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?

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Incredibles 2

Our children were still young when the original Incredibles movie came out. They loved seeing it in the cinema and must have watched the DVD countless times. As did we. 

A good children's film will also appeal to adults who watch the thing through grown up eyes. The Incredibles series is a case in point. 

The sequel isn't a lazy rehash, either. Same basic scenario; superheroes are outlawed. But the characters have developed a bit and the baddie element is entirely different. You could see that Mrs Incredible/Elastigirl is being played when she does her superhero thing. By whom? Nice twist. Great visuals, evoking a 1960's style retro view of the future. 

A couple of things hit home. Why was it that Mr Incredible found it so hard to rejoice in his wife's publicly celebrated exploits? Even with his enhanced strength, he was unable to straighten out the inward curve of human nature that makes it 'all about me'. His wife's success as Elastigirl made Mr. Incredible seem like a failure. Galling. Embittering. 

Dad is left to look after the kids while mom hops on a motorbike to save the world. Harder than you'd think to be a stay at home father. The sleep deprivation-induced parent fatigue will ring true for anyone who's had young kids. Where was Edna Mode when you needed her? Fixing things for his children proved just as much an adventure as Elastigirl's derring-do. 

At least when ours were babies they didn't disappear into another dimension every now and again, or shoot laser beams from their eyes, or go on fire. Let alone replicate themselves multiple times over. That would have been a bit much. 

We booked to see a late showing (8.00pm start - 10.00pm finish), hoping the cinema would be more or less a kiddie free zone, full of nostalgic empty nesters. But, no. Place was packed with young mums and their chattering, popcorn spilling brood. Incredible. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

An Introduction to the Baptists by Erroll Hulse

Audubon Press, 2008 edition, 128pp

A friend who has been coming along to our church for a while from a Methodist/Church of England background asked if I could recommend an introduction to the Baptists for her to read. She was interested in our history and beliefs concerning the local church and baptism. I had a rummage around on the net and this is what came up. I was familiar with Erroll Hulse, a well known figure in Reformed Baptist circles, but I'd not come across his book before. As you can see this is a 2008 reprint of a title that was originally published in 1976. 

As Hulse's introduction to the reprint indicates, 'Much has taken place since 1976'. Well, yes. But no attempt was made to revise this new edition, which gives it badly dated feel. This is especially apparent when it comes to the chapter devoted to Baptists in Russia Today (make that Soviet Russia, with the Iron Curtain still firmly in place) and the one on Baptists Worldwide, where the figures cited are way out of date, and take no account of the growth of Reformed Baptist Churches in the Philippines, and elsewhere in recent decades. 

The author's description of early Baptist history in Europe and the British Isles is more surefooted. English Particular Baptists are distinguished from their Anabaptist cousins by their espousal of Calvinistic theology. They parted company with Calvin and the Reformers when it came to believers' baptism and the doctrine of the gathered church. 

Hulse introduces some of the major figures in English Reformed Baptist history. Potted biographies are given of William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys, Benjamin Keach, John Bunyan, Andrew Fuller, and C. H Spurgeon, among others. Strangely, while William Carey is mentioned, little is said about his life and labours. Others, such as Benjamin Beddome don't get even a look in. The chapter on Baptists in America 1620-1976 was an eye-opener for me. 

Hulse's treatment of Baptist beliefs is typically trenchant in its advocacy of Calvinistic doctrine and Baptist principles on believers' baptism and the gathered church. He wholeheartedly recommends the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689 as an expression of Baptist convictions.More perhaps could have been said on the Baptist belief in the separation of church and state that set them apart from the Magisterial Reformers and the Anglican settlement. Omitting justification by faith from his list of doctrines that need defending in these days (Chapter 6) is another example of this work showing its age, given the controversy generated by the New Perspective on Paul, not to mention ecumenical dialogues between Evangelicals and Romans Catholics in recent years.

The final chapter on Baptists and the Way Ahead makes some excellent points, almost anticipating the emphasis found in Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. Although Hulse insists on only four hallmarks of  biblical faithfulness for Baptists: The Word of God should prevail in preaching, evangelism, church order and in daily life. Both in the historical and doctrinal sections the author also urges the importance of revival, defined as a mighty outpouring of the Spirit upon the church. 

