The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Dispatches from Blighty: the Don and Driscoll

with 12 comments

Don Carson has weighed in on his friend Mark Driscoll’s recent comments (see also the craven follow up) about pastoral ministry in Great Britain; Phil Johnson chips in with his two-penn’orth here (pointing out the irony of the fact that the Gospel Coalition can overlook claims of divinely-inspired pornography in Driscoll’s mental cinema, can ignore his crass book on marriage, can sweep under the carpet his validation of a false-gospel preaching modalist, but is not prepared to allow the man to get away with casting nasturtiums on the manly vigour of us allegedly beardless Brits).

Anyway, Mr Carson has a longer history of significant connection with the UK than Mr Driscoll, and offers an alternative perspective. At the same time, Mr Carson is no more a native of the UK than is Mr Driscoll, and his perspective raises the quizzical eyebrow at one or two points, reflecting as it does his distinctive convictions. So, to use Mr Carson’s own language, “you might be interested in hearing another perspective,” while we are about sharing them. I include below Carson’s six observations, and offer some comments.

(1) Mark correctly observes the low state of genuine Christian confessionalism in the UK. Still, it varies considerably (as it does in the United States, though with lower figures over there). There’s a ring around London in which close to 10 percent of the people go to church, many of them evangelicals; the percentage in Northern Ireland is higher, though falling. By contrast, in Yorkshire the percentage that goes to church once a month or more is 0.9 percent; evangelicals account for only 0.4 percent. Both figures are still falling. This is comparable to the state of affairs in, say, Japan.

I am not sure that Mark had much at all to say about “genuine Christian confessionalism in the UK.” I am not sure what Mr Carson means by “genuine Christian confessionalism” but if he is referring to a genuine adherence to one of the classic statements of Reformed doctrine among Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists, he is seriously overstating his case. I mentioned the claim that there is “a ring around London in which close to 10 percent of people go to church” – perhaps we might call it ‘the ring of choir’? – to a group of mainly London pastors yesterday, and – subject to queries about how wide the ring is, where it might be placed, what sort of church is involved, when these people go and how often – the claim was substantially laughed out of court. I should be fascinated to know where these statistics come from, and what lies behind them, but they painted an overly rosy picture for the men I asked.

(2) The phenomenon of the state church colors much of what is going on. Whether we like it or not, in England itself (the situation is different in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) the Church of England is the source of most heterodoxy and of much of the orthodoxy, as well as of everything in between. It has produced men like Don Cupitt and men like Dick Lucas. Exactly what courage looks like for the most orthodox evangelicals in that world is a bit different from what courage looks like in the leadership of the independent churches: their temptations are different, their sufferings are different. Although I have found cowardice in both circles, I have found remarkable courage in both circles, and the proportion of each has not been very different from what I’ve found on this side of the Atlantic.

Mr Carson correctly identifies the phenomenon of the state church as a real issue. However, I would seriously contend with his assertion that “the Church of England is the source of most heterodoxy and of much of the orthodoxy” in England. In my experience, there is far more heterodoxy and theological blancmange than anything else coming out of the Church of England, despite the existence in it of men of the calibre of Dick Lucas; to call it the source of “much of the orthodoxy” in England is over-egging it more than a little. He makes the good point that courage may look different in different spheres, although I think that a bit more readiness to walk away from the culture of compromise in the national church would do some good to all involved.

(3) As for young men with both courage and national reach: I suppose I’d start with Richard Cunningham, currently director of UCCF. He has preached fearlessly in most of the universities and colleges in the UK, and is training others to do so; he has been lampooned in the press, faced court cases over the UCCF stance on homosexuality, and attracted newspaper headlines. Then there’s Vaughan Roberts, rector of St Ebbe’s, Oxford, in constant demand for his Bible teaching around the country. I could name many more. In Scotland one thinks of men like Willie Philip (and he’s not the only one). Similar names could be mentioned in Wales and Northern Ireland.

I am curious as to the Don’s circle of contacts if the men he mentions in England are all associated with the national church. I could mention a good number of young and older men of real courage and conviction among the Independents, but some of them – precisely because they are men of courage and conviction – may not be moving in the circles in which Mr Carson moves, or which might receive his blessing.

(4) More important yet, the last few years in England have seen the invention and growth of the regional Gospel Partnerships. In my view, these are among the most exciting things going on in England at the moment. They bring together Church of England ministers and Independent ministers who are passionate about the gospel, who see the decline, and who are crossing many kinds of denominational and cultural divides to plant churches (regardless of whether the new churches turn out to be Anglican or Free), and raise up a new generation of preachers. They are broadly Reformed. They are annoying the mere traditionalists on both sides of the denominational divide; they are certainly angering some bishops; but they press on. In the North West Partnership, for example, they’ve planted about 30 churches in the last eight years, and the pace is accelerating. That may seem a day of small things, but compared with what was there ten years ago, this is pretty significant, especially as their efforts are beginning to multiply. Elsewhere, one church in London has about 17 plants currently underway, all led by young men. The minister at St Helen’s-Bishopsgate, William Taylor, was formerly an officer in the British Army: there is not a wimpy bone in his body. The amount of flak he takes on is remarkable.

