March 27th, 2014
“I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story, there is a story-teller” –G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
“Perhaps your best work comes when you side step your ego and (focus on) someone else’s story.” – Sting, TED Talk
At last we begin.
This Sunday we’ll take a short break from our regular time of Q&A (don’t worry it shall return), and turn to the larger Story into which fits our Q&A’s, sermons, and all else we do. Officer candidates will come as part of their training. But the subject has import for our whole Body because it is the Story that makes sense of our stories–especially when our stories seem to make no sense.
Over the next 12 weeks, the elders will seek to summarize the Story God has been writing–the Story that tells of His intentions, frustrations, and work of Redemption–past, present, and future.
In last week’s Backstory we made a brief case for why a class on this comprehensive subject is worth the whole church’s time. Vital to grasping and living out our vision for Faithful Presence is recapturing a vocabulary for faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith introduces and unspools that vocabulary for us as it outlines the foundational notions of our faith.
But another reason surfaced this week, and from one whom we’ve been glad to reference often recently: David Brooks (yes, him again–he’s on fire!)
Brooks took stock of the recent TED conference hosted in Vancouver. While that organization prides itself on seizing the future, Brooks noted an interesting departure from the typical tone of the 16 minute talks, and especially from that given by Sting. The celebrated and enduring rocker confessed in his talk how his ostensibly bottomless well of musical inspiration had dried up for an extended season. It was only by reflecting on his roots as a young boy in northern England did the spring begin to bubble again. The look back paved the way forward; there was a kind of power from his story, but more specifically (and paradoxically) from within a story not his own. As the quote at the top of this week’s Backstory explains, the remedy to his musical malaise derived from a look outside himself. So Brooks ends his piece on the power of recovering our story with this:
“History is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by a reckoning with the past.”
We’re ever in need of God to revive our work. Storyline will hope to reckon with the redemptive past as it pertains to the redemption of our present and the final redemption in the future. Would you pray that the Story we begin to tease out this Sunday will serve that end? Click here for a syllabus of the class.
Why look for the contours of this Story in a nearly 400 year old document whose language requires as much effort to decipher as its meaning? Stories have value in themselves but their synopses do, too. The Westminster Confession of Faith is but one of many efforts in the history of the church to summarize that story–an impulse that’s not fallen out of style. That’s what a confession is: a distillation of the essence of the faith composed for the sake of preserving and guiding the church.
But how did we get the WCF? If it didn’t fall from the sky, what gave rise to its formulation? To save us time this Sunday I thought I’d summarize about one hundred fifty years of pertinent history in a few paragraphs. (Sounds responsible, no?)
The Confession was composed at a time of civil war in England, between the monarchy under the reign of Charles I and those loyal to the Parliament the king had sought to dissolve after years of political strife.
You might locate though the first rumblings of a need for a Confession in what happened nearly a century and half earlier when King Henry VIII succeeded his unexpectedly deceased brother Arthur, and in turn married his dead brother’s Spanish widow, Catherine of Aragon. When only one daughter, Mary Tudor, issued from their marriage–the rest only stillborn males–Henry sought to have that marriage annulled.
But when Henry VIII appealed to then Pope Clement VII to grant his request, the papacy refused, then much in obeisance to Spain. It was Henry’s chief advisor Thomas Cromwell who suggested that the king only enforce his own law that no authority may supersede that of the Monarch. So in 1534, Henry issues his Act of Supremacy which repudiated papal authority over matters of state and thereby declared Henry as head of the Church of England. The act authorized him to have his marriage legally annulled.
Meanwhile the Protestant Reformation is gaining a head of steam in England and Scotland, fueled by the rapid spread of Protestant thought coming from Luther’s Germany and Calvin’s Geneva. While Henry’s move might have seemed brazen to his Parliament, the rise of Protestant sympathies among members of Parliament made the King’s papal-banishing more appealing.
Henry then marries Anne Boleyn who, like Catherine before her, bears the king only stillborn males, save one live daughter, Elizabeth. So Henry only does the fashionable thing of his day: he has Anne Boleyn implicated and convicted of adultery, and summarily beheaded. His third marriage, this time to Jane Seymour, finally produced a male heir. When Henry dies in 1547, his son Edward VI ascends to the throne at the age of 10, only to die six years later.
Succeeding Edward is Mary Tudor (remember her?), the daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon. Inevitably out of part outrage for her father and part homage to her Spanish mother whose allegiance to the Roman Catholic church was unfaltering, Mary Tudor erupted violently toward the Protestant forces her father’s efforts had unwittingly helped to coalesce. Mary sent many Protestant theologians and pastors scurrying out of England and Scotland for safety, including one John Knox of Haddington, just east of Edinburgh, Scotland.
