Friday, February 27, 2009

An interview with Phil Arthur

This interview with Phil Arthur was originally for the Men for Ministry blog. But I, well he thought that it might be of interest to readers of Exiled Preacher. For good measure I asked him a few supplimentary questions.
Key: "MM" = Men for Ministry, "PA" = Phil Arthur, and "GD" = yours truly.

MM: Could you tell us a little about your family background?

PA: I was brought up in the North East of England in the heartland of the Durham coalfield. I was born in 1952 in Sunderland, which was then proud to call itself the biggest ship-building town in the world. There were still something like half a dozen working shipyards along the banks of the River Wear at that time. I was only a few months old however when my parents moved a few miles South to my father’s birth-place, a small colliery town known as Seaham Harbour. He spent most of his working life at the Vane Tempest colliery. Like the other Seaham pits, this had, before nationalisation, belonged to the Londonderry Coal Company. Ulster folk may not know this, but Durham coal made the fortunes of successive Marquesses of Londonderry. There I stayed until my parents moved to Sunderland when I was ready to start my schooling, perhaps sensing that the educational opportunities for the first-born son would be greater in the large port. It turned out to be a wise decision on their part as in due course, although like most working class boys, I grew up on a council estate, I went to a good school and was able to pass the dreaded “eleven plus” and finally went to Bede Grammar School for Boys, named after our regional saint.

I could not say that I had a Christian upbringing. Although Mam and Dad attended at Brethren Meeting at the time of the wedding and for some months thereafter, the move to Sunderland broke the pattern of their church attendance. I was too young to be fully aware of such things at the time, but their second son, my brother Stephen, was born with severe brain damage and I think this stark providence and the trials that came with it also proved difficult for them. I can recall a moral and decent upbringing. My father was hard-working, decent and courageous and would rather have starved than stolen. He was pathologically incapable of telling a lie. In his eyes, it was something that Englishmen just did not do. He was also steeped in the camaraderie of his mining heritage, loved the dialect of his boyhood and was a great Dad. I was sometimes sent to Sunday School at a local Mission Hall and like English kids of my generation benefitted from the fact that school RE syllabuses actually taught us huge swathes of both Old and New Testaments. Nevertheless, I did not attend an actual Church service of any description until I was eleven years old.

MM: When and how Ddid you come to faith in Christ?

PA: At age eleven, as the only boy at the bus stop in our council estate waiting for the bus that would take me to grammar school each week day, the uniform made me mighty conspicuous. Was that why Mam and Dad got a council house exchange to an area nearer the town centre? I’ve often wondered. In short order I made new friends and got involved in both the Scout Troop and the choir at the local Parish Church. I enjoyed Scouting immensely. As a badly co-ordinated youngster who did not have good ball skills growing up in one of England’s football hotbeds it was a relief to find things that I could enjoy and outdoor sports became a passion. Singing as a boy soprano at Matins and Evensong every Sunday for roughly three years also meant that Thomas Cranmer’s superb prose in the Book of Common Prayer was so firmly embedded in my head that it has not entirely left me to this day, though nowadays I am just about the least Anglican Englishman you could find. The church in question was the kind that was called “Low Church”, Protestant without really being Evangelical. I remember the Vicar once getting tearful as he preached on the Saviour’s sufferings in Isaiah 53 but to be honest, I was bemused by this display of emotion.

A number of things came together when I was fourteen. One was that my voice broke. Aside from the loss of pocket money (nine shillings a quarter and half a crown for every wedding) there was not the same incentive to show up at the parish church apart from the monthly church parade for the Scout Troop. Secondly however, concerned at my parents non-attendance, old friends from their Brethren days had contacted an Evangelical Church in the town with a fine history, a certain Bethesda Free Church. I came home from Scouts one night to find one of the Elders paying a call on Mam and Dad and was persuaded to start attending the Saturday night youth club, a boisterous affair where they took over a local school and had the use of their badminton courts, gym, table tennis facilities followed by refreshments and an epilogue. It was not long before my mother and I were both attending the Sunday evening gospel service. In those days, the mid ‘60’s, this was often packed. To hear 300 voices sing “All hail the power of Jesu’s name” to “Diadem” was enough to make the hair stand on the back of your neck. After six months or so, as I also became steadily integrated into the youth group and incidentally felt increasingly convicted of sin under the preaching of the then pastor, Rev. David T. Jones, I “went forward” one evening when a visiting preacher, Jim Osman, from a nearby former mining community called Shiney Row was the preacher.

