Tuesday, October 18, 2016

John Owen and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Unity

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Owen in 1616 and the 50th anniversary of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' address on Evangelical Unity on 18th October 1966. Both men gave attention to the matter unity between Christians. Lloyd-Jones was a student of Owen and drew upon his work on Christian unity. However, I argue that Lloyd-Jones' strategy for achieving  greater unity among gospel churches was flawed in that was tied to Evangelicals coming together under one organisational umbrella group. In a previous post I looked at 'John Owen and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Schism'.

The Puritan ecclesiastical experiment of the Commonwealth era had failed to unite all reform-minded believers under a single form of church government. Some favoured a drive to further reform the Church of England, others preferred Presbyterianism or others still, Independency. With the monarchy restored in 1660 the Church of England with its Episcopalian system became the State Church once more. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer was imposed on all Church of England congregations, leading to over 2,000 Puritan pastors being deprived of their livings. Anglicanism was the only officially recognised religion in England. 

It was payback time for the regicidal Puritans. Non-Anglicans faced sometimes viscous bouts of persecution. The well-known trials and tribulations of John Bunyan are a case in point. An attempt was made to impose Protestant unity upon all Christians in the land by means of the power of the State. But as Owen pointed out, rather than fostering true spiritual unity, the State-sponsored imposition of Anglicanism, Bishops, liturgy and all, only exacerbated divisions still further. Owen argued that God alone is Lord of men’s consciences. The Head of the Church had not left himself without witness when it came to the government, life and worship of the church. What he has commanded, man has no right to supplement, much less ignore.

Owen pleaded for toleration on the part of Nonconformists, arguing that doing so would not undermine the unity and peace of the nation. People should have the right to “do church” in the light of their understanding of Scripture and for the benefit of their souls, rather than be forced to conform to a Church that would not reform. Anglicanism was in danger of being as imperious and intolerant as Rome in insisting that unity could only be found under her banner and looking to the State to persecute Dissenters.

In 1672, Owen published A Discourse Concerning Evangelical Love, Peace and Unity. Our divine understood that inter-church unity could not be created institutionally, by forcing all Protestants to join the Established Church. True spiritual unity said Owen exists at three levels:

First in the Catholic Church on earth, which “is comprised that real living and spiritual body of his, which is firstly, peculiarly, and properly called the Catholic Church militant in this world. These are his elect, redeemed, justified, and sanctified ones, who are savingly united to their head by the same quickening and sanctifying Spirit” (15:78). All true believers belong to and are one with the Catholic Church on earth. They may disagree over many things and differ on points of church government, and yet “they esteem the things wherein they agree incomparably above wherein they differ.” (15:80). Those differences are to be handled not by one group of Christians riding roughshod over another because they have the power of the State on their side, but as befits their unity in the gospel. “It is love, meekness, forbearance, bowels of compassion, with those other graces of the Spirit wherein our conformity to Christ doth consist, with a true understanding and due valuation of the ‘unity of faith…’” that alone will enable believers to avoid the evils associated with entrenched differences between churches. To what extent do we give expression to our unity with the Catholic Church on earth that perchance exists outside of our hermetically sealed Reformed bubble?

Second there is the visible Catholic Church “comprehensive of all who throughout the world outwardly own the gospel, there is an acknowledgement of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism:” which are a sufficient ground of that love, union and communion among them” (15:82). It is in this manifestation of the Catholic Church “that salvation is to be obtained and out of which there is none.” (15:84).

Convinced Independent though he was Owen certainly did not want to limit the visible Catholic Church so defined to his own Independent church grouping. He regarded it as an “absurd, foolish and uncharitable error, which would confine the Catholic Church of Christ unto a particular church of one single denomination”. (15:84). Striking a consolatory note, notwithstanding his differences with the Church of England, Owen said he regarded her “to be as sound and healthful a part of the Catholic Church as any in the world.” (15:85). So far from being a narrow minded sectarian was Owen that he insisted, “Unto this Catholic Church we owe all Christians love, and we are obliged to exercise all the effects of it, both towards the whole and every particular member, as we have advantage and occasion.” (15:86). Owen was no sectarian Donatist, then. To what extent does our love for fellow Christians overflow our church groupings, to embrace believers in the mixed denominations, Charismatics, and others?

Thirdly Owen discusses the church of Christ in terms of those who profess the gospel and gathered into particular churches. All believers are obliged to belong to a local church. But in line with his principles, Owen did not recommend an “any church will do” approach. Should a local church degenerate from the biblical pattern and seek to impose unscriptural practices upon believers, the godly may separate from such a congregation and in doing so should not be regarded as schismatic. Owen stresses that in such situations reform-minded believers should not show themselves difficult rabble rousers. They are to attempt “peaceable endeavours to reduce [the church] to the order of the gospel” (15:97). All the time showing “charity, love and forbearance towards the persons of those whose miscarriages at present he cannot remedy.” (15:97). But if sincere Christians found themselves having corrupt practices and erroneous teaching forced on them, Owen counselled that they should peaceably withdraw and seek fellowship in a more biblically sound church. At a local level unity should not be sought at the expense of biblical purity.

What, then, according to Owen are the defining characteristics of gospel church unity that we are bound to seek?

1.      It is spiritual “the unity of the Spirit”, the product of being ‘spiritually and savingly united to Christ” (15:108), not the product of imposed uniformity.
2.      It is “unity of faith”, based upon “A precise and express profession of the fundamental articles of the Christian religion”. (15:108). Owen is not interested in lowest common denominator ecumenism, or sectarian exclusivism. Unity in the essential truths of the gospel is what matters. 
3.      It is a unity of Love. Love knits together all members of the body of Christ as the “bond of perfection”. This gospel love is not pernickety and excluding, but “acts itself by forbearance and condescension towards the infirmities, mistakes and faults of others”. (15:110). Is that always the case with us? Are we sometimes too quick to write others off?
4.      It is a unity in the orders of rule and ordinances of worship instituted by the kingly authority of Jesus. Where churches receive grace and gifts from the Lord Jesus to this end and seek to act in line with the Word, says Owen, “no such variety or difference will ensue as shall impeach that unity which is the duty of them all to attend unto.” (15:110). He is not demanding absolute uniformity of view and practice, but unity in diversity among churches that gladly submit to the rule of King Jesus laid down in his Word.

