Friday, 29 March 2013

Thomas Chalmers and 'A Very Fine Field of Operation'

Having turned the ripe old age of 41 recently I received 'Out of Harness' by Thomas Guthrie.  Published in 1883 (10 years after Guthrie's death) it is a collection of auto-biographical essays.  Of the 20 essays 7 are devoted to his ministry in the Cowgate in Edinburgh and are entitled Sketches of the Cowgate.  Other chapters include The Original Ragged School, New Brighton, A Winter Gale, The Streets of Paris, Sunday in Paris and French Protestantism and several others. 

There are some great quotes in the book particularly about Thomas Chalmers.  Allow me one example; Courted by the great, Chalmers' sympathies lay with the masses. Their oppression roused him like a lion; their neglect stirred his indignation; their sufferings touched his soul with such tender pity that the horrors of the Irish and Highland famines were like to break his heart. He loved mankind. His aspirations were not to drag the upper classes down to the level of the lower, but to improve the economic, educational, moral and religious condition of the lowest stratum of society; and so, as when the base of the pyramid is raised, to raise all the courses of the superstructure up to the royalty - sitting high on the throne (Out of Harness, Dr Thomas Guthrie, p 127).
Thomas Chalmers
Dr Thomas Chalmers
One of the main reasons I wanted to get this book was because of the famous conversation between Dr Chalmers and Dr Guthrie in 1837 which is described in the book.  It is often mentioned in Free Church circles and I've always wanted to read it for myself.
Thomas Guthrie was called from the sleepy parish of Arbirlot, Angus in 1837 to the bustling city of Edinburgh.  His charge was Old Greyfriars so the Cowgate became his parish.  Guthrie describes his field of service;

The streets were a puddle; the heavy air, loaded with smoke, was thick and murky; right below lay the narrow street of dingy tenements, whose toppling chimneys and patched and battered roofs were apt emblems of the fortunes of most of its tenants.  Of these, some were lying over the sills of windows innocent of glass, or stuffed with old hats and old rags; others, course looking women with squalled children in their arms or at their feet stood in groups at the close-mouths - here with empty laughter chaffing any passing acquaintance - there screaming each other down in a drunken brawl, or standing sullen and silent, with hunger and ill-usage in their saddened looks.  A brewers cart, threatening to crush beneath its ponderous wheels the ragged urchins who had no other playground, rumbled over the causeway - drowning the quavering voice of one whose drooping head and scanty dress were ill in harmony with song, but not drowning the shrill pipe of an Irish girl who thumped the back of an unlucky donkey and cried her herrings at 'three-a-penny' (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie, p 126).
The narrative continues that as Guthrie stared down on the scene of utter degradation Dr Chalmers came up behind him;
Hopeful of success, he surveyed the scene beneath us, and his eye, which often wore a dreamy stare, kindled at the prospect of seeing that wilderness become an Eden, these foul haunts of darkness, drunkenness and disease, changed into "dwellings of the righteous where is heard the voice of melody."  Contemplating the scene for a little in silence, all at once, with his broad Luther-like face glowing with enthusiasm, he waved his arm to exclaim, "A beautiful field, sir; a very fine field of operation" (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie, p 130).
We may think that these scenes from 170 years ago have little relevance to us today.  But how would we respond to such a scene?  Would we be heartbroken and stirred to action like Chalmers and Guthrie?  Are some of the housing schemes of Scotland any less chaotic and dysfunctional than the 19th century Cowgate? 
When Guthrie came to Edinburgh he came to a city gripped with industrial and social upheaval.  Overcrowding, poverty, alcoholism and abuse were rife.  The main reason for ragged schools was because children were being thrown out on the streets by drunken parents to beg and steal.  In his Autobiography he estimates that less than 5 in 150 attended church.  But he didn't despair.  He developed a Biblical vision for his parish and especially for the poor.  He visited systematically, he worked tirelessly, served sacrificially and loved indiscriminately. 

Most importantly Chalmers and Guthrie had a strategy and structure to win a geographical area for Christ.  As Guthrie said of Chalmers and his 'parochial system'; to change the face of a district required, in his opinion, a more extensive and efficient system of cultivation - a school for children; a church with its door open to the poorest of the inhabitants; and a large staff of zealous men and women - each with their own section of families to visit, and all working in harmony, like bees in a hive, under the direction of the minister, their captain, bishop or superintendent (Out of Harness, Thomas Guthrie, p 128).  Surely this is what we need again.  We need a team around our ministers who can reach out to a local area caring for body and soul.  The great issues of our age are family breakdown, debt, isolation, addiction and poverty.  As Guthrie argues time and again, the gospel is the answer but this does not abdicate the church from responding with practical expressions of love in seeking to reach out to the broken and marginalised in our society. 

