Saturday, 28 January 2017

Further reflections on the demise and decline of the Open Brethren in the Hornchurch area

And now I come to the matter, a very controversial one, of the Brethren Elder.  I was told last year by a former leader at Emerson Park Chapel (EPC), that the Brethren had invented the Brethren Elder, who is not found in Scripture. If I understood him correctly, the Brethren Elder was created by men not God, and the Brethren Elder took on a life of his own that went way beyond Scripture. Doc Rowdon believed that the Brethren Elder could be a great blessing but also a curse. He told me that in some assemblies a Brethren Elder could bring mayhem and misery, especially those who loved "the sound of their own voices".  Some Brethren Elders, it seems, gained an unhealthy control over people's lives, lorded it over the flock, and laid down rules and regulations that were burdensome. They were neo-pharisees.

My mother-in-law once told me that members of the assembly feared a visit by the Brethren Elders. Books would suddenly be hidden, and in some homes the radio was covered up or quickly removed to another room. It sounds like a visit by the Spanish Inquisition. And you never knew when they might turn up. (Yes, I'm thinking about the Monty Python sketches.)

 There were some elders at EPH who seemed to me, when I was in my twenties in the 1970s, men with a sense of humour deficit who had a double dose of the 1950s but they never really enjoyed the 1960s. They never wore any denim, often dressed in suits, had no time for progressive music, had no knowledge of the cinema, and in my honest opinion took themselves far too seriously.
The usual response to the comment that they took themselves far too seriously would be, "well, I serve a very serious God." It is a response that the great Puritan scholar John Owen used.

So I regarded these elders as really square dudes, perhaps cubed, who were reactionary, and in some ways like the Pharisees and Sadducees of New Testament times. In their defence, it could be argued that they were reactionaries who rightly reacted against worldliness, the spirit of the age, secularism, modernism, liberal theology, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, sexual deviance, adulterous relationships, perversion and many forms of ungodliness. They stood squarely behind Mary Whitehouse and the Nationwide Festival of Light. They did, however, fail to understand the Life of Brian, which was banned at the time of release in Southend, Essex. "Blessed are the cheesemakers."

One Brethren assembly, in the Hornchurch area (Bethany Chapel) I was told, insisted that all the elders should be married men. It was apparently established because these elders often had to handle sensitive cases and disciplinary issues involving intimate marital and family matters. Dr Harry Rowdon, a bachelor, would have found this totally unacceptable and unscriptural, against many Christian practices throughout church history. Was not our Lord Himself a single man? Were not some of the apostles single men? In some traditions celibacy is well regarded, sometimes as a higher calling.  Hardline positions in some Brethren assemblies alienated them from the wider Christian family.

On the ecumenism or ecumenical matters, the Open Brethren were generally strongly against working with all denominations, especially those who did not embrace evangelical theology and what was considered to be "the faith once delivered to the saints."  Roman Catholicism was opposed as holding to doctrines contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible and the Gospel message of salvation by grace through faith unto good works, but in no way by good works or by religious adherence to church traditions. Any church that did not have a very high view of Scripture, holding that the Bible is the truly reliable (most Brethren would say infallible) rule of faith, not tradition, would be regarded as unsound and in error. Therefore only links with like-minded evangelical fellowships were established. This, therefore, ruled out any membership of Churches Together, marches of witness with non-evangelical denominations, and evangelistic enterprises such as Alpha. I cannot remember any support for the Hornchurch Passion Play, which started in the 1990s.

In time, I would argue, the Open Brethren in Hornchurch and throughout Havering became rather isolationist and inward looking. They created a safe and secure haven for evangelicalism but somehow lost their cutting edge, social relevance and impact in the community. They became an irrelevance, to some extent, because they were not scratching where people were itching; they became staid, looking at life through the rear view window and completely failing to pass on their message and world view to the next generation. They were not retaining their young people at all.  In studies of Brethren fellowships throughout the country, the Open Brethren has had very little impact, in terms of conversions and membership, with regard to young people and young adults in the 17 to 27 age group, even into those in their early thirties. This is, of course, now true of many, but certainly not all, Christian denominations and fellowships, and the problem has been identified as a crisis facing the church.

Friday, 27 January 2017

The decline and demise of the Open Brethren in the Hornchurch area - continued

My questions about the decline and demise of the Hornchurch Brethren have been on my mind for many years, and I now think that my own and my wife's experiences of the Open Brethren have helped me to understand many of the issues and problems that they faced.

Why were we not attracted to Emerson Park Chapel (EPC), which was so near our home? That is a key question in my mind. EPC was soundly evangelical, evangelistic, biblical, Trinitarian, sacramental in having a high place for believers's baptism and the Lord's Supper (the breaking of bread, the eucharist, Holy Communion), and it had a strong Christian voice in the local community. It had a well attended Sunday school and, as I have mentioned in my previous post, had excellent speakers and guest preachers.

