The Westminster Defence

In the interests of fairness and balance, I thought it might be good for people to hear my side of the story so bizarrely reported on the Reformation21 blog by feisty Presbyterian, Paul Levy and the Dissenting Separatist, Jeremy Walker over the last two days.

Yes, it is true that despite letters calling it “an affront to the men of 1662”, I, an Anglican, willingly walked into the Lion’s Den of Nonconformity on Tuesday at the Westminster Conference and yet escaped, relatively unharmed by the experience, back to Cambridge. As Presbie Paul pointed out, I do actually live here, but my one very brief mention of teaching students here was only to show that 19 year old, secular, unbelieving students often know more about Puritanism after a week’s study than many modern would-be puritans do after a lifetime of going to conferences about it. They write in their undergraduate essays, for example, that who the puritans were and what they wanted was neither homogenous nor unchanging, nor what we might expect today from either hagiography or Horrible Histories.

In the sense that I was using the example to chide us for often forgetting this (and also forgetting that most of our puritan heroes were themselves actually ordained Anglican vicars!), the fact that the students attend one of the best universities in the world was entirely incidental to my point. It could even have been counter-productive: the illustration would have worked better if I had taught at the University of Tinyville, but I don’t live or work there so unfortunately that wasn’t an option if I was going to be honest (which is usually best, though it was interesting to hear my Separatist brother confess that he and others “were not perhaps as honest and upfront as [they] might have been” with me, and engaged in too much private disgruntled muttering during question time).

It’s good that the Nonconformist Dissenter, Jeremy Walker said he would “refrain from Truemanesque comments about certain schools” in his personal comments about me, since as the good Dr. Trueman could have told him, I am a poor Northerner who went to a Comprehensive school, and am about as far away from being a posh Iwerne-boy as it is possible to be. However, I’m not the only member of the new generation with a Durham coalminer for a grandfather who has found it possible to get along in life quite happily without an Eton education or military training. As the Daily Mail put it, “It is a truly uplifting tale of heroism, hard work, and hope.”

Although some other chaps who have commented on my gun-slinging  exploits at the Westminster Shootout think it’s controversial, I did actually use the best figures available in the scholarly literature to assess how many people were actually “ejected” in 1662 (rather than the sometimes fanciful massaged figures given for the sake of impact). If anyone has access to better data than the definitive A.G. Matthews, Calamy Revised: being a revision of Edmund Calamy’s Account of the ministers and other ejected and silenced, 1660-2 (Oxford University Press, 1988), I would be glad to take that on board as I write up my talk for publication.

Failing that, I’ll stick to Matthews’s figure of 936 as ejected in 1662, which as I said is about the same as the number of creedally-orthodox, complementarian churches in the Church of England today according to the (Crypto-)Bishop of FIEC. I don’t think that means we can boast about our strength (especially as many of those bravely counter-cultural 900 are nevertheless not really Reformed). But 900 churches is a start, and it’s about 100 times as many as in Levy’s denomination, and twice as many as the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches has, though most of them are static or dying I was sad to learn over coffee with their bishop yesterday.

If 1662 was a tragic disaster (which we all seem to agree it was), then I’m hardly going to do voluntarily what the puritans only did because they were forced to, and walk away from it all in a huff because Reformed Evangelical Anglicans are only a minority. Homosexuals are a tiny minority (about 1%) of the population, yet look at what many of them have achieved in the last 20 years in terms of changing the culture of the West. It’s impressive (and sometimes very worrying) what a minority can achieve if it only puts its mind to it. This may be our darkest hour, but we will fight liberalism on the beaches, we will fight it on the synods. As we saw a few weeks ago in General Synod, we owe so much to the so few who enthusiastically apply the gospel to their engagement with their denomination, and refuse to surrender to the apathetic, apolitical spirit of the age.

I was intrigued that so many people at the conference still defined themselves so passionately and clearly against Anglicanism. Those who speak so easily of “the presumption of baptismal regeneration in the Anglican rite” should probably read something on the Anglican Doctrine of Baptism so that they are better informed. Even those who said they didn’t believe in denominations but only individual churches were more than content to tell the conference how they couldn’t cooperate with Anglicanism, and made sure we knew they were “dissenters.”