During the Restoration period Owen and his fellow Nonconformists faced a very different situation to ours today. Dissenters are no longer subject to persecution because we do not belong to the Church of England Established by Law. Much of Owen’s work on the doctrine of the church was an extended plea for the right of Nonconformists to exist persecution-free. That is no longer the need of the hour, thank God. But we are gospel-bound to pursue church-level Evangelical unity and Owen helps us to understand what that means. Evangelical unity flows from the gospel we believe and is shaped by the gospel of love. It is not about bringing all church groupings under one umbrella structure, or seeking to obliterate denominational distinctives. As with the poor, differences over church government, baptism and worship styles will be ever with us. But both within and among Gospel Churches we must do all we can to give expression to our unity in the gospel. How that works itself out in practice will differ in our various situations. Sometimes more fellowship will be possible with other neighbouring churches, sometimes less, but we need to find ways of expressing our unity in faith and love. Isolationism isn’t an option for true Independents. 

Sure, Affinity, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, Grace Baptist Associations, Evangelical Presbyterian and Evangelical Anglican groupings, Gospel Partnerships and so on have a role in fostering unity between our churches. But is none large and comprehensive enough to serve as a pan-Evangelical Big Tent, where the “fundamental articles of the Christian faith” are confessed, but conscientious differences respected. Lloyd-Jones’ vision for Evangelical unity was strategically flawed in that he sought to replace the institutional unity of the World Council of Churches and British Council of Churches with that of another organisation, the British Evangelical Council. While we may agree that Evangelicals should separate from church groupings where there is no realistic prospect of reform, the answer is not as Lloyd-Jones put it in his 1967 address Martin Luther and his Message for Today: “Come out of it! But come together also…into an association such as this British Evangelical Council… Come out! Come in!” (Unity in Truth, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Evangelical Press, 1991, p. 43). 

Dr. Owen grasped what Dr. Lloyd-Jones apparently did not at this point, that Evangelicals were already “in”, in the sense that together they belonged to the gospel-proclaiming Catholic Church in its local manifestations. Joining the BEC would not necessarily have broken down barriers between Evangelical Churches. What was needed there was a greater catholicity of spirit, more love for one another across denominational divides, a deeper determination to submit to the Lordship of Christ, come what may. Come out! Yes. But come out because you are in and that unity needs to be seen in action as gospel churches partner together to reach the nation for Christ. Lloyd-Jones would have been better advised to have stressed the basic principles, as did Owen, and not to have tied his vision to a single organisation.

Inter-church unity is organic, not organisational. As John Owen says in The True Nature on the Communion of Churches,

Take in the whole, and the union of churches consists in their relation unto God as their Father, and unto Christ as their only immediate head of influence and rule, with a participation in the same faith and doctrine of truth, the same kind of holiness, the same duties of divine worship, especially the same mysteries of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the observance of all the rules of Christ in all church-order with mutual love, effectual unto all the ends of their being and constitution, or the edification of the Catholic Church. (16:190).  

Though there may be differences among gospel churches, our essential union is an expression of the oneness for with the Lord Christ prayed in John 17:20-23, that his disciples may be “perfect in one”. Giving that oneness visible expression is vital to the mission of the church, John 17:21.

There has been a welcome revival of interest in Puritanism among Evangelical Christians in the last few decades. That interest has largely focused on the rich treasury of Puritan devotional writings. But we must never forget that Puritanism was a movement dedicated to the reformation and revitalisation of the church. Reading the Works of John Owen Volumes 13-16 it is evident that he was a pastor-theologian; a theologian of the church and for the church. His ecclesiological writings are a standing reminder that, Ephesians 5:25-26.

* From my Evangelical Library conference paper: Reading John Owen: Volumes 13-16 

Monday, October 17, 2016

John Owen and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Schism

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Owen in 1616 and the 50th anniversary of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' address on Evangelical Unity in 1966. Both men gave attention to the matter of schism or divisions between Christians. Lloyd-Jones was a student of Owen and drew upon his work on schism. However, his charge in 1966 that Evangelicals in the mixed denominations were guilty of schism was decidedly un-Owenic.  

John Owen was a leading voice of the Independent Churches. In the 17th Century the Independents were dogged by the charge of schism. They were Protestants who had separated from Rome. Schism number 1. They were Puritans and then Nonconformists who had separated from the Church of England. Schism number 2. They were Independents who allegedly had separated from the Presbyterian churches. Schism number 3. Understandably Owen didn’t find being labelled a 3-fold schismatic much to his liking. ‘schism scwism” might be our response, ‘so what?” For one, causing needless divisions among the people of God is a serious matter. John 17 for instance. For two, didn’t Evangelical Churches (whatever their ecclesiastical polity) face a similar charge when we refuse to get involved in Churches Together and the like? We’re splitters and no-one like a splitter.

Owen’s response to the charge of schism that was leveled against the Independents was a novel one. In Of Schism, Vol 13, published in 1657, he didn’t start with things as they were in his day with the Popery/Protestant divide and the splintering of Protestantism. Neither did he simply rehearse the denunciation of schism on the part of the Church Fathers. Augustine and the Donatists and all that. He took a rather novel approach. “Right” he said, “what does the Bible have to say about this?” Crazy, eh? Going back to the Bible’s he discovered that in the Good Book the word schism is only used of divisions within local churches. Never is it used of people who leave one local church and join another, or set up another, for whatever reason. Some in the church at Corinth were guilty of schism because they lined up behind their favourite preachers, or allowed social distinctions to rend the body of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. There’s schism for you.

But what of Christian unity on a bigger scale? Well, there’s the Universal Church. At that level, union consists of all who are chosen in Christ and saving united to him for salvation by the Spirit. That unity cannot be shattered because it is spiritual and organic, not organisational. No schism there, then. Then there’s the unity of the Visible Catholic Church. That is the church worldwide that professes the gospel. To split off from the Catholic Church so defined is not schism, argues Owen, but heresy and apostasy, 1 John 2:19.