In an appendix, Reflections on the Lord's Supper, Hulse argues for a 'Strict Baptist' approach to the Lord's Table, where only baptised believers share in Communion. Not all Reformed Baptists take such a 'strict' stance. Some would even allow convinced paedobaptists into the membership of a Baptist church, with full access to the Lord's Table, so long as they did not stir up controversy on the issue. An appendix to the 1689 Confession allows for such variation in practice. 

The book provides a useful Introduction to the Baptists. I will give a copy to my friend and it will be interesting to discuss it with her. But a similar work for the 21st Century is badly needed, one that brings things right-up-to date in terms of historical developments, and that deals with some of the pressures affecting the Baptist movement today. A little less jargon, 'free-willers', etc, would also help. Anyone know of a more suitable basic intro? If not, sounds like a job for Robert Oliver, or Michael Haykin. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

John Owen and English Puritanism by Crawford Gribben

John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat
by Crawford Gribben, Oxford University Press, 2016, 401pp

'By their books you shall know them'. If the shelves of someone's study are adorned by sixteen white and green volumes, The Works of John Owen, they are likely to be 'Reformed' types. The kind that attend Banner of Truth Ministers' Conferences, and the like. Whether those hefty tomes have been plucked from the shelf and read is another thing. For John Owen (1616-83) is a difficult man to read. Only a few brave souls have ventured beyond Volumes 1 and 2, possibly 6 at a stretch. But the set serves as an identity marker. Merely to posses it is enough. Perhaps the proud owners hope that the wonders of Puritan divinity will infiltrate their souls by osmosis?

For those who wish to make more of a determined effort actually to read Owen, the green and white volumes are both a help and a hindrance. We must salute the efforts of W. H. Goold in gathering Owen's writings together and the Banner of Truth Trust in reprinting them, but Goold's orangising system was a little haphazard. He tended to group Owen's writings thematically rather than chronologically. It is difficult, therefore, to trace developments in his thinking over time. Oddly, Volumes 1 and 16 include some of the divine's posthumously published final works, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ (1684) and The True Nature of a Gospel Church (1689). 

That is one of the reasons why Crawford Gribben's biography is an indispensable guide for serious readers of Owen. He sets our man's literary output against the backdrop of his life and times so we can see the political and religious contexts in which he operated. Situating Owen's writings in this way helps to serve as a reminder that he was no ivory tower theologian. His pen was often directed to responding to some of the pressing controversies of the day such as Arminianism, Socinanism, and, of course, Roman Catholicism. In addition, Owen sought to explain and defend his Independent churchmanship against both Presbyterian and Anglican antagonists. While we would hardly call him a social libertarian by today's standards, the Puritan argued for religious tolerance. At least as far as orthodox Protestants were concerned, whatever their ecclesiastical stamp.  

Owen is a difficult man to read. While the details of his public career are known, his inner thoughts are hard to fathom. Owen rarely made autobiographical remarks in his writings. He left behind no journal to which he bared his soul. You will search his works in vain for references to how Owen felt on the death of his first wife, or the loss of all ten of his children. Notwithstanding these constraints, Gribben manages to piece together a life of Owen that helps us get under the skin of the public figure. 

Owen's career began as a pastor of small congregations in rural Essex. He accompanied Oliver Cromwell on his Irish campaign. Owen was often asked to preach to Parliament, including the day after the execution of Charles I. He became Vice Chancellor of Oxford University, defending that great place of learning against radicals who had little time for the world of letters. I hadn't realised before that the English philosopher John Locke studied under Owen at Oxford. With the return of Charles II Owen, fell out of favour. He was removed from Oxford and returned to pastoral ministry, serving  Independent congregations until the end of his life. 

The Restoration brought new challenges for Owen. His writings had to be published anonymously, with different emphases for different audiences. He warily sought to defend his Independent convictions against those who labelled him a dangerous sectarian and Republican rebel. Meanwhile, the Puritan preacher who criticised Cromwell's Protectorate for its love of worldly grandeur now celebrated Charles II as a paragon of Protestant piety. He knew that the King rather than parliament would be more likely to extend toleration to nonconformists. 