This is, for me, Mr Carson’s most contentious statement. These Gospel Partnerships are all the rage at the moment, and here we are asked to applaud those who “who are crossing many kinds of denominational and cultural divides to plant churches (regardless of whether the new churches turn out to be Anglican or Free).” But such applause must deliberately overlook the definite and even definitive differences between national or state and free church ecclesiology. These differences become even more pronounced when a Baptist considers the national or state church model. Perhaps I fall under the condemnation of Carson’s withering dismissal of “the mere traditionalists;” perhaps I simultaneously escape the watery label of “broadly Reformed,” which may be a fair trade-off. Let’s be clear: to know that churches where the gospel is being preached are being planted is no small joy. Furthermore, there are many Anglicans whom we esteem and admire for their courage of heart and clarity of thought on a variety of issues. But the idea that a principled Dissenter can overlook the inbuilt rottenness of Anglicanism as a system is a nonsense: the state church is, by its very nature, flawed. The nature of the church (its very constitution, including issues to do with the manner and reality of one’s entrance into and continuing participation in the visible body of Christ) is no insignificant matter, and the fact that it is too often treated as a moot point is dangerous. Here again, if I may also nod to the American scene, we may be dealing with those for whom “Coalition” or “Partnership” sometimes seems a weightier word than “Gospel,” and for whom the reality of the church is, if not overlooked, then perhaps underdeveloped. These may seem to be gains, but I fear that they are short-term gains which will leave long-term confusion and even damage.

Let me again be clear: I do appreciate true gospel preachers among the Anglicans, and my contention is not with people first, but with systems. I am properly impressed at the zeal and wisdom that my brothers show in evangelising and teaching and church-planting, and I acknowledge that it puts too many Independents to shame. But I do not think it any accident that now, as in the past, the most faithful and fruitful men in Anglicanism tend to be criticised, marginalised and even excluded; how I wish more of them would simply walk away and be free indeed! So I am willing to learn from the character and competence of such men; I am ready to benefit from their preaching and writing; there are times and places when I cheerfully congregate and cooperate with specific men; but I cannot abandon what I think is at stake: the very principle of the church and its nature, my concern over the generic credibility of national or state church in itself (qua church, you might say), and the specific incredibility of the Church of England.

I found something from Charles Spurgeon the other day. When I read it to my wife, she sighed in the way that only a wife can, commenting that she had not realised how mild my convictions really are. Said Spurgeon, at a prayer meeting in November 1868, on the eve of a General Election in which the establishment of the Church in Ireland was a live issue:

But there are some of us whose tongues will wax more eloquent because we are obliged to wait; and if this matter of the Church in Ireland be kept in hand for many a day, we shall be thankful, for it will come to the turn of the Church of England all the sooner: for we do not conceal our purpose,– we shall never rest until in England the Church is free, and until this spiritual adultery,– for it is nothing else,– by which the Kingdom of Christ is defiled, shall be for ever put away, and be remembered only as the darkest blot that ever disfigured the Church’s face. Pray earnestly for this blessing! I pray for it as devoutly as I ever asked for salvation. If I might but live to see the day when there shall be a free church in a free nation, and all this State-churchism done away, I could almost say with Simeon, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.’

C. H. Spurgeon, C. H. Spurgeon’s Forgotten Prayer Meeting Addresses (Leominster: DayOne, 2011), 24.

It does matter whether the churches we plant are Anglican or Free, because the issues are of pith and moment, especially considering the long-term purity and fidelity of God’s people.

(5) But there is a bigger issue. We must not equate courage with success, or even youth with success. We must avoid ever leaving the impression that these equations are valid. I have spent too much time in places like Japan, or in parts of the Muslim world, where courage is not measured on the world stage, where a single convert is reckoned a mighty trophy of grace. I am grateful beyond words for the multiplication of churches in Acts 29, but I am no less grateful for Baptist ministers like my Dad, men who labored very hard and saw very little fruit for decades in French Canada, many of whom went to prison (their sentences totaled eight years between 1950 and 1952). I find no ground for concluding that the missionaries in Japan in the 20th century were less godly, less courageous, less faithful, than the missionaries in (what became) South Korea, with its congregations of tens of thousands. At the final Great Assize, God will take into account not only all that was and is, but also what might have been under different circumstances (Matt 11:20ff). Just as the widow who gave her mite may be reckoned to have given more than many multi-millionaires, so, I suspect, some ministers in Japan, or Yorkshire, will receive greater praise on that last day than those who served faithfully in a corner of the world where there was more fruit. Moreover, the measure of faithful service is sometimes explicitly tied in Scripture not to the quantity of fruit, measured in numbers, but to such virtues as self-control, measured by the use of one’s tongue (James 3:1-6).

Agreed: there are dark places where a single glimmer of light is, in some senses, a greater demonstration of God’s saving power than it might appear in those places where the church has a relatively greater degree of freedom, however that freedom may be used or abused. This assessing on the basis of numbers is a modern and Western disease which reflects a far too commercial spirit in Christ’s church.

