Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Light of the World

Back in November we paused to remember the end of World War One. On the eve of that conflict UK foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’. With that sentiment in mind, the dry moat of the Tower of London was lit up with 10,000 lamps in the nights leading up to Remembrance Sunday. The installation was aptly named, ‘Beyond the Deepening Shadow’. The terrible events of 1914-18 and subsequent conflicts remind us that this world can be a dark place, where sorrow and suffering reigns.

God can sometimes seem remote from all this. What does he know of heartache and pain? But the message of Christmas tells us that God entered this world in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. In one of his books C. S. Lewis made this remarkable statement: “Once in our world, a Stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.” He was talking about God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. The One who was small enough to be laid in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough, was at the same time big enough to hold the whole world in his hands. In Jesus, God became human to bring human beings back to God.

Jesus came to take upon himself the darkness of our sin, suffering in our place upon the cross. But the forces of darkness could not put out the light of God’s love in Jesus. He rose from the gloom of the tomb, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” The Christmas lights with which we decorate our homes and high streets are a faint glimmer of the true light of Jesus. By faith in him we may move beyond the deepening shadow into the light of hope. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Silent night, holy night,

Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
*For December editions of News & Views, West Lavington and Trinity, Dilton Marsh - parish magazines

Christmas Services at Providence Baptist Church 

Sunday 16 December
10.30am— Carol Service with Bible readings and carols
4.00pm— All-Age Carol Service
The afternoon service will be interactive, suitable for any age. We will be looking at why Jesus Christ came in to the world. Followed by a festive spread.

Sunday 23 December
10.30am & 6.00pm - Services with carols and a Christmas message

Christmas Day Service
We welcome you to join us at 10am
“Christ the Saviour is born”

Christmas Services at Ebenezer Baptist Church

Sunday 23 December 
4.30pm, Time for Tea Plus Christmas Special. Carol service followed by a festive tea

Christmas Day Service
We welcome you to join us at 10.30am
"Christians awake, salute the happy dawn' 

See the Providence & Ebenezer Baptist Churches website for more info. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Providence Baptist Church Carol Services

When love came down...

Sunday 16 December
10.30am— Carol Service with Bible readings and carols
4.00pm—All-Age Carol Service
The afternoon service will be interactive, suitable for any age. We will be looking at why Jesus Christ came in to the world. Followed by a festive spread.

Sunday 23 December
10.30am & 6.00pm - Services with carols and a Christmas message

Christmas Day Service
We welcome you to join us at 10am
“Christ the Saviour is born”

See the Providence Baptist Church website for more info. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

London Theological Seminary 1988-90

Yes, I know, they've since re-Christened it 'London Seminary', but when I started there some 30 years ago, it still had the 'Theological' bit. I could have applied to what was then the 'Evangelical Theological College of Wales' in Bridgend (now Union School of Theology - confusing isn't it?), but I wanted to spread my wings and train for the ministry outside of Wales. The irony is that the faculty was then composed almost entirely of Welshmen. Hywel Jones was Principal, Philip Eveson served as Resident Tutor, Graham Harrison lectured in Biblical Doctrine and Andrew Davies taught Church History. There was one token non-Welshman in the shape of Merle Inniger, who lectured on Missions. 

The student body was quite international though, with friends from the Philippines, Korea, Malaysia, Ghana, Australia, Germany, Italy, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. I was among the youngest of the students, at 22 years of age. Most were men of riper years. I used to joke that I was among the few LTS students who qualified for free milk. 

I had only been a Christian for around four years when I began my studies and I wasn't especially well taught. In fact, there were gaping holes in my knowledge of theology, biblical studies and  church history. Added to that I had left school at the age of 16 and so wasn't used to writing essays and other academic work. I had very little experience of preaching, either. Looking back, it was a wonder they accepted me, but they did. Not sure why.