Hang on a minute, Dr. Owen. What about the Roman Catholic charge against Protestants? As we have seen, for Owen, the Roman Catholic Church was no true Church, having apostatised from the Visible Catholic Church by defecting from the gospel. What about the Puritans and Non-conformists who left the Church of England? Owen argued that believers are not in any way obliged to align themselves with a territorial Protestant State Church. There is no biblical justification for such an institution. Owen confessed himself a member of the Church of England in the sense that he was united with the Visible Catholic Church in England composed believers in the nation who professed the gospel. But that did not mean he was guilty of schism for not being a member of the Church of England Established by Law by Henry VIII and his heirs and successors.

Believers are duty bound to gather themselves together in churches where the gospel is preached and godly discipline applied. When a local church of whatever denominational stamp refuses to reform itself according to the Word of God, it is the duty of believers to separate from it. Doing so was not to be regarded as schism. Neither was the fact that Independents differed from Presbyterians on certain points of church government and wished to put their beliefs into practice in their local churches.  

One Daniel Cawdrey, a Presbyterian minister at Great Billing, Northamptonshire took it upon himself to offer a response to Owen’s Of Schism in a pamphlet with the less than reconciliatory title, Independency a Great Schism. Suffice to say, the carping Cawdrey was no match for Owen in terms of theological acumen. Not to mention generosity of spirit.  Owen penned a Vindication. Reading it you sense his hurt at having his views and person traduced so roundly, even to the point of occasional tetchiness. Who can blame him? Owen felt himself reviled from one end of Cawrey’s work to the other. He was vilified as, ‘Satan, atheist, sceptic, Donatist, heretic, schismatic, secretary, Pharisee, etc”. (13:214). But the controversy also brought out the best in Owen in terms of his generous catholicity of spirit. He was certainly no sectarian Donatist and made it clear that he did not believe as Cawdrey had alleged that Independents were the only true churches.

Owen responded to a further critical rejoinder from Cawdrey. It is obvious that he found the controversy rather a chore. But he felt obliged to respond at length and with his customary thoroughness. This is Owen at his most cumbersome, taking pages and pages to say what could have been said much more succinctly. Eventually he called an end to what he called “this tedious debate” (13:269). For which his poor readers ought to count themselves grateful.

The main point as far as Owen was concerned, is that schism is a local church issue, not inter-church issue. But even if it was permissible for the term ‘schism” to be used of divisions between local churches, it wasn’t the Independents that were at fault. It wasn’t them that insisted that all local churches should belong to the Established Church of England. It wasn’t them that refused to reform the government of the church after a more biblical pattern. It wasn’t them that failed to exercise church discipline to weed out the notoriously ungodly from the flock. It wasn’t the Independents who imposed ceremonies, a fixed liturgy and canon law upon churches, all contrary to the mind of Christ. And then persecuted those who would not conform. That was the Church of England.

Owen did not write off the Church of England altogether, however. Writing, now in response to Dr. Stillingfleet on The Unreasonableness of Separation (1681), he said, “We do allow those parochial assemblies which have a settled, unblameable ministry among them to be true churches, for far as they can pretend so to be”. Then comes a lengthy, paragraph-long string of qualifiers. Parochial assemblies may be regarded as true churches although they had no power to choose or ordain their own ministers, or reform themselves according to the word of God, and that they neglected evangelical discipline and the like. Owen waspishly concludes, “Whatever can be ascribed to such churches we willingly allow to them.” (15:376-377). Where reforming such “parochial assemblies” proved impossible, peaceable withdrawal was not schism. Even then, Owen was not proposing total separation, just that Independents could not conscientiously engage in full communion with an unreformed Church of England. That was not what Scripture described as schism because it did not invoke stirring up divisions within a local church.

What, then do we make of Dr. Lloyd-Jones” charge in 1966 that Evangelicals in the mixed denominations were guilty of schism because they failed to separate from their error-tolerating denominations and come together as churches? He argued “that for us to be divided - we who are agreed about everything that really matters…is nothing but to be guilty of the sin of schism.” (Knowing the Times, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth Trust, 1989, p. 254). Strong words. But if Owen is right, the charge of schism is a category mistake. Schism is local church issue, not an inter-church issue. Lloyd-Jones was aware of Owen’s work in this area. He devoted his 1963 Westminster Conference address to John Owen on Schism, in which Lloyd-Jones very much commended Owen’s attitude and approach. (The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, p. 73-100).

According to New Testament as demonstrated by Owen, schism is the sin of causing needless divisions within a gospel church. Divisions between gospel churches are another matter entirely. If a gospel church is in fellowship with a church grouping in which the the gospel is denied, and the situation cannot be remedied, that is a grievous disorder. We should separate from error. But Lloyd-Jones was wrong to say that Evangelicals were guilty of schism simply because their churches belonged to a 'mixed' denomination.

When it comes to the contemporary church scene we are often the ones accused of schism. Ours may be the only church in town not in Churches Together. But Churches Together has no biblical mandate. We are not obliged to be in it. It is no schism to be out of it. Especially as the grouping obscures clarity of gospel witness and is in danger of violating the unity of the Catholic Church by having Roman Catholics and unreconstructed Liberals involved.

We are schismatics, however, if we are the cause needless divisions within our local churches. We are failing in our duty of Christian love if we shun fellowship with other Evangelical churches because of differences over secondary matters.  

* From my Evangelical Library conference paper: Reading John Owen: Volumes 13-16 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Biblical Church Revitalization: Solutions for Dying & Divided Churches by Brian Croft

Christian Focus, 2016, 133pp

There has been a lot of emphasis on church planting in recent years, and rightly so. Where villages, towns, or areas of cities are without a gospel church, planting one there is a vital means of discipling believers in the locality and reaching the community for Christ.

But what of places where there already is a gospel church, but the work is in danger of fizzling out? That is where church revitalisation comes in. Which, I would venture to suggest in an urgent priority for many churches in the UK at this time.

