Would You Like A Slice Of Presbyterian Cake?

Deborah Sloan
6 min readNov 28, 2023


Image By Author - Not A Presbyterian Cake?

It was my friend that first alerted me to it, that there are people walking around like this. They are in our midst. We could pass them in the street, stand behind them in the Post Office, reach over them to lift something off a shelf, patiently wait for them to reverse out so we can grab their space. Although we’re probably most likely to find them at a rally¹ or in Faith Mission. They tend to stick together, share similar tastes in maroon carpets. “If you sliced her down the middle,” she said, “she’d be Presbyterian the whole way through”.

I couldn’t help thinking about cakes. Was she madeira, kind of beige and bland and best dunked in a cup of tea, no longer enjoyed as originally intended with a snifter of fortified wine? Or maybe a rainbow cake, a brightly coloured showstopper, all neatly layered with none of the colours bleeding into each other. Who wants messy, complicated people at church. Or what about the 21st century darling of the cake world, the red velvet that got everyone over-excited for a while until they realised it was just crimson chocolate cake, or a sensible boiled cake with all the fruit evenly dispersed through it, or if it hasn’t gone quite so well, where all the currants have landed in one corner. It reminded me of a map I’ve seen too many times recently with lots of dots to show how all the Presbyterian churches are concentrated in one geographical area and mainly in North Down because that’s where the ships landed and there was no public transport in the 1600s² and so no one ventured West of the Bann and there still isn’t the infrastructure to encourage people to venture there. And I realised that I was totally over-thinking the cake analogy and Presbyterians are actually more into traybakes, at least according to all the in-jokes about fifteens and women having one recipe up their sleeve that includes digestive biscuits just in case they need to prove their womanhood. I thought of standing in a vestibule recently browsing the noticeboard and they were having an afternoon tea. The ladies had their names down to bring hard-boiled eggs and tins of pink salmon and it was simultaneously reassuring that such traditions remain yet also highly bizarre that sandwiches haven’t moved on. And then I remembered my wedding cake and how my mother accidentally gave a tier of iced polystyrene to my mother-in-law, and she couldn’t get a knife though it. And I wondered what being Presbyterian right through meant? Is it some sort of impenetrable club like knowing ‘the Code’ backwards or all the words to Wesley³ hymns or dropping John Calvin into every sentence. “It doesn’t feel like a Presbyterian church,” people say when the music is a little more lively than usual.

And sometimes I’m worried I’ve missed having all the right feelings about being a Presbyterian and I don’t feel that protective of it especially if it means I die protecting it rather than die protecting something bigger and better like Jesus loves you and that if you sliced me down the middle, you might not find anything much. Perhaps it’s because I ended up there purely by accident of birth because my granny went to a nice one that was handy and so my dad went there too to please her, and it was only five minutes’ walk from our house or a one minute drive if we were struggling to get there for 11.30am even though that was practically lunchtime and don’t get me started on why we can’t have services a bit earlier. I definitely need more data on whether there are people that choose Presbyterianism deliberately because they’ve looked into its confessional standards or conducted extensive research into its governance system. I heard someone say recently that Presbyterianism was the closest thing to Biblical and I had no idea about the basis for that statement and now I feel like a total idiot for not knowing. Or are people just people and do they simply find somewhere safe to settle down where they are welcomed and offered organisations that take their children off their hands, without caring one bit about what goes on at ‘headquarters’.

I’ve been invited to join two task groups recently. It is a privilege I don’t take lightly. As far as I know, they are short-term because I do have an issue with commitment⁴ plus I can’t say what they are in case I get formally removed from the denomination but both of them are looking at decline in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and there is a lot of scratching of heads about where people are going when they leave but it seems no one has actually asked them. And one of them involves looking at a Paper that said being Presbyterian was a theological principle and I’ve mentioned this at every single meeting because I am very confused by it and considering if a PhD would help. And when we looked at what a viable congregation was and came up with things like Christ-centred worshipping community, core body of faithful believers, mission-orientated, outward-looking, pastorally minded and contextually relevant, there was nothing here that said this had to be uniquely Presbyterian.

The other task group is called ‘the way ahead’ which I thought was a great name for a task group and I reckon we should totally rethink our attitudes to brainstorming and prophecy and recognise a lot of the prophetic happens around a flipchart and it isn’t meant to be so individualised. It’s not “there’s someone here who has a sore left leg,” because then I can’t help nudging my husband and whispering that my twinge is in my right. Being a realist probably makes me a terrible Presbyterian and I like what Richard Rohr says about prophecy and how it’s not about predicting but about pre-empting. “Prophets do not foretell the future, but they do seem to anticipate futures that are shocking to the rest of us,” he says⁵. Rohr calls them radical traditionalists. And I get this because I like structure and have a bit of an ick about interpretive dance, but I also can’t ignore the urgent need for transformative change, and I believe that radical means being brave enough to do some things that some people won’t like.

“None of the prophets held highly established or institutional roles within Israel,” says Rohr. “They were inside/outside people”. He describes how their “penetrating insight saw into the heart of their own tradition, the tradition that went back to God’s covenant with Israel, the tradition that went further back than their religious institutions”. He adds that “unless we somehow retain our distance, and have healthy and balanced outside voices, we become an insider and start protecting the institution⁶”. Rohr explains that prophets are usually the ones that ask why are we wasting time with all this stupidity?

And I was very with the lone voice in one of the task groups who asked about the diversity of those who make the decisions about the future and whether they are listening to the wider perspectives of those who will be impacted by them and I wanted to return to the cakes analogy because I enjoyed it so much but all I could think was that if the church is to survive, when you slice through us, it is best if we are not all the same.

[1] This is a wee bit 1980s but I’m sure where all the Presbyterians gather these days.

[2] I’m no expert. This is my version of history.

[3] Even though he’s a Methodist.

[4] https://deborahsloan.substack.com/p/do-we-all-have-a-problem-with-commitment? (external link).

[5] https://cac.org/daily-meditations/forthtelling-not-foretelling-2023-08-13/ (external link).

[6] https://cac.org/daily-meditations/inside-outside-people-2023-09-11/ (external link).



Deborah Sloan

I am no publishing here but am now on Substack at https://deborahsloan.substack.com. I write about leaving things in midlife.