I had a thirst for knowledge, which was something. Before going to LTS I had devoured Martyn Lloyd-Jones' sermons on Romans and Ephesians and various other Puritan and Reformed books published by Banner of Truth, Evangelical Press, and so on. I may even have ploughed through Berkof's Systematic Theology. Back then I was a Calvinist with Congregational churchmanship, and had strong Lloyd-Jonsesian emphasis on revival and experiential Christianity. Now I'm a Baptist, but the other elements are still very much part of my outlook, reinforced by my time at seminary.

In terms of the teaching, I especially appreciated Hywel Jones' lectures on Isaiah, John and Hebrews. Such insightful exegesis and theological depth. Philip Eveson's treatment of the Wisdom Literature, particularly Ecclesiastes has yet to be bettered in my mind. He should write a commentary. In Eveson's lectures on Galatians he critically engaged with the 'New Perspective on Paul' way before the Evangelical world has woken up to what was going on in Pauline studies. I remember he took such a long time over Amos that some of the other Minor Prophets were given scant attention. One student popped out for a toilet break and missed Obadiah. Learning Hebrew and Greek was a struggle, but I've tried to keep up the languages with the help of Logos Bible Software and other aids. 

Graham Harrison's teaching of Biblical Doctrine included a large element of discussion, with a strong element of pastoral application. He took no prisoners when it came to cutting 'know-it-all' students down to size. 'Well you're wrong' he would sometimes insist. Andrew Davies' lectures on Church History would occasionally morph into preaching. His treatment of 'Word and Spirit in Puritanism' and the Moravian Revival were cases in point. Such was the power of those addresses it was impossible to take notes. Andrew once rebuked students who thought it was quite amusing that they had failed to hand in their assignments. He looked over the top of his half moon spectacles in Headmasterly fashion and boomed, 'Gentlemen, I trust we are not funny men trying to be serious, but serious men who know when to laugh'. Scary. 

When Mr Davies stood down due to ill health, he was succeeded by Robert Oliver of Bradford on Avon. His lectures were quite different in style to Andrew's, but equally well appreciated by the students. You could take notes. Merle Inniger taught World Religions and Jeremiah. He was a gracious and irenic character, often responding with 'I can go along with that' to students' remarks.  

Considering the seminary put such a premium on the importance of preaching, not much time was devoted to the mechanics of sermon prep. Just one or two lectures, as I recall. But students were expected to speak in Morning Devotions and could expect some feedback afterwards. Once when it was my turn, Hywel Jones invited me into his study for some 'post match analysis'. He asked what I would think if instead of making a cake, my mum had just plonked a pile of ingredients on the plate. Apparently, my message was a bit like that. No theme or structure, just the raw materials. 

We also had to submit sermon notes to members of the faculty, who then gave us the benefit of their opinion on our efforts. I can't recall what my sermon was meant to be about, but Robert Oliver helpfully suggested that I divide my material up under three or four headings to give the message some structure and a sense of momentum. To this day, my sermons have an intro, first, second and third points, then a conclusion. As I understand, the seminary now gives much greater focus to homiletical matters. 

We had visiting speakers come in to address specific subjects like time management and ethical issues. The college deliberately took no position on Baptism, so a Baptist (Bob Sheehan) and Presbyterian (John Nicholls) came in as advocates of their respective views. Those sessions always led to heated discussions among the students, as did many other things including the Lloyd-Jones' teaching on the work of the Spirit and the meaning of Romans 7. We always seemed to be arguing about something, or other. Mostly good-naturedly. 

I must say that moving from Bassaleg, a village just outside Newport, South Wales to Finchley, London was something of a jolt. I'd lived in the village all my life. I seemed to know everyone and they seemed to know me. London by way of contrast was big, busy and anonymous. 

I met my wife while at LTS. She was a member of Kensit Evangelical Church, which meets in the same building complex as the seminary. Philip Eveson married us in July 1991. I doubt we'd have met otherwise, got hitched, and had two children. 

Don Carson preached on John 1:1-18 at the End of Year Service when I left the seminary in June 1990. His dad was there, so some time later was interesting to read Carson's Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, an account of the Don's father. 