Loads of us “went forward” in those days. I look back with mixed feelings on the fact that I did so then (it was in February 1966). Sadly, I think that it confuses two great and linked inward realities, namely “repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21) with an outward act that was originally conceived of on the American frontier in the early 19th century and which became fashionable in Britain from the mid 19th century onwards. Is everyone who is “decisioned” actually converted? In retrospect, I think that I probably was but equally, I think that I had problems to do with assurance of salvation for some time because my focus was all on what I had done that night in 1966 instead of on what Christ had done for me at Calvary and it was only with the passage of some years that my faith became secure and settled. Reading Lloyd-Jones volume on Romans 5 titled “Assurance” was itself an enormous help to me in that area.

As I look back on evangelical life in the 1960’s, I recall two tendencies that troubled me at the time, though as a teenager I was not well placed to react to them. The first was a kind of nervous anti-intellectualism, a sort of defiant “know-nothingism”. I think on reflection that this stemmed from the loss of confidence that ensued within the Evangelical movement when Darwinism first emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century. It impinged on me, a bright grammar school boy, admittedly from a decidedly blue collar background, as a mentality that was inherently distrustful of the idea of sending young people to college, a course of action that was bound to unravel their faith. I can remember the old timers misapplying scripture, “Philip son, the world by wisdom knew not God”. Secondly, these were the early days of charismatic renewal. Many of my contemporaries bought into the idea that you could only live a power packed life, a life that would count for God, if you experienced the second blessing and were endowed with the usual package of gifts, tongues, prophecies and the like. I remember being distinctly unsure of this agenda without quite knowing why. In the autumn of 1970 I went up to Queens’ College at Cambridge to read History and opted to read early modern History simply because, as I thought, it would introduce me to the period immediately before the modern History I had studied at A Level. Looking back, I see the hand of God in all this as it gave me three years prolonged exposure to the Reformation. Among other things it gave me heroes that I could respect. Luther and Calvin and others knew what an intellect was for: it was to be used to the utmost for the glory of God. It was also clear that the Christian leaders of the sixteenth century knew nothing of the second blessing theology that was being urged on the churches in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s yet their lives had counted for God. I found that an enormous relief!

MM: When did you feel the call into full-time service?

PA: By the late 1970’s and newly married (to Barbara in 1976) I was youth leader in a newly planted Reformed Baptist Church, Sunderland Free Church. I had just begun to cut my teeth as a preacher, filling in when the pastor was away on holiday and accepting occasional engagements in small local churches, mostly Independent Methodist Churches dotted around the colliery communities in the North East. I was also teaching history in a comprehensive school in a new town called Peterlee only a few miles south of Sunderland. I can honestly say that I loved my teaching career. I was working in a subject area that I had a natural affinity for and still do and was teaching youngsters from the Durham coalfield. I was among my own kind and was glad to be so. At the same time, little by little, I found that my services as an occasional preacher were in increasing demand and friends sometimes expressed the thought that I ought to be “in it full time”. At first however, I simply wanted to increase my effectiveness as an occasional preacher. At this time, before any of our sons were born (we have three, now all grown up), Barbara and I used to help out at the children’s camps run by the Evangelical Movement of Wales. One year while at a camp at their HQ at Bryntirion near Bridgend, I learned that the movement runs a four year ministers’ training course by correspondence with residential weeks in summer and at Easter. I was still thinking merely of sharpening my abilities as a lay preacher, wanting to avoid the well-known accusation “ten thousand, thousand are their texts but all their sermons one” so I was somewhat taken aback when I learned that the movement would only admit students who sensed a clear call to the full-time ministry. This drove me to prayer and careful consideration and it was another two years before I applied to join the course in 1981, completing it in 1985.