It’s harsh of Brother Levy to call them all “loony toons.” Though if they think that by celebrating the end of persecution in the early church 1700 years ago I was giving the “Constantinian Settlement” my complete and wholehearted approval, or that I have rose-tinted expectations for evangelicals within the Anglican Communion, then all I can say is I hope their sermons don’t handle the Bible with such cavalier hermeneutics. Though the common misuse of 2 Corinthians 6:17 (“Come out from among them and be separate!”) as if it was directed at us supposedly compromised Anglicans, doesn’t really encourage me on this front. I don’t think the apostle Paul was calling us all to join FIEC or the Baptist Union.

It was a surprise to me that some attendees would be resistant to a minimal bit of audience participation, given the vast numbers of congregationalists present who must be used to sticking up their hands in meetings, surely? All I did was ask a few questions, so I could gather information on where people were coming from. If I got a “bum steer” as Dissenting Separatist Jeremy Walker so colourfully puts it, it was from the audience themselves, therefore. Many of them seemed to take it stoically, or in the spirit of good-natured fun in which it was intended; though one couple, on hearing me ask for hands in the air, did immediately fold their arms as tightly as possibly so as not to be dragged away by such frivolity. Members of the Dissenter Jeremy Walker’s nonconformist Baptist conventicle perhaps. Though maybe they were struck, as I was, by how few of the Presbyterians there agreed with the things held by 17th century Presbyterians, and how few of the congregationally-governed folk believed the things John Owen believed (about the monarch being the head of the church, for example, or infant baptism, or that there shouldn’t be a complete separation of church and state, but interference by the latter to enforce, for instance, Trinitarianism and sola fide).

I’m glad I was able to disabuse them of a few caricatures of Anglicanism too. We don’t all think the Conventicles Act was a good thing, or that Dissenters should be sent to America as a punishment (though exporting criminals to Georgia worked so well we tried it again in Sydney, which didn’t turn out too badly). The Church of England is very different today from what it was in 1662, in some good ways as well as some bad.

We’re not all dodgy clubbing vicars with no interest in spiritual things. Although it was interesting to hear from the floor after my talk in Westminster that one can be protected from worldliness by leaving the corrupt Church of England. It’s an interesting new technique for sanctification. Some dissenters come across as if they are “not of this world”, though perhaps that’s not what my esteemed interlocutor meant on this occasion. Look, you may say the grass is greener on your side of the fence, but we all know people still walk on it and mess it up.

By some accounts, it’s a wonder that there are any believers left in the Church of England – how did that happen? I know of course that it’s not a perfect denomination. Yet Reformed evangelicals like me stick with it, despite its faults, which we know all too well thank you very much!  Imagine how unattractive other denominations must appear that we tolerate the intense problems of Anglicanism rather than jump ship to some other leaky vessel. (Yet how rarely we blog about the problems of others in a gloating “You should all come back and be re-united with Anglicanism” way.)

Our problem of conscience is often the other way around from yours, our dear free church brethren. Some of us would at some level like to walk away from the C of E at times. We’d be happy to work in other set-ups (I’m giving you no names, since the sharks are already circling!). But we’re deeply troubled about leaving our congregations, and abandoning the Lord’s people to wolves just for the sake of a quieter life without deanery synods and dodgy bishops to worry about. Gresham Machen also spoke of this difficulty, of not being able to evade his solemn responsibility to care for people he was ordained to serve, and to try to reform his denomination. We should dwell more on his struggles and their current relevance.

I could say more, but Paul Levy bought me and my mate Adam a pint afterwards so I’ll leave him alone. Besides, the whole experience was a helpful one for me: I now have a better empathetic grasp of what the Arminians must have felt at the Synod of Dort, where their defeat and condemnation was predestined (sic).

I close by simply repeating my final altar call from the talk on Tuesday. I mentioned that unfortunately we have very few senior clergy these days who would stand by the foundational Reformed doctrines of Anglicanism…

“But as I close, can I say, please don’t gloat over us because of that. Pray for us; support us; we need more men like that.  It can only strengthen our gospel partnerships across the country to have a flourishing Reformed evangelical group within the Church of England. But if such a group disappears, or has to spend all its time defending itself from independent-minded itinerants who try to undermine us, that will not be good for the cause of God and truth in our sad, sick, and sinful nation. So for the glory of God and of England, pray for us Anglicans, as we do for our brothers and sisters working hard for our Lord Jesus in Baptist, Presbyterian, and other churches across the land. The gospel which unites us is stronger than our historic differences; so let’s not jeopardise one by focusing solely on the other. Let’s move on, and go forward together to win our nations for Christ.”

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