My first pastorate in Dorset reflected what Thomas Hobbes said about life. It was 'nasty, brutish and short'. But the move to the Westcountry meant I got to know the folks at Providence Baptist Church as a visiting preacher. By a spooky providence, 2018 marks 30 years since me starting at London Seminary and 15 years ago today, on 15 November, I was inducted to the joint-pastorate of Providence & Ebenezer Baptist Churches. In the early days of my current pastorate I completed a BA (Hons) in Theology with the Greenwich School of Theology. I'd like to do further studies sometime, who knows when? 

People ask me who I studied with at seminary, but they rarely recognise the names I reel off. Most have served in glorious obscurity rather than being 'big name preachers'.

There are several London Seminary men  in our locality including Ben Midgley at North Bradley Baptist Church, former principal Robert Strivens at Bradford on Avon. It's always a joy to renew fellowship with alumni at fraternals and conferences. 

I'm grateful to the Lord for my time at London Seminary, which helped set me up for a lifetime of ministry. No training course can prepare a man for every eventuality of a pastorate, but I hope something of the ethos of the college has rubbed off and will never leave me. As seminary founder Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones held, the greatest need of the church and the world is for the preaching of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Anniversary Services with John Stevens

We had FIEC National Director, John Stevens, preach for our 208th Providence Baptist Church anniversary services over the weekend. He spoke very helpfully on the Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:1-20, The Parable of the Lost Sheep, Luke 15:1-7 and The Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30. You can find the messages here, which are well worth listening to. During the Saturday afternoon meeting I quizzed John on the mission of FIEC and his role as director. We had John for lunch on Sunday, so it was good to chat to him about what's going on here and the wider evangelical scene. See here for a blog interview I did with John a while back. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forwards?

The Commission on Religious Education Chaired by Dr. John Hall, Dean of Westminster has published its report, Religion and Worldviews: The Way Forwards. Governors would do well to reflect on its proposals, which, if adopted by the DfE would involve substantial changes to the way in which Religious Education is taught in schools and academies. I am RE link governor in a LA maintained secondary school.

In many ways the report is a solid piece of work, surveying the state of Religious Education in a fast changing educational environment. Put simply, the subject is in decline. The figures cited on p. 10 of the report tell their own story. The total number of RE GCSE entries has dropped from 425,000 in 2010 to 255,000 in 2018. In part the decline is due to the near extinction of the short course RE GCSE, for which many secondary schools used enter their students with a nod to locally agreed SACRE requirements. In 2010 there were 255,000 entries, now 26,000. The increased take up of the full course has in no way compensated for the flight from short course entries.

The life was choked out of the short course RE GCSE because the qualification barley registered on schools' Key Stage 4 performance measure tables. That was the Department for Education's doing. Neither is RE included in the EBacc group of subjects, meaning it has to jostle for students' attention alongside a plethora of diverse options in the Attainment 8 'Other Element'. The government's academisation programme hasn't helped. Academies don't feel especially bound to follow the SACRE syllabus agreed by Local Authorities. According to the report, many academies don't teach RE at Key Stages 3 or 4 (see p. 8). On that basis it is proposed that a National Entitlement to a Study of 'Religion and Worldviews' replaces the current locally-based system. 

Things have certainly changed since the 1944 Education Act mandated the teaching of Religious Instruction in all schools. And that meant the study of the Christian faith, irrespective of whether or not a school was denominational in character. The report notes that the UK has seen massive demographic changes in the period following the Second World War. Not to mention huge shifts in religious adherence and social attitudes. With this in mind, the subject has for many years taken a multi-faith approach, with Islam, Buddhism and other world religions being taught alongside Chrristianity. Now, the report argues, RE must evolve still further in order to reflect the contemporary situation. 

Note the title of the report, Religion and Worldviews. It is proposed that 'worldviews' such as  secularism and atheism, should be included in the RE syllabus alongside religious beliefs and practices. In a way this is a welcome development, underlining that secularism is not a neutral norm, but a belief system with its own set of presuppositions that should be subject to the same critical scrutiny as religious beliefs. 

