by Sena Hughes
When listing objective characteristics about Whitworth, my go-to responses are words such as “small,” “liberal arts” and “Christian.” Occasionally a savvy listener will ask if the school has a denominational affiliation, to which I reluctantly but accurately answer, “Presbyterian.”I’m told there was a time when carrying a reputable denominational name may have carried more weight when describing a higher education institution. But my general assumption is that means quite little to the vast majority of students today, including those at Whitworth.
But what even is Presbyterian?
It’s an excellent question. When Whitworth is referred to as a “Presbyterian” school, it means we have a direct connection with a synod (a broader region of Presbyteries, which are essentially clusters of Presbyterian churches) of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The PC (USA) has been an active and unified body of Presbyterian churches since 1983, when different Presbyterian denominations finally joined to form one cohesive body.
According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, more than 40,000 denominations existed in the world in 2011. To cut the statistical speak, that’s 15 denominations per undergraduate student at Whitworth. Sadly, “cohesiveness” rarely describes Christianity today. Some may be aware that Whitworth is in the process of looking to adjust its affiliation with the PC (USA), not necessarily to disaffiliate, but to look at various options for new relationships and examine how to stay relevant with old ones.
The PC (USA) is fragmenting to a certain extent; new movements and denominations are arising and churches are leaving. Whitworth is seeking how to best relate to these historically supportive bodies. As exciting as the nitty-gritty of church politics are, let’s cut to the chase. Why should we care? As a student who just so happens to be Presbyterian, I will forthrightly state Whitworth’s denominational affiliation had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to attend. I attend Whitworth because of its “Mind and Heart” mission. I attend Whitworth for the unique and irreplaceable relationships I have with fellow students, as well as faculty and staff. I attend Whitworth because its unapologetically Christian mission is not binding, it’s freeing. It frees students of all religious, ethnic, political, and cultural backgrounds to practice love and unity in the way I think Christ intended for it to be practiced.
Right now, as Whitworth as a university faces some complex questions regarding its denominational association, and as the PC (USA) faces anxiety and convolution regarding its future and function, I think our community—Presbyterians, Methodists, nondenominationals, and (heaven forbid) Southern Baptists alike—can set an example of what it truly means to love, to be in community and to be active and passionate members of the Body of Christ.
By choosing not to disassemble from a denomination, especially in an age where it is commonplace to do so, Whitworth is setting an example of choosing to stay in the community in which they were founded. Our world has enough sectarianism and separation as is. And though dry and thick, let’s not let our attitude toward church polity be “indifference” as much as it is “rising above.” We live in a capitalistic, democratic culture, which yearns for power, control and order.
The irony is, we try to use these same methods to worship an omnipotent and uncontrollable God. Governance has its time and place, but I doubt God is as concerned about the details of denominational affiliation of a vibrant place like Whitworth as much as he is about the relationships here with each other, with him, and our accord as a body before Him. I believe if we faithfully and lovingly live out our mission to “honor God, follow Christ, and serve humanity,” our job will be accomplished.
Contact Sena Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org