By this time I had moved on from the comprehensive school and was lecturing at a tertiary college, still in Peterlee. Had it been left up to me, I would have never considered moving outside the North East. In any case, by this time our church in Sunderland was without a pastor and it was important for me to stay there for a time to help provide stability. Nevertheless, I had come to the attention of a small, newly planted Reformed Baptist Church in the North West in the historic city of Lancaster, just south of the English Lake District. I was called to be their first pastor in 1988 and by God’s grace I have been there ever since. Without any conscious effort and certainly without any virtue on my part it has become a long pastorate. During that time we have planted a daughter church in Ulverston, a courageous venture for a church which is not itself all that large.

MM: Please explain how you see the North of England spiritually.

PA: Thinking firstly of geographical coverage of gospel witness, this is an extremely difficult question to answer. In the first place, it is a big region and this makes generalisation very difficult. There is no one “North”. As a son of County Durham, privileged to spend three years at a Cambridge that was then still a bastion of the English class system I found it remarkably tiresome that the products of the public school system immediately assumed that you would follow Rugby League and punctuate your speech with “Eeh bah gum!” It might be helpful, but even then, only up to a point, to think in terms of four regions: Yorkshire on one side of the Pennines and Lancashire and Cheshire on the other and then further North, the recently created county of Cumbria that roughly corresponds to the Lake district just south of the Scottish border on the West and over to the East, the old counties of Northumberland and Durham that make up the North East. The problem is that each of these mini regions is far from monochrome in terms of culture, dialect variation and fierce parochialism. The usual tribalism that goes with loyalty to one’s football team is another factor. Sunderland and Newcastle for instance are only twelve miles apart and the accents are almost indistinguishable to anyone except a local but the mutual antipathy goes right back to the fact that they took opposite sides in the Civil War. Having made that point, if I were to avoid any kind of denominational or party labels for the time being, the coverage of the whole North of England by churches that value systematic expository preaching is distinctly patchy. Some areas are very well served, such as the old Yorkshire woollen towns and Lancashire south of the Ribble whereas other areas are much less well covered, such as rural Northumberland and most of the Lake District.

If you had asked me this question ten years ago I would have noted two parallel tendencies. On the one hand I think you could have pointed to the near collapse of the mainline denominations at least in terms of their Evangelical credibility. This deserves a paper in its own right of course and each one differs from the others because of complex factors that have developed over a long period of time but to risk a very broad generalisation, bodies like the Church of England, United Reformed Church, Baptist Union and Methodist Church would each have an Evangelical wing that would vary in strength and size from one denomination to another. Equally they would all have a liberal wing too and this wing would often control the power structures of the denomination in question. Over against that, smaller groupings like the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches and the Grace Baptists are much more rigorous in their Evangelical identity and are often explicitly Reformed. These have often seen new churches planted over the last three decades and pastors called where no pastors could be supported before.

One new development and it has only emerged in the last decade or so, is the rise of a number of regional gospel partnerships. To be fair this is a nationwide phenomenon. A number of them exist in the South of England too. To the best of my knowledge, there are three in the North, one in the North East, one in Yorkshire and the other in my region, stretching all the way from Cheshire to the Scottish border and even taking in a number of churches in North Wales. These organisations are essentially alliances of local churches that cut across denominational lines and in theory at least it means that Anglican evangelicals frustrated by the compromises of liberals within their denomination over, inter alia, homosexual ordination, can join up with free churches in plans to train apprentices, plant churches and engage in other joint ventures. How far the North West partnership is typical of others throughout the country I cannot tell but it has already developed a distinctive ethos with its commitment to the Cornhill training course and the impression that it works hand in glove with UCCF. So far at least, all of its church planting schemes have taken place in university cities. A good proportion of its churches would have a commitment to a Reformed view of soteriology, though I am not convinced that this would be true of all of them and I am by no means convinced that all would have Reformed views of worship. So far, in the North West at least, a preponderance of churches that have signed up for the regional partnership are Anglican though I am given to understand that this is not the case in every region of the country or even of each part of Northern England.