But there are nevertheless concerns with the 'Religion and Worldviews' approach. One is that Religious Education is struggling for curriculum space as it is. If the subject is also to cover non-religious outlooks in some detail as well, the time devoted to studying religious faith will diminish still further. It could be argued that virtually every other subject on the curriculum is taught from a secular standpoint. Does God get a mention in Science lessons? Is History interpreted as the unfolding story of God's providential action? Do Geography teachers tell their students, 'The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof'? Um, no. Not unless we're talking about a school with a dedicated Christian ethos. Humanists UK and the National Secular Society have welcomed the report. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

Besides, if students are going to understand life in modern Britain and where our most cherished values come from, they are going to need a solid grasp of the Christian faith. Secularism often piggy-backs on historic Christian teachings, while at the same time dissing the piggy. Ideas such as the unique value of each individual human being, and the notion of universally applicable human rights are rooted in the biblical teaching on human beings created in the image of God. Historian Tom Holland is currently working on a book that explores the Christian foundations of Western culture (see his article in the New Statesman on Why I was wrong about Christianity. Note also David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Faith and its Fashionable Enemies. Contemporary Western secularism cannot be understood unless it is set against the backdrop of a culture that has been permeated by Christianity.  

You would not have guessed this from the report, which is something of a lacuna, given that the commission that produced it was chaired by a high up Anglican ecclesiastic. I fully understand that Religious Education is not theology, which is my academic discipline. Theology proceeds from a position of faith in God's self-revelation seeking understanding. RE attempts to help schoolchildren understand various religious (and non-religious) beliefs and practices, without stipulating that any one of them is true. But that does not mean all belief systems are worthy of equal attention in terms of enabling students appreciate their own history and culture.

The commission's approach signals a move away from the stance of the Education Act 1996, which says that RE should "reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions represented in Great Britain." In line with that, the Agreed RE Curriculum for Wiltshire aims to develop pupils' "knowledge and understanding of, and their ability to respond to, Christianity, other principal world religions, other religious traditions and world views". That seems about right to me. 

Where Christianity is mentioned in the report, which is rarely, it tends to be in the context of the numerical decline of the faith in the UK. This is used to justify a greater emphasis being given to other faiths and worldviews. The decline of Christianity is an undeniable fact, borne out by the latest social attitudes survey (here). But the figures need a bit of unpicking. Where churches have embraced theological liberalism, attendance is dwindling. More evangelical churches that hold to traditional Christian beliefs and values are growing, albeit slowly. It is certainly not the case that the world as a whole is becoming more secular. Christianity is the world's largest faith and is continuing to advance across the world, even in Europe (here).

Christianity of an evangelical stamp is growing exponentially. In Mexico, to give one example from South America, evangelicals have grown from 2.1% of the population (800,000) in 1960 to over 8%, numbering over nine million by 2010. In China the evangelical church has grown from 2.7 million in 1975 to over 75 million in 2010. (Figures from Operation World, 2010). There is a danger with the 'Religion and Worldviews' approach that students will be given a parochial vision of religious trends that downplays the importance of Christianity as a vibrant, global faith. 

By all means teach Islam and Buddhism, secularism and agnosticism, even. But let's not neglect to inform our children of the incalculable influence of Christianity on our nation's story. Even Richard Dawkins has argued that the Bible should be taught in schools, "European incomprehensible without an understanding of...Christianity" (here). The writings of William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy are full of biblical allusions that can't be grasped unless one is on nodding acquaintance with Scripture. 

It's difficult to agree that the 'Religion and Worldviews' proposals outlined here will chart the way forwards for RE. For the way forwards to be clear students need to be given a sense of where we have come from in terms of our national history and culture, and also a sense of where the world is heading in terms of global religious trends. That's not going to happen if the Christian faith is reduced to a bit part in Religious Education. 

Having said all that, many of the report's recommendations are to be welcomed, including its proposals on ensuring all schoolchildren access a high quality a 'Religion and Worldviews' syllabus that is taught by knowledgeable professionals. Emma Knights of the National Governance Association has blogged on how governors should question senior leaders in their schools on 

  • How are we meeting our statutory duty to teach RE?
  • How are we supporting our RE teachers and extending their subject knowledge?

Monday, September 10, 2018

John Owen on excommunication and the gospel

As Mark Dever reminds us in his Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, biblical church discipline is an essential aspect of church life. Church discipline has two main elements: 

1. Formative, which involves teaching the disciples of Jesus to observe all he has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20).  

2. Corrective, which involves rebuking those who are straying from the faith, and may even include removing people from church membership on account of serious error, or open sin. 

Puritanism was a movement dedicated to the further reformation of the Church of England along biblical lines. Independents wanted to churches to comprise not of everyone who lived in a parish, but of people who had been truly converted, and whose lives adorned the gospel; congregations of visible saints. Early 'Reformed Baptists' would have agreed, while they parted company with their Independent brothers over infant baptism. Given that the Puritans were by definition zealous for the purity of the church, it is not unexpected that they were sticklers for church discipline. Their opponents sometimes labelled them 'Donatists'. 

Donatism was a movement in the early church that refused to readmit into the membership of the church Christians who had renounced their faith during periods of state-sanctioned persecution. Augustine of Hippo was a great opponent of Donatism. He argued that the church is made up of saved sinners. The holiness of the church is not maintained by the unwavering faithfulness of believers, but by renewed application of the gospel. Augustine held that the Christian life is one of constant repentance from sin and faith in the blood of Christ. Lapsed believers could therefore be restored to the church on expression of sincere repentance and a pledge of renewed faith in the Saviour. Augustine's pastoral realism and compassion for straying sheep is rooted in the witness of Scripture, 1 John 1:5-10, Luke 17:3-4. Donatism was condemned as a gospel-denying heresy. 

Puritans like John Owen contested the charge that they were Donatists. In his The True Nature of a Gospel Church (Works, Volume 16), Owen sought to set out his mature thinking on church life from an Independent perspective. As the title suggests, the divine wanted to work through how the gospel is to permeate every aspect of ecclesiology. That includes church discipline in its corrective element. The gospel must be allowed to determine the purpose for which a person might be removed from church membership and the basis upon which they may be readmitted. 

Owen readily acknowledged that corrective church discipline had been subject to much abuse. Under the Roman Catholic system excommunicated people could be deprived of their livelihoods and property, arrested and even killed. If the pope excommunicated a ruler, subjects were within their rights to rebel against their prince or even assassinate him. Owen insisted that excommunication from the church was a purely spiritual matter, having only to do with removal from the privileges of church membership. A church member could be excommunicated for persisting in serious doctrinal error or for flagrantly sinful conduct. 

The process of excommunication should be overseen by the elders to whom the rule of the church was committed. But the consent of the whole church was to be sought before a person was put out of the fellowship. And their consent gained to readmit someone who had been excommunicated, but had been brought to repentance. Owen gives special attention to Matthew 16 & 18, 1 Corinthians 5, and 2 Corinthians 2:6 in this regard.

The excommunicated person is to lose all the privileges of church membership. They are “handed over to Satan”; that is put out of the church and placed back into the world. Excommunication is a most solemn use of the keys of the kingdom. What is bound on earth will be bound in heaven. The whole process is to be bathed with prayer. Should a wayward member withdraw from the church to avoid church discipline, they are still to be formally excommunicated, Owen advised. 

The aim of excommunication is not to punish the straying believer, but recover them to the fellowship of the church. Should the person in question genuinely repent during the disciplinary process, it must be halted, and they should not be put out of the church. This is in line with the gospel, which promises forgiveness on the basis of repentance and faith. Similarly with those who have been excommunicated and then repented, “the principle design of the gospel…is to evidence that all sincerely penitent sinners… are and shall be pardoned and accepted.” “It is no dishonour to any church” says Owen “to have sinners in it who have evidenced sincere repentance.” (16:176-177). Church discipline must be gospel centred. Owen for one was no hard-line, unforgiving Donatist.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever

3rd edition, 2013, Crossway, 300pp

'The Turning'. It's a big thing, apparently. Started in Reading. The founder Yinka Oyekan received a vision from the Lord telling him that unless he managed to get all the churches in his locality working together on a mission, there would be no blessing. But if he managed to unite them, the Lord would surely bless. That's all the churches, mind, whether Roman Catholic, middle of the road Church of England, Liberal Methodist, Baptist and not forgetting Evangelical fellowships.