Churches may be in need of revitalisation for a number of reasons. Brian Croft's book is directed at helping pastors turn around churches that have become badly dysfunctional in the way they are run, and as a result have become spiritually stunted and inward looking.

Croft was called to  Southern Baptist Church in the USA that had a reputation for chewing up and spitting out pastor after pastor. By the grace of God the situation was transformed and the church is now in a much more healthy place.

The writer does not offer a 'silver bullet' formula for breathing new life into moribund churches. He acknowledges that ultimately only the power of God can do that. But the Lord is pleased to use the means laid down in the Scriptures. Pastors involved in church revitalisation need to be men who are dedicated to God-dependent prayer and the authoritative preaching of the Word. They must be willing to give loving pastoral care to believers who may have been left bruised and broken by their involvement in a difficult church. In some situations biblical patterns of authority and leadership may need to be recovered, such as the plurality of elders who share in the pastoral oversight of the flock. Somewhat confusingly, but for reasons he explains, Croft speaks of the 'plurality of pastors'. 

The book offers a healthy dose of realism. Some of the examples Croft gives of just how bad things were in the early days of his pastorate are hair raising. Plots were hatched to oust him. Some church members were bitterly critical of his ministry.  But as he prayerfully persevered, things began to change. 

Croft emphasises that men involved in church revitalisation work don't need to be super-pastors. The Lord is pleased to use broken people to turn around broken churches. But pastors in difficult situations are going to need spiritual resilience, grit and determination if they are going to stay around for long enough to see the Lord work to turn the church around. 

The writer acknowledges that mistakes were made along the way and patience was needed on both sides. I'm not sure that he acted wisely when he saw off an opponent with a threat to block his future ministry prospects unless he backed down from causing trouble in a members' meeting. To my mind, a man with such an ungracious attitude was an unsuitable candidate for church ministry full stop. The person in question should have been blocked from ministry as a matter of principle, unless a change of heart was in evidence. It's a reminder that no pastor gets it right every time. Especially when fighting on all fronts it isn't always easy to pick our battles. Thankfully, it it Christ's church, not ours and he is able to overrule our blunders.  

Aspiring pastors considering a call to a 'challenging' church will be able to do so with their eyes open having read this book. They will find encouragement here to look to Lord in their struggles, knowing that his strength is made perfect in weakness. That said, no book can fully prepare a man for the sometimes harsh reality of the ministry. In a way all pastoral ministry is church revitalisation work, and brings with it suffering and trials, as well as great joys. 

This volume on church revitalisation will not provide answer for every ailing fellowship. Some may be dying because they have become inward looking and out of touch with their local communities. Others may be making every endevour to reach out, but, as yet have seen little discernible fruit. Croft does not address those kinds of scenarios. 

But as this book shows, difficult churches should not simply be written off. Dry bones can live by power of God's Word and Spirit.

The text could have done with a bit of de-Americanisation for the UK market. E.g. I was surprised to learn that Southern Baptist Churches are unique in having a congregational form of church government. That will come as news to FIEC and Grace Baptist Churches in the UK, to say no more.

None the less... 

A good one for men who are training for pastoral ministry.

An encouragement to brave souls battling it out to revitalise a dying and divided church. 

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times

Friday, September 09, 2016

Reading John Owen Evangelical Library Conference

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great Puritan theologian and Independent Church leader. 

On Monday, September 26, 2016, there will be a special one day conference on Reading John Owen. 

The conference will take place at the Evangelical Library and will be from 10 am to 4.30 pm.

The main focus will be on key themes in Owen's 16 volume Works


10.00 Coffee
10.30 John Owen, Preacher, theologian and writer Nigel Graham
11.20 Owen on Christ and the Holy Spirit (Volumes 1-4) Jeremy Walker
12.10 Owen on justification, sanctification and apostasy (Volumes 5-8) Robert Strivens
1.00 Lunch
1.40 Owen the preacher and Calvinist (Volumes 9-12) Gary Brady
2.30 Break
3.00 Owen pastors, churches and Romanism (Volumes 13-16) Guy Davies
3.50 Final panel question session
4.30 Close

Hot drinks provided. Bring your own lunch.

The cost will be £25 for the day.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Building MAT-land

OK, guv'nor, so you're contemplating heading for MAT-land? Eventually, so we're told, we're all going to have to make that journey into the, if not unknown, at lest the not very well researched. That much was evident from this week's Education Committee's session on MATs.

The pace of change since the publication the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper has caught almost everybody on the hop. Politicians, policy wonks, governors and Headteachers found themselves struggling to take in the the idea of universal academisation by 2022. With most schools in Multi Academy Trusts. Even the NGA carried on with its 'Federations First' campaign when it was obvious that MATs, not Feds are the future. 

But what does that future hold?  

A formidable panel of educational researchers was assembled to tell the Education Committee how much they don't know about MATs. Not, I hasten to add because they couldn't be bothered to find out, but because no one seems to know an awful lot about MAT-land. We'll, National Schools Commissioner  Sir David Carter and his trusty team of Regional SCs reckon they do, but they're not telling anybody. 

Now, academics never knowingly overstate their case. They're so immersed in the details of their field of expertise that they cannot help but be conscious of evidence that calls into question received wisdom, or casts doubt on common assumptions. Things are rarely as straightforward as they seem.

Which is a bit vexing if you're a dilettante amateur looking for some clear cut answers. Which is what I am in education terms.

'Any evidence that joining a MAT improves school performance?' asked committee members. 'Difficult to say. Needs more research.' replied the expert witnesses. 'What makes a successful MAT?' Ditto. 'What might be learned from similar systems  overseas, like the US Charter Schools?' Ditto. Oh, but it seems that Labour academies were good, Tory ones not so much.

Now, I'm not affecting a Gove-like disdain for experts. Maybe it's simply too early to draw hard and fast conclusions from what's happening in MAT-land. More independent research undoubtedly needs to be done as we head towards a MAT-dominated, fully academised system. The fruit of that research then needs to be absorbed by policy makers. Not to mention governors and Headteachers who are looking to join or set up MATs.