The first reason I did not wish to join it or become involved in the EPC assembly was its anti-charismatic theology and its tendency to believe in a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Scripture.
In the 1970s the charismatic movement was gaining strength and was, in my view, becoming main stream in some Anglican and non-conformist churches. It became deeply embedded in the Evangelical Alliance, in the March for Jesus events, and many house churches.  The house church movement had a number of former Brethren leaders who became highly critical of the Open Brethren's resistance to change and particularly its opposition to "charismatic renewal".

I understand that at EPC there was resistance from the eldership to discussing charismata (the gifts of the Spirit) and the work of the Holy Spirit in healing, miracles, signs and wonders. One elder apparently wanted to forbid such discussion completely. One lady, now with the Lord, told me that this was the last straw for her. She and her husband left EPC, and she considered that the assembly had quenched and grieved the Holy Spirit. The seeds of their decline had been sown. One could argue that EPC had pushed the self destruct button at this point.

Another issue was women's ministry, or the place and position of women within the Brethren assembly.  The classic Brethren position is that a woman is forbidden to preach, to deliver a sermon.
Some Brethren elders believed that women should remain silent at all times and at all meetings, except for women's meetings of course. At EPH women were allowed to speak if they were missionaries on furlough, singers and musicians, and those under the direction of an elder giving a testimony. It was clear the elders were in charge and in complete authority.

Here we come to the question of authority.  The Open Brethren contended that no women had authority over a man, whether it was in the home, in business, and the assembly. Yet I have been told by several people raised in Brethren families that the wives of the elders were shrewd in allowing their husbands to think that they were in control, but in reality these wives often had their husbands doing what these wives wanted, and sometimes the men were "under their thumbs".

In the latter part of the twentieth century daughters of Brethren elders became more highly qualified than their fathers, or at least as qualified academically and through in service training. These women held jobs with responsibility, status and authority. Sometimes in the Civil Service, in commerce, in teaching and academia they outranked the men in the assembly, some of the elders.  A capable university lecturer or teacher with a clear ability to communicate would, therefore, be forbidden in Brethren circles to share her knowledge or to teach from the pulpit. Her knowledge, experience and talent would not be permitted to flourish in a Brethren assembly. Consequently such women left the Brethren.


Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Decline and the Demise of the Open Brethren in Hornchurch: some initial reflections

Coming to Hornchurch in 1975, having graduated from college and marrying the love of my life, I came into contact with the Open Brethren in the area. My wife spent a lot of time with an aunt in the Open Brethren who lived in Emerson Park, in a property that was used by the Hornchurch Girl Crusaders. The house in Herbert Road has about half an acre of land, though originally it had an acre with a lawn tennis court. It was used for Girl Crusader sports, firework parties and "squashes". Dorothy was a formidable spinster who had crossed swords, over the Girl Crusader movement, with the famous Welsh preacher Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones, then Minister of Westminster Chapel. Her father, a Brethren elder, had been headmaster of Romford Technical School, in Marshalls Park, and Dorothy had been head girl at Romford County High School in the time of Miss Frances Bardsley. At this time the Open Brethren had considerable influence in evangelical circles throughout Havering. Although Aunty Dot, as my wife called her, lived in Emerson Park she did not attend Emerson Park Chapel (EPC).  Aunty Dot attended what was then known as Ingrebourne Chapel, an Open Brethren assembly, now in the hands of Hornchurch Christian Fellowship and nothing to do with the Open Brethren. When my wife first came to the area she attended the Open Brethren assembly at Craigdale Hall in Romford, with her parents and her paternal aunts.

In the 1970s Emerson Park Chapel was arguably the flagship of the Open Brethren movement in Havering. It invited some of their top preachers and leaders in the Open Brethren to speak there. I remember hearing Dr Harold Rowdon, my pastoral tutor at college and a world authority on the Brethren, speak there. Doc Rowdon's doctoral thesis was on the origins of the Brethren and he was for many years a leading light in the Brethren Research Fellowship. My college was financed and supported by Sir John Laing, the builder and Brethren luminary. Professor F.F. Bruce, an eminent Brethren theologian, was the external examiner for my degree course. So there were considerable Brethren influences on my life.

The Brethren in the Hornchurch and Havering area were well established in business and in education. I met many school teachers who had Brethren connections. They were generally financially wealthy, lived very comfortably in large houses and were well educated. One could call them bourgeois, as they often had influence in the wider community and had good incomes. Some owned factories, the means of production, and thriving businesses, such as car dealerships.

So why have so many Brethren assemblies in Hornchurch and Havering closed? Why is there only one Brethren assembly in the London Borough of Havering? Why did a movement that produced so many leaders, preachers and elders lose its witness, chapels and "candlestick"? What happened to these people? Why did the Open Brethren in the Hornchurch area spectacularly fail to retain its congregations and baptized believers?

Through interviews, long conversations with former Brethren members, and academic research, I have tried to find out some of the answers to the above questions. I am very grateful to those who have patiently listened to my reflections and have helped me in this project. Sadly Harry Rowdon is now in a care home in Hampshire, at the time of writing, and not well enough to assist me in these theological reflections. I well remember his honest criticisms of and praise for the Open Brethren movement, which he loved deeply.