People who expressed an interest in the Christian faith as a result of the mission would then be directed towards church that aligned with their preferences. Quite how churches who don't agree on the evangel are meant to do evangelism together isn't explained. Neither is how a church can be a church in any meaningful sense if the gospel isn't preached among them. Ecumenical pragmatism, it seems, is the order of the day.

What we need is a turning back to Scripture to see what constitutes a gospel church. Mark Dever's work will help to point us in the right direction. I'd long heard of the 'Nine Marks' principles, but never quite got round to reading this seminal text.

As mentioned in an earlier review, someone who has been coming along to our church asked if I could recommend a simple introduction to Baptist history and beliefs. That was Erroll Hulse's Introducing the Baptists. While rummaging around in the study, trying to find something suitable, I picked up Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. I think a friend must have given me a copy a little while ago. It wasn't quite what I was looking for when it came to a Baptist intro, hence the Hulse title.

But having flicked through Nine Marks, I thought I should give it a proper read. It's a well known work on Baptist Church principles, focusing on the features of a healthy church, not simply on the details of church polity. Many of the 'marks' no doubt feature in non-Baptist churches. Congregationalists would probably agree with much of what's written here. Dever writes from a  'Reformed Baptist' standpoint. But if anything, greater attention could have been devoted to Baptist distinctives on baptism, membership and the relationship between church and state. 

Now, the Reformed tradition holds that there are two essential marks of a true church: the pure preaching of the Word of God, and the right administration of the Sacraments. Church discipline is sometimes taken as a third mark, although if marks one and two are applied properly, church discipline should also follow.

Dever accepts the two traditional  marks, but goes beyond them to address the issue of what a healthy congregation looks like in practice. In all, as the title suggests, he sets out nine marks of a healthy church. I have heard some people criticise Dever's attempt to boil things down in this way as somewhat reductionist. Selective would be a better way of putting it. The writer doesn't profess to have put together an exhaustive statement  of New Testament teaching on the life and government of the church. But if we wish to see thriving and healthy Bible-based churches, we will do well to give attention Dever's Nine Marks. Especially as some of these marks are sadly neglected in contemporary Evangelical fellowships. I'm not going to discuss each one in turn. You can find a summary of them on the Nine Marks website:

The work is America in its setting, so it takes a little effort to contexualtise its teaching for the UK church scene. But the underlying principles are biblical and therefore applicable to all cultures.  Some points seem counterintuitive. Dever argues that making it more difficult to become a church member and being willing to remove people from membership will help ensure healthy growth. How can being picky about who can come in and getting some out lead to growth? Because that's what the Bible teaches and the gospel demands. It is therefore vital that we have a clear understanding of biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism and church membership. Churches should comprise of what the Puritans used to call 'visible saints'. The church is most effective in reaching the world when she church is distinct from the world. 

In these individualistic times it is encouraging to read a book that emphasises the importance of church life for evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth. The basics of biblical church leadership are also spelled out, literally. In relation to local congregations, leaders are the BOSS, B=Boss, O=Out Front, S=Serve, S=Supply. Practical tips and a variety of other bits and pieces are included in the appendices. 

Dever offers no 'silver bullet' that will guarantee overnight church growth. His is a call to the long term task of forming gospel-centred, biblically faithful churches in which believers may thrive and where non-Christians can encounter the message of salvation. The writer offers the Puritan pastor William Gouge as an example of longevity in ministry. He was minister of the same church from June 1608 until the day of his death, 12 December 1653. The height of the preacher's ambition was 'to go from Blackfriars (his church) to heaven', and so he did after a forty-six year pastorate. No quick fix, but long obedience in the same direction is the order of the day. Read and consider whether the fellowship in which you are involved bears the marks of a healthy church. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The ministry as a protected oasis