Would be quite nice to find out what kind of pre-existing MAT set-up should not be touched with a board ruler. (Do teachers still use those long board ruler things?) Or what should the MAT we may be forming look like if it's going to be highly effective as opposed to utterly shambolic and totally dysfunctional? We need to know these things.

Some issues became clear, though, as the committee quizzed the researchers. It's quality of teaching that matters above all else, not structures and governance systems. Well, yes. But surely closer collaboration  will help spread best practice when it comes to teaching and learning, CPD, etc?

It looks like collaborative clustering within smaller geographical areas might be a goer, as opposed to large chains that stretch from one end of England to another. Having a shared vision and purpose is key. However, some schools in 'clustered' MATs ain't doing so well.

More research needs to be undertaken into what makes for an effective CEO, whole MAT outcomes, MATs and the % of SEN pupils, rates of exclusions, whether in some cases improved outcomes are at the expense of a narrowed curriculum, etc.

All rather ambiguous

Next up to give evidence was a number of representatives of Christian education providers; RC, CofE, Oasis Trust, a chap from FASNA, and a secular bloke, who didn't appear to be involved in running any educational body, but was most concerned about Christians doing so.

This panel was a bit more forthcoming when it came to the features of a successful MAT. Among them are things like a clear vision and strategy, good leadership, governance structures appropriate for the size of MAT, and the facilitation of school-to-school support.

It was agreed that some issues needed more thought, like the role of local governance in MATs, Ofsted's ability to inspect MATs in the context of a common framework, and how LAs will function in a fully academised system.

Listening to the evidence given, a number of points began to crystallise, at least in my mind, on what may make for a successful MAT. And by that I mean one that helps form rounded and grounded students with high aspirations for themselves, as well as in terms of exam results.

1. Unity in diversity matters 

MATs must offer an overarching vision and strategy that all its schools share. But at the same time, individual schools should be allowed to maintain their own character and ethos; faith or non-denominational, sporty, or arty, or whatever. 

2. The right systems matter 

Well motivated and highly capable people will founder in an ill thought out system. MATs need Schemes of Delegation that are fit for purpose, setting out what responsibilities lie at board and local governance levels, the powers of the CEO, what decisions may be made by individual Headteachers, and so on.

3. Sharing best practice matters 

At their best MATs will allow successful schools to spread good practice when it comes to teaching and learning. But that needs to be done with sensitivity and care, as what works well in one school (a town secondary, say), may not translate to another (a rural primary). At least not without being adapted to suit. Copy and paste jobs won't work. It's vital to understand the difference between sharing best practice and imposing uniform solutions 

4. The balance between accountability and autonomy matters

MAT boards and CEOs should know their schools and be prepared to intervene rapidly if standards slip. But hyperactive micromanagement squelches innovation and growth. Earned autonomy is what's needed.

5. People matter

The optimum MAT system will fail if it's operated by a bunch of knaves and fools. Knaves who want to use a seat on the board as a nice little earner. Fools who haven't a clue what they are meant to be doing. Boards should be comprised of skilled-up stakeholders. Local people, parents etc, who have the moral purpose to make sure funds are used to raise learning outcomes, not line their own pockets. People with the right mix of skills and experience to ensure the MAT works effectively for the benefit of all schools and their pupils.

The future of education is ours to shape. 

MAT-land has not yet been covered over by hard concrete and filled with immovable brick structures.

That lack of solidity is a bit scary. But it's also an opportunity to adapt and innovate. To a certain extent it'll be up to governors, Headteachers and CEOs to make of it what we will.

Let's make sure that we build the system with care so that MAT-land becomes a place where teachers excel and children flourish.

Monday, September 05, 2016

J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone by Iain H. Murray

 Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, 273pp

A good biographer helps his readers to get under the skin of their subject so that you feel you get to know them. Almost personally. A good Christian biographer will do more that that. As well as setting their subject against the background of their times and offering a convincing psychological portrait, they will give readers a glimpse of a soul in its communion with God and dealings with people.

Iain H. Murray has often pulled off this feat in his many biographies of Christian men and women. Jonathan Edwards, C. H. Spurgeon, Archibald Brown, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Amy Carmichael among them. He has now done the same for J. C, Ryle.

Ryle was one of the most famous Evangelical Anglicans of his day. He became the first Bishop of Liverpool. His many tracts and books attracted avid readers all around the globe. Yet towards the end of his life and in the decades the followed he was regarded as something of a dinosaur. His 'old fashioned' beliefs and attitudes were dismissed as irrelevant for the times. 

In some ways Ryle was 'a man born out of due time'. A staunch Protestant, he seemed more like a Bishop from the days of Latimer and Ridley than Victorian Churchman. The Church of England of that period was in a state of flux. Newman and Pusey of the Oxford Movement were seeking to pull the Church in a Rome-ward direction. Theological liberalism was beginning to take hold, questioning the authority of Scripture in the name of the 'assured results of modern scholarship'. 

Against these trends Ryle dared to stand alone. He called the Church of England to remain true to its confessional heritage in the Thirty Nine Articles. But he was fighting a losing battle. When he became a Bishop, Ryle found himself torn between the need to be an ecclesiastical statesman, trying to hold together all the various parties in his diocese, and his principled stand for Protestant beliefs. 

Ryle never wanted to be a clergyman. It was only because his father's bank collapsed that he turned to the Church for employment. He was converted some years earlier when a student at Oxford University, but had no desire whatever to become a Minister. The Lord had other ideas. All doors closed to him bar one; that of becoming curate of a parish church in Exbury, Hampshire. Thereafter he served churches in Winchester, Helmingham, and Stradbroke, before being appointed Bishop of Liverpool. Just as his call to the ministry seemed a matter of financial expediency from a human point of view, so his becoming a Bishop was a political fix on the part of Tory Prime Minister, Disraeli. The politician was keen to avoid his Liberal opponent Gladsone imposing a ritualist on the growing city.  

