Our Free Church Heritage - C. Kingsley Barrett

The Willersley Papers No 1

Our Free Church Heritage

C Kingsley Barrett MA DD FBA

Two questions arise in my mind as I begin to write this paper; and they may: well occur also to anyone who begins to read it. The first is why I have kept the editor waiting so long for it — for it is to some extent based upon an address that I gave to a gathering at Willersley Castle as long ago as March 1972; the second is why I should write it at all.

The two questions are not unrelated, for the second arises from the fact that by no stretch of the imagination could I be called an expert in English Church History, with all the story of the English Free Churches at my finger ends. Because I know my own limitations, I am ‘bound to recognize that I am hardly qualified to publish anything under the present title, and I have for a long time felt myself obliged to resist Dr. Beckerlegge’s pressing requests. To talk among friends, where one’s errors can be immediately corrected by experts, is one thing; to venture into cold print is another. Yet the subject is a vital one, and perhaps one should accept the risks.

If I have any qualifications to write on the subject it is that I have been brought up in the tradition of the English Free Churches, in "orthodox dissent”. Indeed it was in this field that (so far as memory serves me) I was first confronted by a historical problem. I cannot remember the time when it did not seem natural to look back to the dissenting ministers of the 1660’s, excluded from their ministry and from their livelihood by the Clarendon Code, not merely as heroes but as my own ancestors in the faith. This was what the ministry meant: one would accept-any lot, however hard, rather than act against conscience, rather than surrender that pastoral and evangelistic charge that had been committed to one by God. I do not mean that as a child I put it in those terms, but that is how I now put what I then felt, when, for example, I was taken at a fairly early age to see the graves of some of the heroic dissenters in the old. Bunhill Fields burying ground in London. After a time I acquired the dates: Corporation Act, 1661; Act of Uniformity, 1662; Conventicle Act, 1664; Five Mile Act, 1665. But here was the problem, for (both literally and metaphorically) I was taken across City Road from Bunhill Fields to Wesley’s Chapel, and learned that John Wesley’s evangelical conversion had» taken place in 1738. How then could those who suffered seventy years earlier be connected with us? — for we were nothing if not Methodists.

Since then I have, I hope, learned a thing or two, both about Wesley’s dissenting antecedents and about the subsequent history of Methodism. Great-grandfather Benjamin Wesley was the man who might have caught Charles II and prevented the Restoration had he been less long-winded in his prayers — after the Battle of Worcester the village blacksmith brought news of a suspicious stranger, but could not deliver his message till the Rector of Charmouth had ended family prayers, when it was too late. He was lucky: he could practise as a physician, but his son John’s sufferings hastened Benjamins death in 1671, and John (our John’s grandfather) was in and out of prison, died young, and was refused burial by the Vicar of Preston. In the next generation Samuel conformed, apparently with somewhat uneasy conscience. So did his wife Susannah, though she was the daughter of the eminent dissenter Samuel Annesley. So there was a good deal of dissenting blood in the veins of the founder of Methodism. He of course was a Church of England man, though it has been well said that he faced it like a rower, getting further from it with every powerful stroke he took. Methodist preachers and preaching-places were licensed under the provisions of the Toleration Act, designed to diminish the disabilities of those‘ who suffered under the Uniformity and Conventicle Acts. And throughout the nineteenth century, though there were always some Wesleyans who retained a deep affection for “Mother Church”, Methodists in general kept a close association with the older dissent, so that it is fair to say that till comparatively recently they thought of themselves as belonging essentially to the same group as Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. That at least was true of all the Methodists I knew as a boy and a young man, and when in Cambridge I had (the privilege of some slight contact with that greatest of twentieth century Free Churchman Bernard Lord Manning, 1 found him saying with incomparable eloquence, wit, and conviction what. I had always in a stumbling way believed. it will be noniore than just to add that any— thing worth reading in this paper comes. more or less, from Manning. and that the reader may be well advised to scrap it. and read Essays in Orthodox Dissent instead.

Methodists have, it may be, little right to adopt themselves into the dissenting family - less right now, perhaps, after a long flirtation with the Church of Eng1and, than they had a generation ago; but some of us at least would be sorry to relinquish our Free Church heritage, and this is sufficient reason for inquiring what it is. It is important to get the answer to this question right; it has too often been answered in half-truths, which can be more misleading than full untruths, even though when rightly evaluated they are not without their importance. Thus we may, and on occasion do, stress the absence of ornaments in our church buildings, our liturgical freedom, our radical politics. Historical justification can be found for all these points, and more than historical justification, but they belong to the circumference rather than the centre, and it is to the centre we must look. The following points are perhaps the most important in themselves, and the most valuable for us to consider.