It is probably too early to tell how things will shake down but the rise of the regional gospel partnerships is already forcing a rethink of the issue of Anglican and Free Church relationships after the disagreement that arose between Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott at the National Assembly of Evangelicals in 1966. Free Church participation in these partnerships means that in practice many churches in the constituency that up until recently believed that evangelical unity would be best served by insisting that evangelicals in mixed denominations should leave them have changed their stance, sometimes overtly so, sometimes without realising it. This may or may not be a positive development; only time will tell and opinions will vary across the spectrum. It is certainly a very significant one.

MM: What do you think are the greatest struggles men in the ministry have to face today.

PA: Of course we face many struggles on many levels and I wonder whether this is partly why there is something of a crisis in recruitment in the ministry at present. Even so, I am not sure that the “greatest” struggles are any different to the ones that our ancestors faced. Richard Baxter in 17th century England or Thomas Boston in 18th century Scotland did not have to face the telephone, answer thirty e-mails or worry about such things as post-modernism or whether the emerging church is the new, accessible face of authentic Christianity or a sell-out to the spirit of the age. They did understand however that a minister’s worst enemies are what Isaac Watts called “my inward foes”. Given that one sin can undo a ministry I wish I feared Satan and temptation far more than I actually do. Human nature is complex and I wish that I feared my own slippery heart far more than I actually do. If the Bible actually tells the truth about the human heart, namely that it “is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9), so much so that no one can fathom it, then I will never entirely be able to trust my own motives this side of heaven. I wish that I had quelled self-love and the innate tendency for self-promotion and self-seeking, even self-worship far more than I have. Given that I serve someone who loved me and gave himself for me, I wish that my service for him was more consistent, more hard-working and more characterised by the spirit of joyful sacrifice. As I get older I find that I can do less. That is simply a natural consequence of the ageing process. Well, over against that, there is something within me that wants to react as Spurgeon once did to some doctor’s advice: “They tell me that I shall wear out my constitution. If I had ten constitutions I would gladly wear them all out for Jesus Christ.” My longing is that since I cannot now accomplish as much in a week or a month as I could ten years ago, the Lord might grant me to do what little I can with more of his blessing upon it.

MM: What would you regard as encouraging/discouraging developments in the ethos of churches today?

PA: This is difficult. I could end up sounding like a stereotypical grumpy old man, which would not help anybody, though if it helps my middle-aged street-cred I confess to preferring Townend to Kendrick for the most part. One development that has been apparent in the last couple of decades has been the way that the consumerism that has been a feature of life in Western society at large has affected patterns of evangelical church life. I am not convinced that many modern believers choose the church they attend by making a sober decision based on doctrinal principles: “what do these people believe and teach?” Rather, Christians behave like consumers in the sense that they choose the church on the same basis that they would choose a restaurant or a clothes shop. If it does not provide the service they expect or need, they take their custom elsewhere. They may be customers pursuing slightly different brands in different niche markets but when push comes to shove what often tells you all you need to know is the reasons they give for leaving one church and going to another: “there was nothing there for the kids”, “we didn’t like the worship” (which is often shorthand for “not enough music”) or even, more rarely, a doctrinal quirk of the pastor. In the world of the consumer, choice is sovereign and they vote with their feet.

In similar vein, I fear that pragmatism often wins out over principle when decisions are made about evangelism. The pragmatist is the person who asks himself “what will work, what will get the people in?” It is not necessarily inherently wrong to be asking ourselves such things provided we don’t forget to ask first, “what has God said?” When it comes to the whole issue of public worship this is now an uncomfortable pressure point. Forty years ago Baptist churches in general and indeed most Protestant Christians outside the Anglican tradition worshipped according to what was sometimes unkindly called “the hymn-prayer sandwich”. This had come down to us from Puritan times and was originally a consequence of their attachment to the regulative principle of worship, the belief that nothing ought to be used in the worship of God that does not have his explicit command. This rationale had been largely forgotten and by the time of my boyhood it was largely supposed that public worship was simply a matter of taste. Austere, traditional worship was for austere, traditionally minded people. Pentecostals and charismatics went for something freer because they had that kind of temperament. Personally, I am sorry that most of the discussions I hear about worship seem to centre on the idea of doing what it takes to keep the customer satisfied. Whether something is seeker-sensitive or user-friendly is no doubt important but might be missing an even more important question. Before we ask what the service did for the person in the pew (or the plastic stackable chair) ought we not to ask what it did for the Almighty?
GD: I once heard you give a talk on Puritan family life, based on the exploits of a fictional couple, Richard and Abigail Adams. Any plans to develop your paper into a full-blown historical novel?