But what about schools?  The church needs to reassert its influence in education after decades of secular humanism pushing religious instruction to the margins. The Free Church in particular has a proud history of building schools and lifting thousands out of ignorance.  It is interesting to note that the great priority of the Free Church in 1843 was for schools and mission (by 1844-45 £50,000 had been raised for the School Building Fund). It was not until 1845 that the Manse Fund was established and Guthrie took on his role as the 'great beggar man' as he was called by Rev Wallace Duncan of Peebles. 

Guthrie (in many ways prophetically) said in his evidence to the parliamentary committee of 1853 'I do not wish the government to supersede our efforts; what I wish the State to do is, to supplement them' (Memoirs, p 468).  He was, of course, referring to his beloved Ragged Schools, but the point was well made.  The state has long since superseded the efforts of those with a personal or charitable interest in education and the 'one size fits all' state system struggles to respond to the complex (and often tragic) issues facing many children today. Children from poorer backgrounds in particular are suffering in schools where poverty and generational family breakdown are rife. Many churches are providing breakfast clubs where kids often testify that it is their only meal of the day.  The schools do their best but so much more is needed.  Could this be the time for a re-look at Ragged Schools? This Guthrie fan certainly thinks so.  In the meantime we have 'a very fine field of operation' across Scotland.  The challenges are huge but let's recapture the spirit of Chalmers as we seek to tackle them. 



Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Loving the City

Thomas Guthrie, the famous Edinburgh minister and philanthropist, preached a series of sermons that were eventually published under the heading of 'The City, its Sins and Sorrows'.  The edition I have was published in 1857 and it says that the discourses were delivered to gather support for a 'Territorial Church in one of the dark and destitute districts of Edinburgh.'   The book is four sermons from Luke 19 v 41 'And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it.' 
Guthrie was not really an expositor but rather a graphic preacher who used great sweeping pictures in his sermons to rail against the evils of poverty, drunkenness and ignorance.  He waged a long campaign for temperance and often spoke of the evils of drink.  In the third sermon he says; "I pray you do not hate the drunkard; he hates himself.  Do not despise him; he cannot sink so low in your opinion as he is sunk in his own.  Your hatred and contempt may rivet, but will never rend his chains.  Lend a kind hand to pluck him from the mire.  With a strong hand shatter the bowl - remove the temptations which, while he hates, he cannot resist.  Hate, abhor, tremble at his sin.  And for pity's sake, for God's sake, for Christ's sake, for humanity's sake, rouse yourselves to the question, What can be done?"  (The City its Sins and Sorrows, Guthrie, 1857, p 74).  
What is so interesting about The City its Sins and Sorrows is to read of Guthrie commending cities and encouraging the Christian Church to engage and embrace in city life rather than shunning it for the country. In the first sermon Guthrie rises to his usual heights of flowery language; "Cities have been as lamps of light along the pathway of humanity and religion. Within them science has given birth to her noblest discoveries. Behind their walls freedom has fought her noblest battles. They have stood on the surface of the earth like great breakwaters, rolling back or turning aside the swelling tide of oppression. Cities, indeed, have been the cradles of human liberty. They have been the radiating, active centres of almost all church and state reformation. Having therefore no sympathy with those who regard our cities as corresponding to the excrescences of a tree or the tumours of disease, and would raze them to the ground, I bless God for cities" (The City its Sins and Sorrows, Guthrie 1857, p 8-9).  Guthrie goes on to talk of the many advantages of cities;
  • The highest humanity is developed in cities 
  • The highest piety is developed in cities
  • The highest happiness of saints is found in city life
This theology needs to be re-emphasised in every age as some Christians again seek to withdraw from our cities to the 'safer' suburbs and rural areas. There are large areas of our cities, particularly some of the more deprived areas that have little or no gospel witness.  James Montgomery Boice puts it much better than I can; "Some Christians are opposed to the city for reasons based on the very points I am making. They regard the city as godless. They think of urban cultures as being mans invention and therefore alien to God, who placed the first man and woman in a garden, not a city. That is true, but it is not the whole story. The city is godless. But the problem with the "godless city" is not the city but the "godless," and people living in the country without Christ are godless too. Again the problem of "civilisation without God" is not civilisation itself but rather its godless characteristics. And so far as the garden goes, while it is true that the Bible begins with a garden, it is also true that it ends with a city, the new Jerusalem. Our task is not to abandon earthly kingdoms but to build God's kingdom in the midst of the godless ones and in so doing look forward and show the way "to the city with foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11 v 10) (Two Cities, Two Loves, Montgomery Boice, 1996, p 74).
Guthrie, was not the first great preacher to write about cities.  Augustine famously wrote The City of God which was probably the most influential book of the Middle Ages.  There are few greater theologians than Augustine and if you want to know more about him RC Sproul's address here is well worth listening to.  Written over 13 years, The City of God was the first serious attempt to write a Christian philosophy of history and to explain the two clashing kingdoms or worldviews that have dominated history. 