First: there is in the Free Church tradition a lull acceptance of the principles of the Reformation. I have no space in this paper to sketch this theme historically, nor (as I have already indicated) am I competent to do so. ‘It is however a piece of history that ought to be known. and known far better than (for the most part) it is. Perhaps I may take the opportunity of commending, for those who do not know the story, Horton Davies’s little book. The English Free Churches (Home University Library 220; Oxford University Press, 1952). It was never the intention of those who were most serious about Reformation that their work should be done‘ outside the main stream of English Christianity, and there have always been those within that stream who sought to reform it. But the English Reformation in the hands of its official leaders (or those who harnessed it to their own ends) took on the whole a political direction. Henry VIII was concerned with dynastic problems and Elizabeth I with the unity of her threatened kingdom. England indeed never lacked those whose objectives lay elsewhere; they sought the full and speedy reform of the church by the pure word of God. These were the Puritans. The word has been much misunderstood and those who speak English can hardly be blamed if they follow Shakespeare’s lead. “Marry, sir”, says Maria of Malvolio, “sometimes he is a kind of puritan”. True, there is a qualification in “kind of”, and the context qualifies the identification further. But the point is made: Malvolio is a kind of Puritan; so a Puritan is a kind of Malvolio. The comparison does no justice to the truth. Puritan does not even mean a man of pure ethical life (though most of them did lead such lives); it was for the pure word of God that they were concerned. They were much less interested in salvaging what could be preserved from the medieval church (though they were not wild iconoclasts) and in supporting the Tudors (though they were patriotic Englishmen — read Charles Kings1ey’s Westward Ho!) than in building; or rebuilding, the church according to the plan God himself had made known. How, in practical terms, was this to be done under a government essentially political in its aims and among Christians some of whom plainly disagreed while others had no real interest in religious and theological questions? It is not surprising that good men disagreed and took different lines. Some said, The only practical policy is to stay in the church with the majority and reform it‘ from within; others, If we cannot have a fully reformed national church we must find our church elsewhere. These were the "conforming and non-conforming Puritans respectively, and the latter were the first -dissenters. They were mostly Independents, and some of them were Baptists.

The second great break occurred in the seventeenth century and is less clear cut, because the Presbyterians, who were then obliged to leave the Church of England, would on the whole have been willing to be the established church‘ if the state had been willing to accept them. As everyone knows, the established Church of Scotland is a Presbyterian church, though the Scottish establishment differs in important respects from the English. But in the end they broke from the 1660 establishment on the same grounds as those on which their predecessors had acted a hundred years before. There were men like Richard Baxter who were prepared to go a long way in the interests of unity, but they ‘were met by such inflexible obstinacy and arrogance on the part of the bishops. that servile submission was the only alternative to dissent; and dissent they did, from episcopacy and the Prayer Book.

Another hundred years and the Methodist revival led to a third exodus. It is not the purpose of this paper to describe our specifically Methodist heritage, and the events of the eighteenth century will remain undescribed. They may be said to represent the completion of a long drawn out English reformation, accomplished to a remarkable extent outside the established church. The earlier dissenters had owed much to Calvin. Not a few of them had lived in Ca1vin’s Geneva, which had opened its gates hospitably to refugees from ecclesiastical terror. There in the sixteenth century the Geneva Bible, one of the most notable predecessors of the Authorised Version, had been produced by the exiles. Lutheran influence had not been lacking; in the early days a little group had earned the nickname of “the Germans” because they met in the White Horse Inn in Cambridge to read Luther’s and other evangelical works. But it was Wesley who (though his knowledge of Luther was imperfect) inherited to the full the evangelical experience of the warmed heart, and thus brought new life into a movement that was threatening to petrify as stonily as the bishops (though in a different sense) in issues of church order.