The full-time gospel ministry is still a protected oasis. We are relieved of so many of the tensions and temptations that the men to whom we minister are meeting each day. They work with their minds and bodies in this evil world and give their hard-earned money to us so generously that we may spend our days—think of it—in the quiet of our studies, in the Bible, in evangelism, and in pastoring God’s people. I hope you will never join with those ministers who sit around grumbling in their fraternals about all the alleged hardships of being preachers. What a marvellously privileged life we lead. I trust that you earnestly believe that if it be God’s will for you to spend the rest of your life caring for this particular congregation you will happily do so and thank the Lord at the end of each day for such blessings. [Beeke, Joel R.; Derek W. H. Thomas. The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality: A Tribute to Geoffrey Thomas (Kindle Locations 377-383). Reformation Heritage Books. Kindle Edition.]
The limitations of Easyjet hand luggage meant that I wasn't able to bring a bundle of books with me on holiday. Even bookish pastors need to pack clothes, shower gel and a toothbrush, etc. Theology and biblical studies titles are my 'staple diet', so I like to have a change when we go away. This summer my 'big read' was David Lloyd George: The Great Outsider by Roy Hattersley. I'll post a review sometime. I also packed The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel, which I dipped into and The Buried Giant by Kazuo IshiguroBut such was the length of the Lloyd George biog (640pp), that I wasn't even able to make a start on the novel. 

The three volumes mentioned above were in hard copy. With Kindle, however, you can carry an almost unlimited amount of books, which take up no more space than (in my case) your mobile phone.  I'd been reading the Kindle edition of The Awakening of the Evangelical Mind by Owen Strachan for a while, turning to it to redeem the time spent in a hospital waiting room, or something. It's a fascinating account of the recovery of Evangelical scholarship during the middle years of the 20th century. Having read a chapter of Flavel one holiday Sunday, I then loaded up The Awakening of the Evangelical Mind, to find that I only had a few pages left and so quickly finished it. What next? Among my as yet unread Kindle books was The Holy Spirit and Reformed Spirituality, edited by Joel Beeke and Derek W. H. Thomas. It's a series of essays, published in 2013 to mark the 75th birthday of Geoff Thomas. 

Knowing Geoff as I do, it was interesting to read the opening chapter, a biographical introduction by Geoff's son-in-law, Gary Brady. Chapter 2 is by Paul Levy on A Minister Who Has Produced Ministers. Paul includes a quote from Geoff among the opening paragraphs of his contribution. It's the one at the top of this post. It really struck me when I read it, as I've come across my fair share of grumbling ministers. The assumption in some conferences and ministers' meetings seems to be that many of us are either deeply unhappy in our work, or nearing burn out, or ready to quit at any moment. We therefore need to be treated with kid gloves, 'there, there, poor pastors'. No doubt some preachers find themselves in the midst of horrendous difficulties. Their churches are riven by splits. Seemingly intractable pastoral problems rumble on. I get that. But Geoff's words remind us of the immense privilege of being called to full-time gospel ministry. Less grumbling and more gratitude should be the order of the day.  

Monday, August 06, 2018

All welcome?

You might have thought that these days people would give racism short shrift. 2018 marked the 25th anniversary of the murder of black teenager, Stephen Lawrence in a racially motivated attack. In a welcome sign that things have moved on since then, there was widespread public outrage over the way in which members of the ‘Windrush generation’ were treated by the Home Office. Commonwealth citizens who had lived and worked in this country for decades were threatened with deportation for not having the correct bit of paper. The scandal led to the resignation of Amber Rudd, who was Home Secretary at the time. Her successor, Sajid Javid pledged to make sorting out the mess a matter of urgent priority.

Our part of Wiltshire is hardly a ‘multi-ethnic melting pot’, but I hope we give black, Asian, or minority ethnic people a warm welcome when they chose to live among us. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when people would not be judged by the colour of their skin, but the content of their character. By the same token, people who move to the United Kingdom will need to accept that as citizens of the of this country we are all subject to the rule of law. And that the law applies to everyone, whatever their cultural background. Rotherham MP Sarah Champion was vilified for pointing out that it was largely British Pakistani men who were involved in ‘grooming gangs’ that preyed on white girls. She should have been supported for having the courage to speak out in the name of vulnerable youngsters. The notion that people can't be expected to behave acceptably because of their ethnicity or culture is in itself implicitly racist. 