The work is a salutary study of what happens when the godly get what they so often wish for; political power. Puritanism could not be imposed on the population of the British Isles by parliamentary decree, or through Cromwell serving as Lord Protector with the support of the army. England was not the New Jerusalem after all. Parliamentary victories at Marson Moor and Naseby did not mean, as Owen and others argued, that political Puritanism had divine sanction. Christians function best as a counter-culture within society, rather than as the Establishment using its power to foist the highest standards of godliness upon a largely unregenerate nation. We are meant to function as  'salt' that preserves meat from decay, not fillet steak. 

As the subtitle suggests, the author sees 'experiences of defeat' as key to understanding Owen's character. It could be argued that the whole Puritan movement, of which Owen was a leading light ended in defeat. The Church of England was not lastingly reformed along Presbyterian or Independent lines. Episcopal church government was re-imposed on the restoration of the monarchy. In 1662 around two thousand Puritan Ministers were ejected from the church. This was a massive 'experience of defeat' for Owen, but it was not the only one. As a young man he had to leave Oxford University due to the anti-Puritan policies promoted by Laud. He became an Independent when Presbyterians dominated national life. In first pastorate, Owen bemoaned the poor spiritual state of his congregation. In his last phase of ministry, he mourned over own lack of pastoral effectiveness. Yet despite all this, it would be wrong to see Owen as a dejected and defeated character come the final period of his life. In his Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, Owen turned his eyes away from this vain world and its vicissitudes to Christ. He confessed,  
There is no glory, no peace, no joy, no satisfaction, such a foretaste in this world, to be compared with what we receive by that weak and imperfect view which we have of the glory of Christ by faith; yea, all the joys of the world are a thing of nought in comparison of what we so receive. (Works Volume 1, p. 415). 
As Gribben suggests in his Conclusion, while Owen's public life may have been characherised by a series of reversals, his published Works would afford him a kind of victory in later generations. Evangelicals turned to his writings for their theological depth, practical piety and experimental warmth. George Whitefield commended Owen to his fellow-Methodists in the 18th Century. C. H Spurgeon ensured he had an audience among Calvinistic Baptists in the Victorian era. Owen's writings played an important role in the resurgence of Reformed theology associated with the ministries of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and J. I. Packer in the 20th Century. Renewed attention is being given to Owen in the contemporary globe-spanning Reformed movement. If his Works were read by those who posses them beyond the familiar Volumes 1, 2 & 6, that would save John Owen from yet another 'experience of defeat'. Yes, he is a difficult man to read, but for those who persevere through the thickets of complex sentences and strange neologisms, there is theological gold in them there white and green tomes.   

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

He also glorified

Preaching on Romans 8:30 last Sunday, I've been thinking about what it means for believers to be glorified. Glorification does not mean that that our humanity will be absorbed into the divine. That would not be the redemption of man, but his obliteration. Rather, in glorification we shall become all that we were intended to be as God’s image-bearers.

There is an analogy between the glorification of the believer and that of Jesus' own humanity. At his incarnation Jesus became a divine person with a human nature. There is an unbreakable union between the divine and human in person of Christ, yet there is no confusion between his two natures. That which was God in Jesus did not become less than God when he was made flesh. That which was human in Jesus did not become more than human when his flesh was glorified. Jesus became like us in humiliation, that we might become like him in glorification. We will be glorified together with Christ. We shall partake of his glory and so we shall become partakers of the divine nature.

I've also been reading my way through The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way, by Michael Horton. He has a remarkable chapter on The Hope of Glory: "Those Whom He Justified He Also Glorified". A key theme in Horton's work is that the Christian account of the relationship between God and human beings is not that of 'overcoming estrangement' so that the finite is absorbed in the infinite. Instead the Bible teaches that finite human beings 'meet the Stranger', our infinite Creator, and in that encounter the creator/creature distinction is maintained.

It is with this in mind that Horton gives proper emphasis on the resurrection of the body in relation to glorification, as opposed to a contemplative vision of disembodied souls being infused with the divine.
Rather than sending the human soul upward, away from history and embodiment, this view [that of Calvin and the Reformed tradition] sees redemptive history moving forward to the consummation. Because of this emphasis on the historical economy of grace, Calvin and the wider tradition emphasized the the future resurrection of the dead as the place where the consummation occurs. It is the cosmic, eschatological, and redemptive-historical event of the parousia, not the allegorical, contemplative, striving ascent of the lone soul, that characterizes the Reformed expression of the beatific vision. (Zondervan, 2011, p. 697)
Glorification is the ultimate fruit of the believer's union with Christ. It is the final link in the 'Golden Chain' of salvation that Paul details in Romans 8:30. It is because we are in Christ that we will be made like him and be with him where he is in resurrection glory. Death may sever the union between the Christian's body and soul, but they remain united to Christ body and soul. Horton cites the remarkable words of the Puritan Thomas Watson in his Body of Divinity, "The bodies of the saints in the grave, though separated from their souls, are united to Christ. The dust of a believer is part of Christ's mystic body". (Emphasis added, p. 702, - from A Body of Divinity, Banner of Truth Trust, 1978, p. 309).

To be glorified is to share in the glory that God gave his own Son, "and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." (Romans 8:17, see also John 17:4-5, 22, 24). 

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Meanwhile in LA Land

No, I haven't only just watched the blockbuster Hollywood musical. Saw that ages ago. Got to keep the wife happy with an occasional chick-flick. This is about education policy. You'll get no singing and dancing here. Anyway, that's La La Land. 

'You know what's wrong with schools?' asked Michael Gove, when he was Education Secretary, 'Local Authorities that's what. Schools need to be set free from the dead hand of council bureaucrats. Give 'em autonomy.' Yes, autonomy. Good schools could opt for it. Not so good schools would have it imposed on them by being taken over. Academisation was seen as a panacea for all educational ills. 

But, somewhat inconveniently, there is little evidence that already good schools were made any better by becoming academies. Even less that forced academisation was a force for good. For a panicky moment a couple of years back, it seemed like we were all going to have to embrace academised autonomy. Not singly, but in Multi Academy Trusts. Thankfully the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper died the death, and the moment passed. Tidy, that, as while some MATs have done well, more than a few have failed, only to be taken over by other, er, MATs. 

Such has been the impact of the National and Regional School Commissioners who oversee the academy sector, that the DfE has deprived them of some key  powers. Not exactly a vote of confidence. Forced academisation has been dropped. NSC Sir David Carter announced his retirement a couple of weeks before Damian Hinds revealed these measures in a speech to the ASCL Conference. 

Many schools didn't see the advantage in becoming a stand-alone academy when that option was flavour of the month.. Maintained Foundation Schools enjoy a good deal of autonomy in relation to the LA, anyway. Why opt to join a big academy chain, and risk losing what makes your school distinctive? There is often little enthusiasm for forming local Community MATs, either. 

I doubt many LA schools have had to fend off any zombie-fingered interfering jobsworths from the council for a while. If at all. LAs monitor and support their schools, but don't try to run them. It's a myth to say that they do. But why shouldn't schools be held accountable to locally elected representatives?

Not so long ago it was in doubt whether LAs had a future at all in the world of education. But the DfE has signaled that statutory responsibility for improving outcomes in all schools and academies continues to rest with Local Authorities. LAs also remain responsible for safeguarding and provide valuable services such as payroll, HR and governor services.

In the maintained sector, governors are still governing their schools, not simply doing a bit of stakeholder engagement on behalf of a MAT board. Their Headteachers are busy making the board's vision for the school a reality, not having to look over his or her shoulder to see what a richly enumerated CEO wants them to do. 

The point about governors still governing in maintained schools (and stand alone academies) is worth reiterating. In MATs all powers of governance rest with the overarching board of trustees. Individual schools may have what is sometimes called 'Local Governing Boards', but they don't actually have any powers of governance. Whatever low level decision-making is delegated to LGBs by the MAT board may also be unilaterally withdrawn. As may their right to exist at all. Remember that, if your school is currently being courted by a MAT. Joining could be the last big strategic decision you make. 

A recent report by the London School of Economics revealed that LA schools have more freedom than academies. So much for autonomy. With apologies to Rousseau, "Schools were born free, but in MATs they are in chains". 

I'll admit that one advantage of MATs is collaboration across schools, but a joint effort to raise standards is not the preserve of Multi Academy Trusts. Collaboration in local clusters could be better, but it is happening and outcomes are improving. Around here, anyway. In the LA secondary school where I serve as a governor, our Progress 8 score is in the top 5% when 'contextual value added' factors are taken into account. 

We now have what is called a 'mixed educational ecosystem'. Around 70% of secondaries are academies, with 30% LA maintained, and the other way around for the primary sector. Academy oversight isn't going too well and the LAs ability to support their schools is hampered by budget cuts. 
The big idea now is developing school-led systems in which schools in the maintained and academy sectors support each other to ensure all pupils achieve well. New county-wide bodies are being set up to oversee the system. The Wiltshire Education Standards Board is due to be launched soon, with a view to starting work in September. Let's hope these boards can help bring some coherence to a badly fragmented educational system. 
I shudder to think how much taxpayers' money has been spent on removing schools from LAs and making them into academies. Or the funds used on new Free Schools, some which have failed miserably. Look at this example of £9m down the drain. Countless millions of pounds could have been better spent on increasing teacher pay, maintaining a broad curriculum, improving crumbling school buildings, etc.  Thankfully, the emphasis these days is on raising standards, not changing the status of schools, or fiddling around with the structures in which they sit.
Meanwhile in LA Land... 

Let's just say, some of us are in no great rush to leave. We have nothing to lose but our freedom. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2018


I’m probably showing my age, but I remember the days of the TV test card. It featured a girl playing Noughts and Crosses surrounded by an assortment of soft toys. People used to sit and watch the test card while they waited for programmes to start. It beat watching paint dry, but only marginally. Now we have countless TV channels broadcasting 24/7. Schedules have been made more or less redundant by various catch up services. ‘Total TV’ means you can pretty much avoid being alone with your own thoughts.

Then there’s mobile phones. Another device that was meant to be our servant, but ended up gaining mastery over us. A recent report suggested we switch off our phones after 10pm. Some users are so addicted to the things that they can’t get through the night without checking for emails, or glancing at Facebook. Smart phone induced sleep deprivation is making people depressed.

We have become over-stimulated by the multi-media delights of the modern world. It’s difficult to switch off. Yes, we have leisure time, but leisure is different to rest. The American novelist Marilynne Robinson reflected, “Leisure…is highly commercialised. But leisure is seldom more than a bit of time ransomed from habitual stress.” An occasional day out an amusement park is quite different to having a regular rhythm of work and rest built into our lives.

I wonder whether the craving for constant stimulation is an attempt to fill an aching void in our lives. A void that technology and leisure can never satisfy. The great Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo confessed to God, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you’. Finding this rest is not a matter of frantically trying to please God by our own efforts. Jesus said, “Come to me all who labour and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

* For various local publications. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Preaching as the Word of God by Sam Chan

Preaching as the Word of God:
Answering an Old Question with Speech-Act Theory,
Sam Chan, Pickwick Publications, 2016, 279pp

The Second Helvetic Confession expresses the high view of preaching that obtained among the Reformed churches when it says, 'The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God'. (Chapter 1). That is some claim to make. Can it be truly said that a mere human preacher can give voice to the very Word of God? The Reformers not only answered that question in the affirmative, they made the faithful preaching of the Word of God one of the identifying marks of a true church. 

Sam Chan sets out to examine whether the claims of the Reformers can be biblically justified. He brings the insights of speech-act theory to bear on the question in hand. First of all Chan investigates what Martin Luther and John Calvin had to say on preaching as the Word of God, and the preaching of the Word of God as a mark of the church. Copious reference is made to the writings of the two leading Reformers. They were in essential agreement on both points, while nuanced differences are teased out. Chan's discussion of the Reformers' views is illuminating. However, Luther and Calvin were lucid enough communicators for the writer to have foregone his summaries of what they had said after almost every quote. 

Attention is then given to the biblical materials. In the Old Testament God spoke to his people through prophets like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). The Old Testament also looked forward to the coming of One who would proclaim the Word of the Lord in the power of the Spirit (Isaiah 61:1-4). Jesus is revealed as the fulfillment of Deuteronomy 18 and Isaiah 61. He was anointed by the Spirit to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 4:16-19). Jesus then commissioned the Twelve apostles to bear witness to his works and words (Acts 1:8).  The church founded upon the apostolic testimony to Jesus was to preach the Word for the salvation of the lost and the building up of God's people (Acts 8:4, 2 Timothy 4:1-5). Chan's scriptural survey gives credence to the Reformer's claim that God indeed speaks through human beings. The preaching of the Word of God can therefore rightly be regarded as the Word of God through men and to men. 