More important than the precise course of the historical events that have now been very briefly sketched is the theological foundation on which they rested. Our dissenting ancestors were human and fallible, and it is no doubt true that sometimes, having embarked upon a course of action from unworthy motives, and sometimes without having thought of motives or reasons at all, they came back after the event and justified what they had done by any theological subterfuge they could think of; but for the most part they (and the same is true of many of their adversaries) arrived first at clear-cut theological convictions and then acted on the convictions they held. The convictions they held — and that held them —were the classical beliefs of reformed Christianity. Thus they began, as I have already said, from the Scripture principle — sola Scriptura. The church had to be reformed, not once but constantly, and the only authoritative reforming agency was the word of God, which was not merely an ultimate weapon kept in the background to prove that what the church taught was correct, but a positive and creative force, which only needed to be released in order to operate effectively on the life of Christians and the faith of the church. This is not to be dismissed as blind bibliolatry (though no doubt some of them fell into this error), nor as the unthinking replacement of an infallible church by an infallible book, a support for those unable or unwilling to think for themselves. It was a reasonable procedure. No one has ever seriously disputed (at least until modem times) that Christianity takes its origin in Jesus Christ, and that it must be defined in terms of this origin. The question thus becomes, Where is there an authoritative testimony to Jesus by means of which the life and thought of the church can be tested, checked, and controlled? There is no doubt that Scripture is one such authoritative testimony. Rome had set the church’s living tradition beside it; the reformers and their successors argued that the tradition had no such independent authority, and it is hard for a historian to maintain that they were wrong. Their reverence for Scripture as the positive norm provided them with means of dealing with what are now universally recognized as scandals in the medieval church, and it is important to see how it worked. Thus there is no question that the attempted enforcement of clerical celibacy had resulted ‘in shocking abuse: if priests might not have wives many of them would have concubines. The catholic reformation dealt with this situation by a determined reapplication of the old discipline. The house was set in order; clerical celibacy was enforced as real celibacy. There is much in this that is worthy of praise. The Protestant Reformation dealt with it by going back to origins, and inquiring whether the New Testament required clerical celibacy, whether indeed this was consistent with the Gospel; and a more radical reformation on quite different lines resulted.

The reformers, then, and the dissenters who looked back to them and ranged themselves on their side, accepted the authority of Scripture. But the Bible is a big book and its readers need some guiding principle. Again, our dissenting forefathers followed the reformers in taking as signposts in biblical interpretation the two principles of justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. They were not ill chosen. Without justification by faith there is no Christianity at all, for its meaning is that God is prepared to start with man where he is; whereas. if He determined to wait until man became good, or even showed signs of wishing to become good, He would have to wait while the human race sped on its way to perdition. God justifies, puts into a right relation with Himself, not the deserving but the godless, that is, man as he is. This means that the story of the renewal of mankind can indeed begin. Since, on this showing, the church is a body of justified sinners, all enjoying, not through their merits but by the mercy of God alone, a direct and saving contact with God, it will follow that it contains no spiritual overlords: every member is a priest, not simply in the sense that he enjoys his own private line to God but in that each is in an equal sense responsible for his brothers. A people that owes its origin to justification by faith can hardly be constituted on any other principle than that of the priesthood of all believers; and the two principles are truly scriptural and stand at the heart of biblical theology. It would take too long to show. how they were manifested, and occasionally obscured, in the life of the Free Churches. They were always acknowledged as authoritative, and nearly always treated as authoritative in practice.

Manning is not wrong in saying that these doctrines — the authority of Scripture, justification by faith, and the priesthood of all believers — focus in the doctrine of grace, the loving initiative of God, freely and equally available for all his people. This means, for example, that we start from the fact of grace in the faithful preaching of God’s word and use of the sacraments and argue from it — not to it, from an a priori conception of validity, which tells us that sacraments must be, but can only be, true means of grace if certain conditions, especially regarding the authorization of the ministry, are fulfilled. The theology of the Free Church tradition is essentially a theology of grace; and we need not hesitate to claim that in this it is faithful to Scripture. ’

One further observation may be made at this stage: as heirs of the Reformation the Free Churches have always concentrated on essentials; the unessential has been stripped away in order that that which is vital may stand out in unrivalled significance. There is but one Mediator; and if we have no time for Mariolatry it is not out of disrespect but because any rival must needs diminish the glory of Mary’s Son. There are but two sacraments, the sacraments of the Gospel; not because we think orders or marriage matters of no interest, but because nothing can, or ought to be allowed to, rival what the Lord himself ordained. The preaching of the Word is so awe-inspiring that it needs no liturgical tinsel to make it pretty and attractive. We have too often apologized for the bareness and simplicity of our chapels, and excused then on the ground of our poverty and our exclusion in the past from centres of taste and learning. We should not apologize_for bareness and simplicity, for our innocence of ornament, vestment, and liturgy. It is one of our glories that we have the good taste not to paint the lily, and the theological intelligence not to suppose that we can improve the Word of God by dressing it in frills.