Racism is based on the assumption that one race is better than another. The Christian faith undermines that prejudiced view. The Bible teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God, and are to be treated with dignity and respect. That is why we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. The Bible will not allow for the idea that one ethnic group is somehow morally superior to others. It teaches, ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. The Christian message of love and acceptance is for everyone. Jesus came to bring people from ‘every tribe, tongue and nation’ back to God by dying for the sins of the world.

In these days of ‘identity politics’ people seem to be competing to show they are better than others on account of their gender, class, skin colour, political affiliation, or whatever. Such an attitude has no place in the church, where all are recognised as equally human and equally in need of Jesus, Galatians 3:27-28. All welcome.

*For Trinity, Dilton Marsh parish magazine 

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

School governors as public servants

What are school governors, exactly? We aren't paid a penny for our pains, so we're amateurs. 'No way', say some. 'We're not dabbling dilettantes. Unpaid professionals, us.' I hear what you're saying, but by most definitions, being a pro means at least three things: you get paid, you're qualified, you've been approved by an official body to work in a 'profession'. Like a doctor, lawyer, or a teacher. 

By that definition govs only meet one of the criteria. We're recognised as govs by being appointed to a GB. Apart from that, there are no formal qualifications and we don't get paid. If meeting only one of the criteria will do, then my kids were pros when they got paid a few quid a week to do a paper round. With more than a little help from mum and dad. 

Now, governors are often people from a professional background, but not exclusively so. All you need to be a parent governor is to have kids in the school you're governing. Stay at home mum/dad, mechanic, marine engineer, whatever. Doesn't matter. The parental perspective is valuable in itself. GBs tend to be a bit more picky when it comes to the skills of people they co-opt to the board. At least, they should be. 

Even then, governors aren't meant to function as education professionals. It's not for us to run the school on a day-to-day basis, or undertake lesson observations to judge the quality of teaching. That kind of thing is rightly left to the edu-pros. Govs have a strategic rather than operational role. What that entails should be explained to new recruits via induction and training. An effective chair will ensure that their GB keeps to its side of the strategic/operational dividing line.  

Not even chairs are paid for their efforts. Strictly speaking, they are amateurs too. But not in a bad way. I'd like to reclaim amateurism, doing something for the love of it, from its negative, bumbling connotations. Prior to 1995 Rugby Union was an amateur game. I'm old enough to remember the Welsh rugby team of the 1970's, Barry John, Gareth Edwards, J. P. R Williams, etc. YouTube them and prepare to be dazzled by their sporting wizardry. Amateurs one and all. Oh for a GB comprised of governor-equivalents. If schools had a Six Nations Championship rather than Performance Tables, they'd smash it. 

It's not as if the coveted 'professional' label is wholly unproblematic. You can have a professional gambler, foul, hit man, and so on. The 'professionalisation' of governance has had some unwelcome side effects. In one Multi Academy Trust, a PR firm owned by the vice chair of governors was awarded a contract for £243,567 here. Talk about conflict of interest. Some good old Corinthian amateurism wouldn't have gone amiss there.

Intellectual honesty is called for. The 'unpaid professional' thing is an oxymoron and no one likes an oxymoron. School governors are not educational professionals. When asked, most want no remuneration for their role. And there is no PGCE equivalent for govs. Bumbling dabblers, then? Hardly. Governors are volunteers, not conscripts. No one forced us into it. Our schools need us to be skilled-up stakeholders, ready to scale the commanding heights of strategic leadership. 

If 'professionals' isn't quite appropriate and 'amateurs' sticks in the craw despite my best efforts, how should we be labelled? I suggest school governors should be called 'public servants'. That chimes in well with the  Nolan Principles of public life to which our Codes of Conduct rightly refer.

Governors, we are public servants. Agreed?