PA: The talk that you heard was a repeat of a paper that I originally gave at the Westminster Conference in 1997. The original remit was "The Puritan Family" and the only way that I could think of coming at it was to invent a fictional Puritan Family that would nevertheless be true to life and typical of, say, the early 1640's. Brian Edwards made the same suggestion as you did a few years ago. I have two main problems in bringing it to birth. The first is that I owe Day One two other books before I can even think of it (a commentary on Romans and a Travel Guide on Oliver Cromwell). Both are taking longer than they ought. Secondly. As the original paper took a year's worth of work outside the normal life of one local church, to produce a book made of seven or eight chapters of similar length would be quite daunting really.

GD: Oh go on. We have enough commentaries on Romans, so keep Day One waiting on that one and get to work on your Puritan blockbuster novel. You know it makes sense. Now, what is the biggest problem facing Evangelicalism today and how should we respond?
PA: I am tempted to reproduce G. K. Chesterton's famous contribution to "The Times" correspondence on "What is the problem with the world?" (or something of that sort) where he wrote, "Dear sir, I am, Yours truly etc." I always feel that the biggest obstacle that I have to overcome is myself. Still, that's not what you meant, is it? I suppose one of my fears is that contemporary Evangelicalism might sell out all too easily to a bogus concept of relevance, namely that in bending over backwards to ask those outside the church to set the terms on which they will give our message a hearing, the whole idea of "felt needs", we forget that fallen man's perception is fatally skewed anyway. It is certainly true that Western society contains large numbers of people who would confess to vague feelings of uneasiness about whether material wealth really satisfies, whether physical health and well-being really is the main thing and whether searching to authenticate oneself by way of thrill-seeking will be enough to answer the longing for significance that is part and parcel of our nature as human beings. While all of this is undoubtedly true, there is an even more pressing need that people don't recognise and won't admit to, their need to flee from the wrath to come.

GD: What is the most important theological book that you have read in the last twelve months? It is a must read because...
PA: I am currently reading David Wells The Courage to be Protestant. I like his trenchant style, though whether it is partly because it is a matter of having one's own prejudices confirmed....

Once I have completed that I mean to have a serious stab at engaging with the New Perspective, though I feel honour bound to reading Tom Wright before I read Piper's critique. I am beginning to wonder whether, in this year of Calvin's anniversary, I ought to read through the Institutes and perhaps see if I can do a sort of Institutes challenge in our church. Now there's a thought.

If you had asked me which biographies I had been reading, that would have been much easier. As a former historian of sorts, I am automatically drawn to them, both sacred and secular.
GD: Sorry to tax your brains by asking for a theological book. Care to name your top three songs or pieces of music?
PA: Over the years a lot of students who have supposed that my views about music in worship have stemmed from the fact that I am just an austere old duffer with austere tastes, have been surprised to learn that in musical terms I am a "folkie" though I tend to prefer it somewhat more on the trad side. (When my wife and I were courting we were regulars at a well-known folk club in the North East and I would take part as a floor singer.) I like my own roots. No musical instrument on earth is more beautiful than the Northumbrian small pipes (there are several web sites where a sample of the haunting sound can be heard). A fine modern exponent of the tradition is Kathryn Tickell who has several albums to her name. Otherwise folk music of all sorts and types appeals to me. From Ireland I like the Chieftains and Boys of the Lough. I respect the way that Kate Rusby sings in her own accent. I agree with Gary Brady that Julie Fowlis is fine. One song that really lifts my heart is the Christmas song "Chariots" by the English folk artist and aficionado of all things to do with the Morris, John Kirkpatrick.
GD: So, you're not a musical old duffer, you're a folkie with Morris dancer sympathies. That's alright then.
Well Phil, that just about wraps things up. Eeh bah gum and all that. Good to talk to you and thanks to Men from the Ministry for allowing me to "borrow" and adapt their interview.

Morris dancers - Eh up, where's Phil?

No comments: