Waterpistols at the Westminster Corral

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Oh, the ignominy!

One moment Mr Levy is speaking of my contribution to the discussion at the Westminster Conference, and the next he dismisses those making contributions as "loony toons." A more sensitive man than I might turn for solace to one of those cheering Russian novels which Carl recommends from time to time, great doorsteps about tragic declines and slow deaths, written by a man called Nokyoroanblokov from his winter hovel in Siberia.

Of course, Mr Levy is as right to point out the low standard of debate following that first paper as he is to query the attachment of some American churches to robed choirs. I am not quite sure who told Lee Gatiss what to expect, but there's no denying that our brother carpe'd the diem. I think whomever had primed him might have given him a bit of a bum steer, though, because he spent the first fifteen minutes working on what I thought were somewhat flawed assumptions, including - and this, I admit, despite certain appearances - the notion that we all think we are living in the latter half of the seventeenth century (this, of course, is nonsense - a good number of us are firmly mired in the eighteenth). In all seriousness, it is interesting to work back from what we heard to what must, I presume, be the common assumptions about this particular community. In his defence, Lee's title was not "1662 - so what?" but "1662 and all that." The unfortunate effect of his early approach was that he came across as a little more aggressive than he might have wished, even brash. Did he really need to quote Churchill's 'fighting on the beaches' bit? There were points at which I thought, "Only an Anglican could say that!" (I refrain from Truemanesque comments about certain schools and universities). For example, there was the thoroughly misguided assertion that 1689 and the Act of Toleration sorted out all the problems of the Clarendon Code, or what seemed to be the assumption that the Constantinian Settlement could universally be considered a good thing (as opposed to one of the great tragedies in the history of Christ's church). My point in discussion was that I am not a Dissenting minister of the gospel because of 1662, and I accept that the heritage of that period is as much the right of my evangelical Anglican brother to enjoy as it is mine. I understand that the Anglican communion has changed, but I am at least as much persuaded that it would be unconscionable to be a part of that communion now as it was in 1662. For example, I am no more in favour of synodical rule than I am of rule by Episcopal bishop; erastianism is anathema to me; I think the presumption of baptismal regeneration in the Anglican rite still proves spiritually deadly to thousands; the recent debacle over women bishops only emphasises the mess; I won't go on, although I already did. There seems to be a misapprehension that we are all Dissenters because of 1662. We certainly see the issues of the seventeenth century, but I find even more reasons not to be Anglican in 2012.

Perhaps the most evident disconnect came in a comment by another Anglican brother after the session. I had suggested to Lee that I was as much a Dissenter and Separatist by conviction as I presumed he was an Anglican. This slightly threw the other gentleman, who wanted me to understand that he - and, by extension, Lee, though he did not say this - were not so much convinced of the rightness of Anglicanism as not sufficiently convinced of certain other things to move away from Anglicanism. It seems, then, that we are talking past each other. I cannot understand how these brothers can consider certain things as relatively unimportant, and they cannot understand why I consider them too important to ignore. In that sense, perhaps we are not too far from 1662 after all.

Sadly, with the exception of a couple of comments by Iain Murray about the necessary separation of spiritual and political programmes and processes, none of this really took off in the discussion. Lee did us the honour of taking a stand and giving a stirring apologia for Anglicanism in general and what seemed a rather rose-tinted expectation for Reformed and evangelical men within that communion, and we did not do him the equal honour of giving him some stick in the most gracious way imaginable.

What must be understood, reader, is that the Westminster Conference does still abide by the British standards of a relatively bygone age, wherein a chap - if not entirely disgruntled, then certainly one remove from being fully gruntled - considers it a protest slightly below self-immolation on the scale of severity to catch the eye of another chap who may be in the same stage of gruntlement as himself and marginally raise a quizzical eyebrow. Of course, once the paper and discussion are finished, people mutter into sympathetic ears all the comments and contributions that they ought to make while the discussion is taking place. In that sense, I think that we were not perhaps as honest and upfront as we might have been.

At least some of this bubbled up nicely in Andrew Davies' session on the experience of a couple of Dissenters, where the discussion focused in on issues of conscience and obedience to authority: Whose authority? Where communicated? How does one train the conscience? Mr Davies' paper was gentle and careful, a good reminder of how biography can instruct and encourage. The readiness of these men to seize every opportunity to do as much good as they were able under trying circumstances was a profitable example.

The last paper was by Andrew Atherstone, and addressed the matter of hagiography and history. Comparing and contrasting a "confessional" approach (illustrated with a string of excerpts from the Banner of Truth magazine, with special reference to Iain Murray) with a "professional" approach - the school of Bebbington et al - Andrew suggested that neither side should be so quickly dismissive of the other. At last the discussion began to liven up a bit - more of the spirit with which we should have engaged Lee in the morning - and there was some healthy give and take. While some of the attendees at the conference are historians by training and, in measure, vocation, most are serious students of history from a pastoral perspective. I do not think Andrew persuaded us entirely of his via media, but he did underline the necessity of those who are more confessional historians engaging with the data with real integrity, and not neglecting God's employment of secondary causes to accomplish his divine ends, even while we will not compromise on robustly stated convictions about the ultimate and originating cause.

And so, as my train shuffles toward London for day two, delayed by the apparently utterly unforeseen consequence of stuff falling from the sky - this tricksy British weather! When shall we ever learn to expect precipitation during the winter months! - I hope for good things and better discussions today.

[A brief update: Lee has entered the fray very much in the spirit of things over here.]
Posted December 5, 2012 @ 5:03 AM by Jeremy Walker


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