Knox had been a Roman Catholic priest who grew enchanted by Protestant reforms. Upon fleeing the wrath of Mary Tudor, Knox settled in Calvin’s Geneva where his appreciation for Reformation doctrine grew. When the more moderate Elizabeth I succeeded Mary Tudor in 1558, Knox returned in haste to his beloved Scotland and saw to a transformation of the church there at a more rapid pace than what was occurring to the south in England. A presbyterian way of church governance that distributed power among a plurality quickly gained traction in Scotland. Whereas in England the episcopalian model of consolidating power among individuals known as bishops prevailed.
While Elizabeth took a far more tolerant position toward her Protestant subjects, she had no interest in the more thoroughgoing reforms sought by the increasing number of what were called Puritans being elected to the English parliament. It was those Puritans who thought their prayers had been answered when in 1603 a man reared by Scottish Calvinists, James I (also James VI of Scotland), ascended to the throne of both England and Scotland (and Ireland). James quickly dashed those hopes, opting to reinforce the episcopal structures of church government preferred by his predecessors and which enabled him to maintain tighter control of the church. (It’s easier to manage even a spate of individual bishops than a host of committee-like presbyteries.) James made his terms clear when he wrote, “I will make them [the Protestants] conform, or else I will harry them out of the land, or else do worse, hang them.” James’ policies led some Puritans to flee the country in search of religious toleration–what we know as the Pilgrims.
James 1 dies in 1625 to be succeeded by Charles I. By the time of Charles’ ascendancy the foment for reform of the church had grown to such a fevered pitch that Parliament, now composed of an even greater number of reform-minded members pressed the king to call an assembly of learned theologians for the purpose of composing a document–a confession–that would provide both order and guidance for the church. (Yes, it was a different day.) Parliament therefore issued the Grand Remonstrance of 1641, calling for:
a general synod of the most grave, pious, learned and judicious divines of this island; assisted with some from foreign parts, professing the same religion with us, who may consider of all things necessary for the peace and good government of the Church, and represent the results of their consultations unto the Parliament, to be there allowed of and confirmed, and receive the stamp of authority, thereby to find passage and obedience throughout the kingdom
At first Charles complies but then reneges, even declaring those who opt to attend as guilty of a treasonous offense. Following six separate bills, each nullified by Charles, Parliament defies the king and convenes an Assembly.
For that and many other reasons, civil war erupts in 1642. While blood is being spilled on fields across the country, 150 commissioners from Scotland and England, representing multiple denominations–some traveling the long away around the island to avoid falling victim to the fighting–convene in Westminster Abbey in July, 1643. For six years they would meet in some 1100 sessions, with over 200 committees, to give as concise and yet comprehensive summary to what they considered the essentials of Christian faith.
The Assembly submitted its final work to Parliament in 1647. Their Confession of Faith, including both a Larger and Shorter Catechism, would be deemed an advisory document to Parliament for the better part of a decade, after which the time of the Long Parliament came to an end with the re-institution of the monarchy under Charles II.
While the stated intention of the Assembly’s work did not prevail, the Confession remains a constitutional document for most Presbyterian denominations today. It is, as all creeds and confessions are, an historical document, answering the abiding questions of faith in that day. As some have noted, it represents an impulse that every era of the church ought to follow: as new questions emerge, succinct and salutary articulations of how faith answers them become necessary. But even with new questions, some answers persist no matter the moment.
We are responsible to provide clear, coherent, and credible witness to the truths to which we cling, offering well thought and heartfelt answers to both the objections and anguish of our day. But as heirs of a document like the Confession, to no small degree beneficiaries of its provision, we will always be responsible to take in hand (and to heart) the answers offered in an earlier day.
Haven’t we only recently heard, “History is filled with revivals, led by people who were reinvigorated for the future by a reckoning with the past”? If God can speak through an ass, could He not also speak through a 400 year old Confession?
We had a ball last Sunday evening celebrating our new members joining CtK. If you’d like to see several pictures from the evening here, just click here. We think we’re on to something here and hope to make it a lasting tradition.
Finally, please continue to pray
- for Rachel Kull who had surgery earlier this week
- for Imelda Ottmers and Margarita Harris whose injuries are struggling to heal
- for Wanda Williams’ father recuperating from another surgery this week
- for the church in hostile places like Syria, N Korea, the Ukraine, and elsewhere
See you Sunday at 9:30,