But whatever man's motivations and machinations there can be no doubt that J. C. Ryle was called by God to proclaim the good old truths of the gospel to the people of his day. And it is those good old truths, held by the Reformers and Puritans so beloved by Ryle that have stood the test of time. For they are the mighty life-transforming doctrines of God's Word. Few bother to read the 'state of the art' works of nineteenth century theological liberalism these days, but Ryle's writings have been rediscovered and reprinted for a global audience. His Expository Thoughts on the Gospels are a model of straightforward applicatory exposition.  Historical  writings such as Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century have introduced readers to the mighty work of God that was the Evangelical Revival. His work on Holiness has helped to correct unhelpful emphases in Evangelical teaching on sanctification.

Although Ryle was a somewhat reluctant pastor, he threw himself unstintingly into the work. He was a diligent visitor of his flocks and a fully engaged in the life of the communities in which he served. He sought to preach with simplicity and verve, grabbing the attention of his people with lively illustrations. The preacher brought God's Word to bear upon his hearers' lives with punchy and direct application of the truth. In a day when Calvinism was rapidly going out of fashion, Ryle was not ashamed to identify himself with the Reformed faith, which he saw as essential for the life and witness of the Church. He seems, however, to have held to a 'hypothetical universalist' view of the atonement, rather than the 'definite atonement' view of full-blown Calvinism. 

Murray brings out the private trials and struggles of the public figure. A recently discovered memoir penned by Ryle for the benefit of his children has thrown new light on his early years. As a younger man, he was twice widowed and left in sole charge of small children. His time at Helmington was marked by tensions with the local bigwig who owned the living of the parish church he served. Throughout his long life he never really got over the shock and shame of his family losing everything when his father's bank collapsed. Although Ryle could be a combative figure, he felt himself lacking in social confidence. The 'man of granite' had his vulnerable side, which only served to make him a better pastor. 

Murray brings to the fore key aspects of Ryle's teachings and considers what we may learn from him today. Ryle was a keen believer in the Establishment principle and believed that nations should recognise God and his law. He would have preferred Spurgeon as a Baptist equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than no Established Protestant Church at all. I trust Ryle's Baptist contemporary would have demurred on the grounds of Baptist belief in the separation of Church and State. Ryle's position in the Church of England made him a somewhat conflicted character, especially when he became Bishop of Liverpool, His hopes of bringing together a mainstream bulwark against Anglo Catholicism and Liberalism were misplaced. The Church of England is no longer bound to uphold the Thirty Nine Articles that Ryle fought to maintain. His policy for recovering Anglicanism for the gospel didn't work and cannot realistically be used as a model for today's Evangelical Anglicans. 

Ryle was catholic spirited enough to transcend denominational boundaries and had more spiritual affinity with Liverpool Nonconformist leaders than many of the Anglican clergy over whom he presided as Bishop. His was a generous orthodoxy. Valiant for truth, but without ever becoming sectarian. That's why his writings have a timeless quality that has recommended them to a new generation of readers. Murray's biography helpfully brings out the man, the grace-touched soul, behind the impressive beard and many instructive books.

Venice, Rome and Ryle. So ends my summer hols reading roundup. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland

Abacus, 2016, 512pp 

More summer holiday reading. Still on the theme of our Rome/Venice half term break.

Ever read the second half of Romans 1 and thought, 'Hey, Paul, that's laying it on a bit strong'? I mean, all that stuff about idolatry, sexual immorality, hatred, murder and the like. Surely those old Romans weren't that bad? Worse, actually. The apostle was sparing his readers' blushes. Holland doesn't.

In his latest historical blockbuster the historian tells the tale of the House of Caesar. Put simply, they weren't very nice people. What Senneca said regarding the worst of them, Caligula, might well be applied to the rest in some measure, 'Nature produced him...to demonstrate just how far unlimited vice can go when combined with unlimited power.'

Holland unfolds the story of Augustus' dynasty with his customary flair for writing a well researched historical account that is borne along by a surging narrative flow. Full of detail and drama.

By his victory at the decisive battle of Philippi, Gaius Octavius brought an end to the civil wars that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar. He then  claimed for himself the  ultimate prize in Rome. While Augustus (as Gaius became) paid lip service to the traditions of the Republic, he accrued to himself the powers of an absolute monarch. Anyone who stood in his way was eliminated. Plotters and would-be rivals were ruthlessly dispatched. Those who succeeded him; Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero followed suit.

You think the jostling for position among leading Tories after the Brexit vote was sharp elbowed; Gove and Johnson and all that? Playground fisticuffs compared with the deadly goings on in the House of Caesar.

Holland's work could be read as a meditation on human nature. An extended commentary on the saying, 'Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.' That certainly rings true for the Caesars. Not even their nearest and dearest were spared. Brothers had their sisters murdered, uncles their nephews and nieces. In the case of Nero, he had his own mother bumped off and in a fit of temper battered his pregnant wife, Poppaea to death. To say nothing of how they treated their enemies.

Ovid, for ever wanting to push the boundaries of taste and decency said, 'We always want what we're not allowed'. A profound commentary on human nature. Augustus passed a law against adultery, and yet demanded that his sexual appetites be sated by a steady supply of nubile young women. Tiberius posed as an upstanding embodiment of old Roman virtue, yet spent his last days living out his depraved sexual fantasies. Caligula openly reveled in excess of all kinds. Nero tried to replace the wife he murdered with a male eunuch.

Ovid was right. In his Letter to the Romans Paul wrote, "Now the law came in to increase the trespass" (Romans 5:20). The divine 'thou shalt not' provokes the response 'why shouldn't I?' Paul testified to own experience of this, "Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, 'You shall not covet.'” (Romans 7:7).

But hang on a minute. Augustus and co didn't exactly have the Ten Commandments inscribed on their villa walls. How can they be said to be deliberately transgressing the law? A clue may be found in Ovid's statement cited above. His 'allowed' suggests moral force. Paul in Romans 1:18-32 argues that pagans knew right from wrong, and yet deliberately chose what was wrong; idols over God, unrighteousness over righteousness, what was unnatural over the natural etc.

