal journey was, in a sense, opposite to theirs.
The Presbyterian Church in Ahorey knows about Thomas Campbell. In a show of true ecumenicity, American Disciples of Christ funded a tower that was built onto the church building in Ahorey in memory of Thomas. His visage hangs in the church, in the vestibule, also placed by American Disciples. For me, seeing the memory of Thomas Campbell present in a Presbyterian Church touched me deeply in a very personal way. It brought together, physically and visibly, something of my own spiritual journey. Mind you, I hope, in glory, to have a long conversation with the Campbells, and, in good Christian spirit, hammer out some things with them. But at some point I realized I was more a son of Geneva than Bethany (for those of you who know what I am saying). At any rate, I do believe that all who truly confess Jesus Christ and serve him arel children of Zion.
On a lighter note, I do want to point out that the baptismal font at Ahorey has the smallest basin in it that I have ever seen in a Presbyterian church anywhere! I almost wonder if they did that there to counter the Campbell's insistence that baptism must be by total immersion! Even I would want a much larger basin than the folks at Ahorey have, and have such a one in the church I serve at Oak Island!
But I was profoundly grateful as I left Ahorey for the heritage I have. It was also a beautiful day for such a journey.