I will be writing my conclusions over the next few days, perhaps weeks. If you have any observations then I would be glad to hear from you.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Aye, it was a Burns Night to remember

Last Saturday there was a celebration at North Street Halls in Hornchurch, a Burns Night. Aye, it was a night to remember. On a very cold January night there was warmth and a good spirit of fellowship. And talking of spirit, well the whisky flowed. People enjoyed the drinks and the drams of their choice.

It was good to have Liz with me, my dear designated driver, who does not partake of anything alcoholic. Liz, currently church secretary at Hornchurch Baptist, was raised in the Welsh teetotal temperance chapel tradition. The lady I sat next to once worked for Bill Sawtell, the former estate agent and erstwhile church secretary at Romford Baptist Church. He never drank any alcohol. His younger son conducted our marriage ceremony, and his older son, sadly deceased, was a Rugby blue at my Oxford college. It's a small world.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Reasons to be fearful, perhaps tearful

Phobias are said to be irrational fears. Sometimes the word phobia is added to a noun to mean "hatred" or opposition to, rather than irrational fear.

Now Christians in some places in this world have good reasons to be fearful of certain groups and fanatics, crazy people who claim to want peace but, in fact, act in a violent and murderous manner.
There too many workers of iniquity, those who think that they are servants of God, acting on God's behalf, but they are, in fact, serving Satan. They are in a dreadful state, Intensely Satanic.

I have some rational questions for certain followers of a so-called religion of peace:
1). Do you believe in the death penalty for apostates?
2). Do you believe that women are inferior to men?
3). Do you believe that laws should be passed to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcohol?
4). Do you wish to see sharia law implemented in this land?
5).Do you think that it is wrong to question and to evaluate critically what has been written in the Quran?
6). Do you believe in free speech and freedom of religion, even if the speech and religion criticize your core beliefs?

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Rejoicing in the beauty of early morning skies on cold January days

His mercies are new every morning. Fresh and never stale. Great is His faithfulness.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Snow and Ice Castle was magnificent last season

Jan-Erik was punished for preaching a boring sermon in the Chapel.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Jill is now with her Dad with the saints triumphant

I remember Reverend Michael Saward, who became a canon, when he was an Anglican priest known for his controversial views on matters of sexuality. I appreciated his honest, humorous, open and refreshingly frank comments about faith, culture and contemporary morality. But there were some theological students of a fundamentalist, puritanical persuasion who despised his views. One of them wanted, as I recall, to put a hose pipe down his trousers.

It was sad to hear that in 1986, while he was a vicar in Ealing, that he was brutally beaten at the vicarage by vicious intruders. We now know that his daughter Jill was taken to a bedroom where she was subjected to humiliation, unpleasant sexual practices and rape.

Jill decided to let the general public know that her experience was not, in any way, an insignificant or minor incident but a truly traumatic and deeply psychologically wounding ordeal. A deep wound for life!
Jill was badly let down by Justice Leonard, Sir John Leonard, whose disgraceful comments at the trial of the perpetrators caused her more grief and pain. He added insult to injury, and finds a place in the hall of shame. It was not until 1993 that this judge publicly apologized for this "blemish".

Jill, in 1990, wrote Rape:My Story.

Jill was involved in restorative justice. She met her attacker and forgave him, but she believed in justice and appropriate punishment.

My thoughts and prayers are with her family at this time. Thank God for her courageous testimony.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Jill Saward campaigner RIP

Today we grieved over the death of dear Jill Saward who died after a stroke at only 51 years of age. Jill was a great campaigner for women's rights and treatment by the courts when they suffered sexual violence and rape. Jill waived the right of anonymity after her brutal rape ordeal in what was known as the Vicarage Rape Case. At the time society and the judiciary failed to appreciate the trauma, the suffering, the pain and the humiliation of rape. Sentences for rapists were woefully lenient.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Dele delivered the knockout goals

Tottenham Hotspur 2 Chelsea 0 at White Hart Lane

Dele scored two magnificent headers to beat Chelsea. Dele delivered when he formed an effective alliance with playmaker and provider Christian  Eriksen.

Tracking devices in the boots of Premiership players

My West Ham mates were incensed by the disgraceful standards of the officials last Monday.
When three players were offside and the second Manchester United goal was allowed to stand, well, questions have to be asked.

I propose that all players be fitted with micro-chip tracking devices. We would know then exactly where they are and where their feet are placed.  Technology like the Wimbledon hawkeye could be developed to eliminate all offside errors and to help good video review.

We need technology to help us. It is available, or it can be.  There is enough money in the Premiership, isn't there!

We can't go on with these dodgy and disgraceful decisions.

Mike Dean into the Hall of Shame

Mike Dean's bad day at the London Stadium last Monday will be remembered for his woeful refereeing. His red card decision in sending off Feghouli, the West Ham winger, was a howler, "totally wrong".

The second Manchester United goal was clearly offside. Photographic evidence shows three players offside.

It is time, high time, for technology to prevent and eliminate these howlers in the Premiership. So much depends on these games, and on Monday it was abundantly clear that Stefan Bilic was right to rage at the ref.

When there are key decisions then video review and the use of technology should be used. There is no excuse for these howlers, but a compelling reason to employ appropriate technology.


River Stour