The apostle elaborates in Romans 2:12-16. God had 'by nature' written the law on the hearts of Gentiles and their consciences bore witness to that law, accusing or excusing them accordingly. The problem wasn't that Ovid and Caligula didn't know any better when it came to immoral conduct. Rather, the very prohibitions of the 'light of nature' provoked them to want what they were not allowed. That is part and parcel of the perversity of human sinfulness. The history of the House of Caesar, indeed all human history bears witness to that sad fact.

That is why placing too much power into the hands of one person is always a recipe for disaster. Political systems need checks and balances in order to rein in the worst excesses of human nature. The period of the Roman Republic was hardly a Golden Age of love and peace, but at least the system that Augustine and his line supplanted had some checks and balances.

Dynasty is great background reading for the New Testament period. Holland references Jesus and his teaching and describes the persecution of Christians under Nero. The text is sprinkled with Bible references. Spookily, Holland brings his account to a conclusion with a nod to Revelations 17, which sprung to mind when reading Peter Ackroyd's Venice.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. Sometimes you feel like you are wading through blood and guts. Holland doesn't flinch at detailing the seamier side of Roman life either. A kind of 'Horrible History' for grown-ups, 'The Dreadful Dynasty'?

What made Augustus and his line so dreadful was the rampant power of human sinfulness let loose. The Caesars styled themselves as lords of their people and sons of a god. They attained their elevated status by ruthlessly grasping for power and keeping hold of it at all costs. Paul visited Philippi, site of the famous battle and planted a church there. Roman soldiers were given the right to settle in the city, which became a colony of Rome. Members of the church were both citizens of Rome and citizens of heaven. As citizens of heaven they acknowledged another Son of God, Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, Philippians 3:20-21. Jesus showed an altogether different attitude to power and prestige to that of the Caesars, Phil 2:5-11. He who was in the form of God took the form of a slave to die for his people. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place of honour in the universe.

The apostle wrote to the believers in Philippi that they were to, 'Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus'. They were to eschew selfish ambition and seek honour through humility and service, Philippians 2:3-4. For the Caesars, especially Caligula and Nero, overweening pride came before a terrible fall. The Christian gospel turns the world upside down by teaching that down is the only way up. As Jesus taught, "The meek shall inherit the earth." (Matthew 5:5).

As he wrote his letter to the Romans, Paul sensed the vulnerability of the Christian community under Nero. What chance did they have against the brutal princeps of Rome? Yet he assured them they they were held in the grip of something more powerful than the spite of the Emperor. Nero might label them as enemies of mankind and have them thrown to the lions, doused in pitch and set alight, but nothing would be able to "separate them from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35-39).

The House that Caesar built lies in bloodsoaked ruins. Its legions have long perished. Its monstrous deeds stand condemned by history. The kingdom of the wolf is no more. The Lamb is in the midst of the throne. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

Vintage, 2010, 498pp

Venice. I confess that I've spent longer getting acquainted with the city through Ackroyd's book than in the actual place. Strange that it was on the sun scorched beaches of the Algarve that I got to know more about Venice than when we visited the place.

We were only there for a few days as May ebbed away and June began to flow. One half of a Rome/Venice  split break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Sarah and I left having been entranced by the Serene City,  determined to drop by again sometime.

Revisiting Venice with Ackroyd as a guide has added retrospective depth and interest to our fleeting stay. 

If depth is the right word for a city intent on sliding down the surface of things.

Ackroyd peers through the mists of time to trace the myth-shrouded origins of Venice. Founded by people seeking refuge from Barbarian hordes, the city rose from the sea on the back of countless wooden piles, driven into the ocean bed.

Numerous islets were melded into one island city. Ancient rivers and streams became the arterial canals that made Venice throb with life.

The very existence of the city is an act of defiance against the forces of nature. The sea ever threatening to return it to the marshy bog from whence it came. The siren's call alerts Venetians to the danger of flood. In 1966, the year of my birth, a great tidal deluge saw the  waters rise by almost 2 metres, inundating many properties. Cue renewed fear and  foreboding over the city's future.

A sense of being under threat from the elements helped to unite the populace from the beginning, making the people willing subjects of an intrusive political system, headed by the doge. Only as a united body could they hold out against the sea. Against all comers.

Venice exists distinct from and above the sea. It must. Yet it could not exist apart from the sea. Its buildings are clad in limestone and marble, products both of the force of the sea. Venice is famous for its glassware, especially the island of Murano. Ackroyd describes glass as 'material sea'. The light captured on canvas by the great painters of Venice shimmers and glitters like light dancing on the waves of the sea.

From the start Venice was a trading city. Sea trade. Goods were shipped from East to West and back, laden with all manner of goods, exotic and ordinary. Vast fortunes were made. Venice became a hive of industry, building ships at unprecedented speed in the Arsenal.

The juxtaposition of East and West can be seen to best effect in Saint Mark's Basilica. A Roman Catholic Church replete with golden icons and Orthodox domes. The four horses that adorn the top of the entrance way were plundered from Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. 

Sliding down the surface of things. Venice was synonymous for its processions, carnivals and masked balls. Cassanova and all that. The politics of the city in its Republican heyday was as theactrical as any play or opera. Venice was a place to see and be seen. Today it's in danger of existing only to be gazed at and serve as a splendid backdrop for tourists' selfies.

Its empire was not the expression of some noble idea of bringing enlightened civilisation to other poor, benighted lands.Trade was key. Careful diplomacy and when necessary a striking show of arms were deployed to that end.

The chapters vividly describing Venice's voracious appetite for trade put me on mind of Revelation 17-18. There John the Divine ransacks the old prophets' denunciation of Babylon, Tyre and Sidon to depict Rome and through Rome, the world. Her rapacious trade, bloodthirsty violence and seductive harlotry made the city ripe for a fall. Venice too is here. She used to sell to the world, now she merely sells herself. The artists of Venice loved colour. Titian-like, John shows us 'a woman clothed in purple and scarlet, the great harlot who is seated on many waters.' Do the campanile bells ring at that description, I wonder?

