Let me introduce a contemporary church situation in England, and go back a time (a few hundred years in fact) to give it its origin, a contrast, and a perspective.
I must take you back to William Bridge who is about as anonymous a Puritan preacher as you can find. Bare facts are the following, that he was born in 1600 and lived until he was 70. He had a first class mind, knew all the books of his library and rose early every morning – 4 a.m. – come winter, spring, summer, or fall. He was a student at Cambridge and then a pastor in Essex and Norwich. He was arrested for not being an Anglican. He was released and became pastor in Rotterdam in the church where Jeremiah Burroughs regularly preached. He returned to England in 1642 and preached until the Great Ejection twenty years later. He was one of the group of Independents at the Westminster Assembly. In 1657 his works were published in two volumes. It was not until 1845 that his works were reprinted. Then in 1989 Don Kistler reprinted those five volumes in his Soli Deo Gloria Publications. Today those reprints are very rare.
William Bridge is most accessible today by his ‘A Lifting Up of the Downcast’, one of the first Puritan paperbacks published by the Banner of Truth Trust over 55 years ago. It consists of messages that open up Psalm 42:11, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul? And why art thou disquieted within me?’ Since it was first written in 1648 it is claimed that it has sold over six million copies.
The blurb says of this excellent piece of pastoral theology, ‘William Bridge manifests great insight into the causes of the saints’ discouragement such as great sins, weak grace, failure in duties, want of assurance, temptation, desertion and affliction. A correct diagnosis is more than half the cure, but Bridge does not leave his readers there. He gives directions for applying the remedy.’
A Historical Place
Now let me home in on a contemporary church situation in England, to the Old Meeting House Congregational Church in Colegate, Norfolk. It was William Bridge who drew up the church’s covenant in 1643. He had spiritual oversight over this congregation but was not their pastor. On 28th June in that year Bridge and the fellowship of Christians in Colegate entered into the following covenant:
‘We, being desirous in the fear of God, to worship and service Him according to His revealed will, do freely, solemnly, and jointly covenant with the Lord, in the presence of His saints and angels
‘That we will forever acknowledge and avouch God for our God in Jesus Christ
‘That we will always endeavour through the Grace of God assisting us, to walk in all His ways and ordinances, according to His written Word, which is the only sufficient rule of good life for every man, neither will we suffer ourselves to be polluted in any sinful ways, either public or private, but abstain from the very appearance of evil, giving no offence to the Jew or Gentile, or Churches of Christ.
‘That we will all love, improve our communion as brethren, by watching over one another, and as need be, counsel, admonish, reprove, comfort, relieve, assist, and bear with one another, humbly submitting ourselves to the government of Christ in His churches.
‘Lastly, we do not promise these things in our own, but in Christ’s strength, neither do we confine ourselves to the words of this Covenant, but shall at all times account it our duty to embrace any further light on truth, which shall be revealed to us out of Gods Word.’
The church was founded in 1643, but the red-brick chapel was not built for another fifty years after the Act of Toleration was passed in 1689. The building still stands with its dark wood and cream walls. There have been slight modifications. An organ, originally made in 1660, was purchased and built on the western gallery in 1838. As many as eight tablets commemorating earlier pastors and deacons have been set up around the church. The pulpit is high so that people in the gallery can see the preacher easily. It is entered by an equally tall staircase on each side. The pews are curving around it. It is an expensively built auditorium which speaks of the aesthetic sense, influence and sacrificial giving of the people whose faith caused it to be erected. Its beauty and craftsmanship has been one of the reasons it stands so unchanged to this day.
A Contemporary Need
All the above is the prologue and background to the situation today in the Old Meeting House Congregational Church, Colegate, Norwich. Its pastor since 2015, Dr. John Clements, called and told me of the church and the situation he is facing. Then, a month later, he attended the meetings that were centred on the father of English Puritanism, William Perkins in Cambridge on May 19 and 20 and so we met.
The situation in Norwich is demanding, somewhat typical of church life in the UK today. The church is now reduced in size to a single member (in my unwelcome gallows humour I told him that if he split that church it would be manslaughter). They meet, along with some regular visitors, every Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. On the second Monday of the month at 7 p.m. they have a meeting entitled ‘Light from Old Times’ with various speakers addressing relevant subjects of the reformation and the Puritan period. These talks can be found on the church website. On the third Tuesday of the month there is some outreach into the Doughty’s Hospital next door to the chapel, built just three years before the chapel was erected.
Dr. John Clements has produced an illustrated booklet chronicling the history of the chapel and finally recommending the following books concerning the Puritans, The Puritans by Dr. Lloyd-Jones; The Genius of Puritanism by Peter Lewis; Meet the Puritans by Beeke and Pederson; and A Puritan Theology by Beeke and Jones.
John Clements’ desire is for people to know about the old building. Not only that but that he is in his first years there and the state of church attendance is extremely low. He hopes some Christians will partner to pray for the work and witness of this pulpit and congregation. Most of us are sadly all too aware that such a state is not unfamiliar in the secular, materialistic United Kingdom and the fact that some similar places are reduced to the very last member, such as the Old Baptist church in Bradford on Avon and Hebden Bridge Baptist Church in Yorkshire, are examples of places where a time of God’s favour came to them and those churches, under godly, prayerful, Bible-centred leadership, were revived and transformed.
Certainly Puritan theology alone will not achieve that, neither will admiration, affection, and love alone for those outstanding men. There must be a steadfastness and conviction and an abundance of the divinely prescribed work of faith and labour of love and patience of hope, all the time crying mightily to God that he will honour his dear Son by spreading his name abroad again. Revive thy work O Lord, thy mighty arm make bare!
Please pray with us for this little church and their faithful pastor.