But what exactly is meant by 'the Word of God', and how can we be sure that God is truly speaking through a preacher? The whole Bible may be regarded as the written and authoritative Word of God. But in a more limited sense, to preach the Word is to proclaim the gospel of salvation. That is certainly what we find in Acts and also in the teaching of the Reformers. To preach the Word is to announce the good news of Jesus as disclosed in the pages of Scripture. A message that fails at that point cannot be regarded as the Word of God. 

Chan draws upon speech-act theory as a tool that helps the church to discern the voice of God in the words of a preacher. Speech-act theorists divide language up into three key elements. Locutions, words or sentences. Illocutions, what a speaker is doing with his or her words. Perlocutions, the effect that words have on hearers. The main thing is that words are never 'just words'. To speak is to act. Applied to the Bible and preaching, in Scripture we have God's written words. But God is doing things with these words, such as making promises, laying down commands, or issuing warnings. The illocutionary intentions of God's words have their appropriate perlocutionary effects as promises are believed, commands obeyed and warnings heeded. Speech-act theory helps safeguard both the propositional and personal aspects of biblical revelation. We have the propositional locutions such as 'Jesus is Lord', and also the personal address, 'believe that Jesus is Lord and follow him'. 

Preaching is an act of divine self-communication through a human agent. For preaching to be counted as the Word of God the preacher's locutions must match those of the gospel given in Scripture. Like the Bereans of Acts 17 the church must "examine the Scriptures, to see if these things were so." (Acts 17:11). More than that, those who proclaim the Word of God must also press the practical illocutionary demands of the gospel; repentance, faith and obedience. The preacher, however, cannot secure the perlocutionary effects of gospel proclamation. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. 

While Chan's main focus is on the gospel as the Word of God, the same essential principle applies whatever portion of Scripture is being expounded and applied. That said, no biblical text is explained faithfully unless it it set in the context of the drama of redemption that unfolds in the canon of Scripture as a whole. The preacher, for example, may be expositing the food laws in Leviticus 11, but he will not have preached the food laws unless he relates that chapter to Jesus' teaching in Mark 7:18-19 and Peter's experience as recounted in Acts 10 & 11. Then the preacher must press home the key idea of sinners being made clean and included among the people of God by the gospel. 

Chan's  conception of the gospel seems to be rather narrow in scope. I am not sure it is right to say that Paul's teaching on Christ's coming and the resurrection of the dead in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 are 'not directly related to the gospel'. That is exactly the good news he proclaimed, 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. 

None the less, I fully agree with the author's basic thesis. The Reformers were right. Scripture itself teaches that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God, and is to be received as such by the faithful. Speech-act theory helps clarify how that is the case.  God as a divine speech-agent communicates his saving word through commissioned human beings to human beings. 

But no book on preaching, not even one on the theology of preaching can be regarded as up to the mark if it does not fire us up to preach the Word. In his own terms, Chan may have faithfully re-locuted what Scripture says about preaching as the Word of God, but the illocutionary force of the Bible's command to 'preach the Word' with urgency and boldness is somewhat lacking. The work can be dryly technical. Take Chan's conclusion, for example,
to preach the gospel as the word of God is to re-locute and re-illocute the divine speech act, the gospel, which itself was once locuted and illocuted by the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, and which now continues to be locuted and illocuted in the canonical Scriptures. (p. 212). 
I know what the author means, but that is not a definition of preaching that will inspire busy pastors to preach their hearts out next Lord's Day. If that was not Chan's intention in writing on preaching, perhaps it should have been. Since preaching is 'theology on fire', we also need a theology that will put fire into our preaching.The practical implications of the view Chan is advocating ought to have been spelled out more fully. The need for the empowering presence of the Spirit upon preacher and hearers alike is mentioned, but not given sufficient weight. Lack of space means writers cannot say everything that they would like, but there is a considerable amount of repetition in chapters 9-10. Choices have to be made on what to leave out and what to include. Less focus on linguistic technicalities and additional practical application would have made this a more useful book for preachers. A theology of preaching should generate heat as well as light. 

By all means read Chan. His treatment will help crystallise your thinking on what it means to preach the Word. His discussion of the Reformers' position and handling of the biblical materials are most helpful. Speech act theory reminds us that the preacher is swept up in the communicative action of the triune God. But you will need to supplement this somewhat theoretical work on preaching with something more soul stirring, like Preaching and Preachers by D. M. Lloyd-Jones, or practical, such as Preaching Pure and Simple by Stuart Olyott.