(6) Even where some ministries are wavering, it takes rare discernment to sort out when there should be sharp rebuke and when there should be encouragement. Probably there needs to be more of whichever of these two polarities we are least comfortable with! But I would not want to forget that the Jesus who can denounce hypocritical religious leaders in Matthew 22 is also the one of whom it is said, “He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope” (Matt 12:19-21)—in fulfillment of one of the suffering servant passages. My read is that in some of the most challenging places of the world for gospel advance, godly encouragement is part of the great need of the day.

And, insofar as Mr Carson’s words are intended as such, we gladly accept them where we can, settling down as we do so to a lovely cup of tea.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 31 January 2012 at 19:47

12 Responses

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  1. though I have only been to your kingdom once, I did wonder about the close to 10% statement. Also, you don’t sport a beard? Really? I bet you don’t drive a truck either.

    Rich Barcellos

    Tuesday 31 January 2012 at 19:54

    • What’s a sporting beard? Come to think of it, what’s a truck?

      I am British, sir, and therefore the face fungus will be a moustache of twirlable nature, the regular dress for more robust activity will be impeccable tweed, and the preferred mode of self-powered transport a sturdy velocipede for those occasions when a chap is required to move from A to B at more than a gentle stroll (reserving the little two seater for longer journeys at faster pace).

      Harrumph!

      PS I did like the reference to “your kingdom,” though – a good idea that others would do well to latch on to.

      Jeremy Walker

      Tuesday 31 January 2012 at 20:47

  2. I especially like the summary of Phi Johnson’s critique that you put in parenthesis. It’s worth memorizing as it is so well said. Driscol I fear may prove to be (if he has not already) the James Davenport or Edward Irving or Evans Roberts of our generation.

    Jeff Smith

    Tuesday 31 January 2012 at 22:25

  3. Excuse me…Evan not Evans Roberts

    Jeff Smith

    Tuesday 31 January 2012 at 22:26

  4. Jeff,

    I fear you may be right.

    Thoughtful piece Jeremy.

    On thing that ‘quite annoys’ me (see previous post for interpretive guide American friends). Carson, in interviews, and in writing, frequently talks, and writes about ‘confessional Christianity’, yet as far as I know does not actually subscribe to any historic confession (other than perhaps the ancient creeds, nor does the Gospel Coalition! Why so much talk of confessionalism at the same time as ignoring the Confessions?

    What is this unconfessional confessional Christianity? What is he contrasting with, or comparing to when he uses this terminology?

    Paul Wallace

    Tuesday 31 January 2012 at 23:34

  5. […] Dispatches from Blighty: the Don and Driscoll « The Wanderer […]

  6. […] Dispatches from Blighty: The Don and Driscoll A Brit on Britain. Probably worth a listen! I totally agree with Jeremy’s cynicism about some of the rather optimistic stats that have been quoted about British church-going in various places. […]

    Check out | HeadHeartHand Blog

    Wednesday 1 February 2012 at 10:58

  7. I think, perhaps, you need to rename your post “Dispatches from England” as you fail to reference the other national churches within Great Britain – the national church in Scotland is Presbyterian, not Anglican – which Dr Carson does attempt to address.

    (FWIW, I found Phil Johnson’s comments less than helpful:
    – Driscoll in offending cessationists shocker
    – Driscoll in offending cessationists shocker
    – Driscoll in offending conservatives shocker
    – Driscoll in offending people who are normally offended at his offensiveness but are now offended because he wasn’t offensive shocker
    – Driscoll in offending people when taken out of context shocker. )

    mrben

    Wednesday 1 February 2012 at 11:52

    • Thanks, Ben: I concentrated where Mr Carson does, on the situation in England. He does make passing reference to the situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but it is not where the bulk of his argument lies. For the record, I think that Erastianism undermines the vitality of any church, and so my concern is not simply with the Church of England.

      Jeremy Walker

      Wednesday 1 February 2012 at 14:01

  8. Paul,
    Just a comment about Carson and confessionalism in the interest of fairness….If I recall correctly I believe the gospel coaltion itself does have a confession that one must subscribe to in order to be included. I think you will find it on their website. It’s been a while since I looked but I think it is rather detailed. I will try to recheck that but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

    Jeff Smith

    Wednesday 1 February 2012 at 13:42

  9. Yes you’re right, Jeff, but Carson has been using this language for years, long before the Gospel Coalition was created, e.g. in The Gagging of God. It just seems to be a term that is bandied about, but yet one which, apparently, has no concrete meaning, or at least no generally agreed meaning.

    I know what I mean by it, but I’m not sure what he means by it, but based on the evidence it can’t be the same thing. I’m not even saying who’s right or wrong, just making the observation. It makes me uneasy.

    For example, how can Carson and the Gospel Coalition be representative (or perhaps even be the gatekeepers) of confessional Christianity when they hold views on revelation like that which Jeremy alluded to a few posts back, when at the same time NO historic, Church mandated confession holds that view?

    JP Wallace

    Wednesday 1 February 2012 at 14:28

    • Agreed. My only concern was to point out that GC does have a confession. I’ve only glanced at it and never read it in detail.

      Jeff Smith

      Wednesday 1 February 2012 at 15:28


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