Augustine argued that from the first rebellion of the fallen angels against God "two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self".  Augustine represented the church as the City of God and the earthly city as the earthly society being characterised by Babylon and Rome which had fallen to the Visigoth king Aleric 3 years before Augustine had started writing The City of God.  A large part of the book is given over to arguing against the prevailing  view that the barbarians had conquered Rome because the ancient gods had been forsaken for Christianity.  As Montgomery Boice writes Augustine showed  "on the contrary, that the city [Rome] had been punished for its sins.  In its early centuries Rome had been a nation of stoics.  It had strong families and honest governors.  It had almost created civil law and had given order and peace to the world.  But the seeds of decay lay within its debased religions, which encouraged rather restrained the corrupt sexual nature of human beings" (Two Cities, Two Loves, Montgomery Boice, 1996, p 20). 
Augustine's City of God and Guthrie's The City, its Sins and Sorrows remind us that we need a theology for our cities. When the Christian church gets this wrong it leads to a lack of engagement with our cities and a flight to the suburbs and country. It also leads to ghetto churches in our cities where we have a 'Highland church' or an 'African church'.  Some of these churches have evolved to make the attenders feel comfortable but often have no serious engagement with the community they have been placed in. 

Men like Tim Keller have pioneered urban church planting in New York with Redeemer Presbyterian and has helpfully written a book called Church Centre on much of what he has learned.  It is great to see some pioneering work going on in some of the neediest areas of Scotland through 20Schemes and Niddrie Community Church.  There are some great organisations that are helping to bring about urban community transformation such as Glasgow City Mission, Bethany Christian Trust and The Trussell Trust.

There are some great examples of engagement with deprived schemes here in Aberdeen such as The Lighthouse Project in Tillydrone and in Seaton with Seaton Community Church.  The work in Seaton is being supported by Bethany Christian Trust and a foodbank will be launched at some point in the future.  Barry Douglas took a step of faith less than a year ago and established a church in an area short on gospel witness.   It is great to see how the work has grown and to see his vision for the marginalised and also to see a growing youth work.  We need more of these pioneers in Scotland today.

The longstanding work of Deeside Christian Fellowship is seeing some real fruit as they continue to work with some of the most marginalised men and women in The Lighthouse Project, Tillydrone.  A number of men from The Lighthouse recently helped to paint the little thrift shop called the First Port of Call which Bethany runs.  It was a complete privilege to work alongside some of these men who had been notorious in their community for all the wrong reasons.  The Outreach Pastor, John Merson, has been a personal inspiration to me as he has quietly worked away with these men over many years.  While many church planters seek the limelight John is a very humble man working away in quietness and humility to build the kingdom. 
We, as the church, need to support these pioneers, church planters and organisations working in our inner cities with some of the poorest and most marginalised communities in Scotland.  We need old truths presented with a new and fresh reality.  Guthrie said "I have no hope of accomplishing this object if the churches are to be laced up by their old rules, and people are to leave everything to ministers and missionaries."  We need to end the one man ministries that have been so detrimental particularly in Presbyterian circles.  As Keller says we need to realise that church planting in inner city areas is relational, low key and very long term.  As the church we need to be in this for the long term if we are going to see any long term results. 

Just as Guthrie and Chalmers had a Biblical vision for our cities in the 19th century we need to have a similar vision today.  I'll leave the last (quaint) word to the great man himself; "Let each select their own manageable field of Christian work.  Let us embrace the whole city, and cover its nakedness, although, with different denominations at work, it should be robed, like Joseph, in a coat of many colours.  Let our only rivalry be the holy one of who shall do most and succeed best in converting the wilderness into an Eden, and causing the deserts to blossom as the rose" (The City its Sins and Sorrows, Guthrie, 1857, p 111).