The second main characteristic of the Free Church tradition is an intensity of personal conviction. This is a point made by Manning, and he is right. No one will easily forget his quotation (Essays in Orthodox Dissent, p. 87) from Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and the comment, “the Dissenter overdoes his nasty religion”. The Free Churches when they have been true to themselves never have been, and it is to be hoped that they never will be, entirely respectable. There are no places for the practice of cool moderation in religion, for the religion they practise is not the religion of all reasonable men, “natural religion”, but a religion rooted in the supernatural and in the historic events of redemption, a religion that, surveying the wondrous cross, pours contempt_

upon all those things on which man is most apt to pride himself. .It is not surprising that there should be a fairly constant trickle ‘of membership from Bethel to the Parish Church; the latter is easier to combine with respectable moderation than the former — not because there are none in the Parish Church who understand the meaning of personal religion, but because Bethel stands for nothing else. i “

It may be that Methodism, and ‘the Lutheran wing of reformed Christianity in general, have a special contribution here, for it is impossible to miss the significance of the evangelical experience and the warmed heart, nor can this be safely shut up in remote history. Wesley’s warmed heart is nothing to me, it is as meaningless as the apostolic succession, if my own heart remains untouched. Two of the most famous pieces in all evangelical literature are Luther’s comment on “The Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me”, and Wesley’s account of his Aldersgate experience. '

Read with great vehemency these words “me” and “for me”, and so inwardly practise with thyself, that thou, with a sure faith, mayest conceive and print this “me” in thy heart and apply it unto thyself, not doubting but that thou art of the number of those to whom this “me” belongeth.

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

“Me”, “for me”, “mine” -- and so on. Luther explicitly, Wesley by implication, means that there is no man who cannot put himself in his place, and know the love of God for himself.

Out of the personal apprehension of faith springs the principle of the gathered church, which historic Methodism has accepted. The Conference Minutes of 1747 include these questions and answers:

Q. Does a Church in the New Testament always mean a single congregation?

A. We believe it does. We do not recollect any instance to the contrary.

Q. What instance or ground is there in the New Testament for a national church?

A. We know of none at all. We apprehend it to be merely a political institution.

The second answer does not mean that Wesley would regard a national church as necessarily a bad thing, but it was not, in his view, inherent in the Gospel; it might exist if found convenient, but it was not essential, and might even in some circumstances be undesirable. In fact early Methodism provides the clearest example to be found in modern times of the gathered church. The members of society were in the plainest sense gathered out of the world by the power of the preached word. They became Christians not by being born in a Christian land but by being born again, and that not unconsciously as infants, but consciously in maturity.

Inevitably — and this is a third characteristic of the Free Church inheritance — the Free Churches are to some extent what external pressure has made them.‘ They, have been subject to a good deal of pressure of various kinds - the pressure of legal violence and of mob violence. and the pressure of public opinion. There has been positive reaction, in that sometimes the Free Churches have gone where they were pushed, sometimes into a kind of ghetto; and there has been negative reaction in that we have come to hold prescribed opinions with greater tenacity and obstinacy. Free Churchmen in the past have spent a long time in the wilderness, deprived of many educational and cultural privileges; it can hardly be surprising if a certain amount of uncouthness has resulted, if suspicion and mistrust have been created. It is partly in consequence of this that “it is sometimes hard for a Free Churchman to be sure whether what he dissents from in England is Establishment or Episcopacy” (Manning, Essays, p. 207). Of course, the answer is both.