* I am grateful to the author for being kind enough to send me a free review copy. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Some more pastor/governors?

Now, I'm not one of those types who thinks that because they are doing something, so should everyone else. You know, the pastor who has joined the local squash club to get themselves out of the ministerial bubble. They've only been at it a month and a bit, yet that's the thing. All self-respecting pastors should be out there slamming squash balls into walls. 

No, if everyone was doing exactly what I'm doing, I'd lose my USP. Anyone who's watched Dragons Den knows that's a big no, no. Besides, the knowledge that there might be loads of other people out there, all doing my stuff, might make me have existential crisis, or something. Can't be doing with that at my age. 

None the less, in this post I'm going to suggest that if you're a pastor, or have some kind of leadership responsibility in the church, then being a school governor might be something to consider. Not that all pastors should be govs. Some might be rubbish at it. It is the case, however, that ministers often have skills that are transferable to school governance. 

For one, you're a leader,  right? And not in the sense of a boss telling employees what to do, or they can collect their P45 on the way out. You're a leader of a group of volunteers. No one forced your people into church membership, or to take on a role/responsibility in the church. Same with school governors, apart from the Headteacher, for whom it's part of the job. You can't just order volunteers around. You have to take them with you. Ever managed to get a difficult decision past a church members' meeting without creating a split? The same skills will come in handy as a governor. Definitely, if you become chair. 

Plus, you're used to delegating responsibility for certain tasks to others and seeing their skills develop. I mean, if as well as pastor, you're church secretary, treasurer, main musical accompanist, welcomer, leader of the toddler group, etc, etc, you're probably doing it wrong. The concentration of too many roles in the hands of too few people means the overworked few eventually burn out and the undeveloped many eventually drop out. Again, same applies to governing boards. You get that. 

Another thing pastors should be good at is vision & strategy.  You'll have your vision for your church and its mission to the community that is both biblical and  contextual. And unless there's something badly wrong with you, you're a theology geek, yes? Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology, Historical Theology. How everything fits together as a coherent whole. That should help with strategic planning and monitoring progress towards the realisation of the board's vision for the school. A wide range of factors will make for a good education and they're all interrelated. School leadership, teaching and learning, curriculum, pupil attendance and behaviour, school context, and so on. The Department for Education publish richly detailed breakdowns of school data that enable governors to spot strengths and weaknesses in their school's outcomes. Long hours spent reading Berkhof and Bavinck means you should be able to join the dots. 

John Calvin said that pastors should have two voices. One for gathering the sheep, and another for driving away wolves. Governors similarly have a dual role. Their task is to support and challenge their school to make sure it is making rapid and sustained progress. Governors should also be willing to support and challenge one another. It is essential that the board remains focused on its side of the strategic/operational dividing line and doesn't try and meddle in the everyday running of the school. Sometimes it may be necessary to have 'courageous conversations' to bring wayward governors back into line. Wolfish govs who would enrich themselves at the expense of the school, or who are hugely disruptive,  must be warned off. 

Governance requires moral courage. Some schools 'off-roll' underachieving students so they don't have a negative impact on results. Others have narrowed their curriculum to devote more time to subjects that attract additional points in the School Performance Tables. Arts subjects have suffered as a result. It is for governing boards to ensure their schools do all they can for vulnerable pupils and that they offer a broad and enriching curriculum. Boards must be prepared to stick by their guns and not chase an improved standing in Performance Tables as the main indicator of success. The question must always be, 'What's the right thing for our students?' Pressures to compromise will come from various points, but as Martin Luther charged us, "Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

Pastors should be aware that becoming a governor does not mean they should try and impose their faith upon a school, especially if it has no religious affiliation. There may be opportunities to be 'salt and light'. But I'm not arguing for a Christian equivalent of the Islamic infiltration of governing boards exposed under the 'Trojan Horse' scandal (see here).  

If your children are of school age, why not consider becoming a parent governor? If a local school governing board is looking to co-opt members of the community with skills you possess, why not at least go along to find out more? If the part of the world where you minister is disadvantaged, people from a 'professional' background may be at a premium, so you may be well placed to make a real difference.  

Not for everyone, I know, but perhaps think about it. 

The Inspiring Governance  portal helps to match skilled volunteers with schools.