Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Leicester Conference - some reflections after 52 years

As a young student in the early 1990's I enjoyed attending the Leicester Youth Conference organised by the Banner of Truth Trust.  I was an Office Junior (tea boy) at the Banner in 1989 and 1990 so managed to get involved in the conference bookstall.  Fresh out of Oban I couldn't believe the size of the conference.  While I believe I was already a Christian by the mid 1980's the Leicester Conference was a huge help to me spiritually.

In particular, the 1991 conference was a real spiritual milestone for me with Rev Ted Donnally speaking on Nehemiah and Rev Alun McNabb on the 'Epidemic of Spurious Conversions.'  For the first time, it hit me powerfully that despite a Christian upbringing and profession, it was possible to deceive ourselves that we are Christians when in fact we are still not saved.  Perhaps the best recent example of this I read was in Leviticus 10 where Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, were consumed for offering 'strange fire' before the Lord.  As Dr Michael Barrett says in a recent article 'Nadab and Abihu stand as warning to all who think that pedigree or religion are viable alternatives to God's exclusive way' The Banner of Sovereign Grace and Truth, March 2014.

Most of the Banner talks can be ordered from here.
This year, for the first time in nearly 20 years, I am heading back to Leicester with my oldest son James.  I have been asked to help out with the bookshop like I used to all those years ago.  James is looking forward to hearing Euan Murray who he has met on several occasions.

What is perhaps most amazing is that my dad started attending the Leicester Minister Conference in 1962.  Three generations at Leicester is quite an achievement!  I was chatting to my dad recently about that first conference.    W J Grier opened the Conference with ‘Preaching and the Present Age’ and closed it with ‘The Preacher and Prayer.’ Iain Murray dealt with ‘Preaching in England in the Past’.  Professor Murray gave three addresses on ‘Preaching and 1) Scripture 2) Sanctification 3) Judgment’. The Rev Kenneth Macrae gave two addresses ‘Teaching Essential to Evangelical Preaching’ and ‘The Danger of Compromise in Preaching.’

Back in Stornoway after the 1962 Conference the Rev Kenneth Macrae addressing his people on ‘The Present Prospects of the Reformed Faith’, reported that he had seen in England ‘a little cloud like a man’s hand’ (I Kings 18.44). Reflecting on the Conference he wrote to a friend:

‘The earnestness and spiritual unity of those young fellows who gathered at Leicester was for me a real tonic and encouraged me greatly. So far, the movement towards the Reformed Faith may be weak and largely unorganised, but that there is such a movement cannot be questioned, and in it, by God’s grace, there are tremendous possibilities. Worm Jacob may yet thresh the mountains. May the Lord grant it so!’
My father wrote an article for the Free Church (Continuing) Witness several years ago giving a potted history of the Banner and the conference now in its fifty second year.  For those of us used to Banner books and take for granted the accessibility of reformed books, it is a fascinating insight into the last 50 years;
"The story begins in England with the Rev Iain Murray and the issuing of a magazine called The Banner of Truth in Oxford in 1955. This lead on to the formation in 1957 of a Trust which through its reprinting of Reformed classics was to play a major part in the re-discovery of the Reformed Faith in England. Mr Murray was by then the assistant to Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, London where these doctrines had been preached with increasing power since 1939.

Meanwhile in the USA an exile Scot, Professor John Murray, was teaching the Reformed Faith in all its fullness at Westminster Theological Seminary. He was conscious of the need for a recovery of the doctrines of grace on both sides of the Atlantic. At that time he was scarcely known in the UK but invitations to speak at meetings in England coincided with the re-awakening of Calvinistic truth. The first announcement of the work which the Banner of Truth Trust planned to do expressed indebtedness to three men - Dr Lloyd-Jones, Rev W J Grier and Professor John Murray. Through his identification with the Banner work Professor Murray developed a much closer connection with the situation in England and gave further momentum to the recovery of Reformed truth.

Among Professor Murray’s chief concerns was for the restoration of true preaching. One who shared this view was the Rev J Marcellus Kik, a trustee of Westminster Seminary. This subject was discussed with Mr Kik when he was present in London in 1961. As a result he carried back to Professor Murray in Philadelphia a proposal that a conference should be held for ministers the following year in the UK, concentrating specifically on the need for a renewal of preaching.

Other men were consulted about this and among them was the Rev W J Grier in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Mr Grier had made a courageous stand against Modernism in the Presbyterian Church in Ulster and subsequently founded the Irish Evangelical Church (now the Evangelical Presbyterian Church). He had set up the Evangelical Bookshop, which even before the advent of the Banner was supplying to readers in the UK good Reformed books imported from the USA. His Church had strong links with the Free Church of Scotland, sharing in the training of students and missionary work.

The fourth strand in the development was the interest of the Rev Kenneth Macrae, minister of the Free Church of Scotland in Stornoway in the Outer Hebridies, the largest Presbyterian congregation in the UK. He was conscious of the drift that was taking place in Scotland and even within his own denomination. He longed and prayed for a recovery of truth and godliness and believed that ‘the tide will turn’. The advent of the Banner of Truth magazine in 1955 was an encouragement to him and he personally ordered quantities of between 150 and 200 copies. It was with the prospect of helping this work that he accepted the invitation to speak at the 1962 Conference. Although then in his 79th year he made the long journey from the Isle of Lewis to undertake what was his first and last preaching engagements in England. As well as speaking at Leicester he took the Communion services in the Free Church of Scotland congregation in London and preached for Iain Murray at Grove Chapel.

It was in this way that the Lord in his goodness brought men from different countries and Reformed traditions together to apply themselves to the restoration of preaching. A location was found through the good offices of the Rev Sidney Lawrence at College Hall on the campus of Leicester University.  Dr Lloyd- Jones was not present in 1962 but spoke in the Conferences of 1964 and 1965.

Among the 40 men who attended about 30 were ministers in pastoral charges. The majority were from England but there were 12 from Scotland and 3 from Northern Ireland. Wales was not represented. Most of the Scots were from the Free Church of Scotland and men, like Mr Macrae, who rejoiced to see this new movement - Rev Alasdair Johnston, Dumbarton, Rev James Morrison, North Uist,  Rev Donald Mackay, Watten, Mr Donald Macinnes, Inverness (who later became a probationer in the Free Church but died shortly after) and four Edinburgh men who had recently embraced the doctrines of grace. There were two ministers belonging to the Church of Scotland. I was privileged to be Secretary of the Conference and duly relieved men of the princely sum of £3, which was the cost of attending. If your travel expenses amounted to more than £1 you could claim help!"

Thanks to dad for his reflections!  I will post a full account of my return to Leicester over the next few weeks.  I might even get some reflections from no. 1 son on his first Leicester Youth Conference.