As I have said, there is no single non-conformist View of establishment in principle. Given the right terms Presbyterians would accept it, and in Scotland do so. What the United Reformed Church, composed of Presbyterians and Congregationalists; makes of the question I do not know; historic Congregationalism, with the Baptist churches, has always provided the strongest resistance to establishment. All the Free Churches however are agreed in rejecting the kind of establishment that at present exists in England, on the ground that it allows to bodies outside the church powers which infringe not merely the prerogatives of Christians but also the “Crown Rights of the Redeemer”, the sole Head of the Church. We have always lived outside the established church, though it would be wrong to forget those Puritans, mentioned earlier, who sought to maintain their views inside the national church, and their successors in the ‘Church of England who in some respects share our own convictions. The Free Churches have seen their circumstances change from violent persecution to bare tolerance, from legal toleration to legal acceptance. There is an increasing measure of social acceptance today, and though it is not complete it should be accepted in a generous spirit. So far as it is limited it is limited often not by lack of friendliness on the part of the Church of England but by the cringing and subservient attitude adopted by some Free Churchmen who should know better — the Lambeth tame cats, as Hensley Henson called them. It is easy nowadays to transfer the question of the relation between the Church of England and the Free Churches to the social realm; it should not be forgotten that it is in fact a theological question, which has to do with the doctrine of the church and its relation to those outside it. It is to be hoped that the Free Churches will shed what remains of their defensive attitude and discuss theological issues on theological grounds.

One such issue is episcopacy. All the English Free Churches have maintained a non-episcopal churchmanship, and that not as a permissible but inferior variant allowed to those, who can do no better, but as the genuine New Testament church order. Their testimony to this non-hierarchical kind of order has been of priceless value, for a number of reasons. Its greatest value of course lies in its being true. The New Testament knows very little of bishops and those it does know bear no resemblance to the modem Anglican diocesan. The Free Churches look more like New Testament churches than Anglican Churches dog and it would be a pity if the more like were absorbed into the less. The Free Churches are better described as theocratic than democratic, for “democratic” means that authority lies with the people, and the Free Churches know that authority belongs only to God. Yet recognition of theocracy leads in practice to democratic procedures for it has nothing to do with oligarchy. God speaks to and through all the members of the church, however humble and to and through the church as a whole. It follows that every member has, ideally, a say in the government of the church, and this conviction, and this practise, have naturally led to the notion, which has been practised outside as well as inside the church, of government by deliberation and consent, so that the development of democracy in the English-speaking countries has owed much to the Dissenting bodies, who, standing outside the Establishment, were obliged by circumstances as well as by conviction not only to provide for themselves but to govern themselves. Even more important is the fact that it was easier for the Free Churches to remember that Christianity is a religion of grace not of law, Of course it is possible to be a fine New Testament churchman in an episcopalian church, and there are many splendid specimens; but it is harder, and the Free Churchman has a special responsibility to maintain the priority of grace.

A further point may be briefly made. The Free Churches are by definition not established by the state, but it may be claimed that they have not failed in their responsibility to the state. In the earliest years dissenters were excluded from public office, but the removal of their disabilities saw them flooding into service of all kinds. In addition to the various services that men may render, in the legislature, the judicature, the armed forces, the professions, and in ordinary activities pursued with integrity and charity, two things in particular may be mentioned.

The highest service any church can perform for any state is to preach the Gospel within it, to keep the Word of God free and audible for all to hear. This is the basic debt owed by the church to the world, and it is perhaps not too much to claim that, having regard to their numbers, the Free Churches have discharged more than their share of it. There have been many English communities, in town and village, where the only free and faithful preaching of God’s word has been in the Chapel, and though it would be ludicrous to claim that they have done all they should, the Free Churches have played no small part in taking the Gospel out into the streets and lanes. ‘the factories and clubs.

In addition to preaching, the Free Churches have given to the state the non-conformist conscience. We do not hear much of it now, but it was powerful once. The judgements of this corporate conscience were ‘not always right: we have never claimed infallibility, and we have never had it. The historian can look back and from time to time reach different conclusions; moral standards do change, not always for the worse. But it was no bad thing for this country that it possessed a large, vocal, and fearless group, who passed judgements on policies and persons not from the standpoint of expediency but from that of moral right and wrong, and were not afraid to express their views with their voices and their votes.

I do not propose on paper to speculate about the future, or even to bring this account of our heritage up to date by attempting a description of the present.‘ I have made some observations about the past — perhaps I have idealized it, and I have no wish to deny that our dissenting forebears were all of them — like one of the greatest — not without warts that blemished their appearance. But I have picked out of the past features that I for one would be sad to see perish. It is certain that our relations with one another; with the Church of England, and with the Roman Catholic Church will in the future be different from what they have been in the past, and the most faithful of Free Churchmen will rejoice most heartily in .the warmer, kindlier, more Christian atmosphere of the present. But we owe it not least to our brothers in other churches never to squander but to cherish and improve the inheritance I have described in these pages.

The above is an address given by Revd Professor C.Kingsley Barrett to a meeting at Willersley Castle in Derbyshire, 1972. 

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