Venice is the very epitome of a city. 'Pure City' as Ackroyd calls it. Cities are the pinnacle of human achievement. They show what is possible under what Calvinist theologians have called you 'common grace'. Venice had its finely tuned political system, innovative industries, magnificent architecture, high arts, and enriching trade. To this day it really is a dazzling place. But you can't help notice that there is something slightly impure about it. Murky, even. The city's focus is on itself, lost Narcissus-like in its own watery reflection. Appearence is all. This is what the Bible calls the 'world', which is strangely attractive and yet repellent. Ackroyd can't quite hide his moral distaste for a city he evidently loves so much.

In one of his letters, John warns his readers not to love the world, 'the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions'. 1 John 2:15-17. He could have been describing Venice. The same words could be used to describe all cities, towns and villages,  for they are each the sum of their fallen human parts. Few cities match Venice for stately grandeur, yet it floats precariously on a grimy bog.

You can get lost in Venice. Spirituality and literally. We did in the latter sense; trapsing around seemingly endless streets in search of Saint Mark's Square, but never seeming to get anywhere. It was comforting to read that  Ackroyd has had the same experience. Only on water is it possible to find your way around. Via speedy vaporetta.

Better still by taking a gondola ride. At night. The darkness punctuated by points of gentle light. The gondolier's friendly patter, 'This is the Bridge of Sighs...here is Marco Polo's house..I love my Venice.' The sound of water under the boat. The splashing of oar in canal. Then silence. At that moment Venice becomes the Serene City once more. You couldn't think of anything more romantic

But the moment of peace is only temporary. There is money to be made. We had to engage in negotiations before our ride. Not on the price. There is no negotiating on price. I didn't have enough Euros left. That wasn't a problem said our gondolier. He knew of a charge-free cash point on route and could pause to let me get some money out. He knew aright, and so we had our ride. Maybe he'd been 'had' by British tourists doing a runner before. I had no intention of doing so once we had finished the tour, but our perfectly affable gondolier seemed worried that we might. 'You pay me!' he anxiously cried out after us. There speaks Venice.

On my study wall hangs a fine print of Titian's portrait of John Calvin as an older man. At lest he looks old as depicted. Lined face, graying beard, thoughtful, melancholy eyes. Although I discovered after buying the picture that the image may not be that of the Genevan Reformer after all. Just some random old bloke. The words 'Giovanni Calvino' were added later, apparently. In Venice not even Calvin is all that he seems.

The city was happy to tolerate Protestants. Trade links were forged with Holland, Germany and England. Cromwell's ambassador hoped that Venice would come to embrace the Reformation. But it was not to be.

If Venice may be likened to a prostitute, somewhat incongruously the city was wholly devoted to worshipping the Virgin Mary. Images of her are everywhere; churches, bridges, public spaces, private homes. Although tetchily independent of the Pope in Rome, Venice was thoroughly Roman Catholic in its Marian piety. Ackroyd quotes the impressions of seventeenth century evangelical visitor to Venice, William Bedell, who complained of the 'multitude of idolatrous statues, pictures, reliques, in every corner'. Idols. What the Old Testament prophets denounced as 'whoring after other gods'.  Machiavelli commented that Italians were 'irreligious and corrupt', to which Ackroyd adds the rejoinder that Venetians were 'religious and yet corrupt'.

For all that, what is to compare with the city which sits in decaying splendor on many waters? Its maze-like streets,  weave through the city like corridors through time. Every building seems pregnant with history; from the old houses that flank the Grand Canal to the magnificent doge's palace. Saint Mark's piazza at night. Disclosing its beauty twice, once to the direct gaze of its visitors and again as reflected in the waters that gather darkly on its flagstones. While the music plays. If the stones of Venice echo the words, 'pay me' they also resound to the sound of of Vivaldi.

But this town is becoming like a ghost town. Tourists staying on the island way outnumber residents, many of whom have drifted  to the mainland. The population has dropped from 174,000 in 1951 to 55,000 today. If the trend continues there will be hardly any local people left on the island. Venice will cease to be a living city.  Little more than a glorified museum. Existing simply to be looked at. Sad, but maybe there's something quite fitting in that. Recent news reports speak of residents fighting back, however, putting up signs saying, "Tourists go away!" Understandable, no doubt. But like that's going to happen. Venetians of all people should know better than to try and hold back the tide.

Ackroyd is a fine guide to the city. He seems to have captured the very essence of the place. Even at its most solid in brick, glass and stone, Venice sits uneasy, foreboding; for its essence is that of the sea. Restless, fickle, devouring.

The author struggles to see any purpose in it all beyond the primal instinct to survive. He discerns no guiding hand of Providence determining the rise and fall of nations, only a bewildering coming together of innumerable causes. As Calvin would have told him, the Lord works through secondary causes to advance his will. But his ways are often a mystery to us and  admit no trite interpretation. The psalmist testified, 'Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.' (Psalm 77:19).

Of one thing we can be sure. Contrary to its sometime vaunted claim, crumbling Venice is not the New Jerusalem. According to the Book of Revelation, that Pure City will not ascend from the sea, but descend from heaven, adorned as a bride for her husband. Then the sea will be no more. (Revelation 21:1-4). We read that the glory and honour of the nations will be brought to the City of God. (Revelation 21:26). Does that mean there is some hope yet for sea-lapped Venice?

The blurb on the back cover of Ackroyd's book suggests that reading it is a holiday in itself. Reading it while on holiday perhaps made it doubly so. But it's one thing to study Venice and quite another to see her. Before the sea is no more and the cites of this world sink to dust and dregs, we would like one day to return and gaze upon the folorn beauty of Venice.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Armação de Pêra

Right, then. Sarah and I are off to Armação de Pêra on the Algarve for a bit. Looking forward to chilling, swimming, exploring and reading, etc. Only means of communication: speaking loudly and gesticulating wildly at the natives. Usually works. I'll hit 50 while we're away. Had better check holiday insurance to make sure we're covered for a midlife crisis. Grateful that Sarah's shingles cleared up in time for us to go.