Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Westminster Conference - what's the point?

It is two weeks since the Westminster Conference (formerly Euston Road, now Tottenham Court Road conference, shortly to become the Oxford Street Conference) and I really should have got something up before now.

It was good; I always enjoy going, though I do not go every year. I also enjoy the trips to some of the local bookshops and innumerable coffee shops, and meeting friends. It is all part of the experience.

The six papers were good; one on the English Reformation by Garry Williams; on Puritan views on Roman Catholicism from Guy Davies; on the KJV from David Gregson and on Puritan views of Repentance and Faith from Sam Waldron. Daniel Webber led us through the religion and politics of the 1910 Missionary conference and Malcolm Maclean winsomely introduced us to Andrew Bonar.

But what is the point of the Westminster conference? This was the question put to me in a discussion with one of the relatively few young (under 50) men there. Had there been no attendance from LTS there would have been hardly any 'young' men.

You can see his point. An active, zealous young minister has limited time and money for conferences. Early December is a busy time of year. What is going to attract the highly prioritised time and money he has available? Does a series of relatively unconnected lectures on historical theology (with a bias towards the Puritans) do the job?

Does he not want something more dynamic, practical, forward looking, (dare one say it) obviously relevant? Already it sounds like a plug for the Carey conference (which I do not go to every year either).

Whilst sympathising with my young friend, I would like to suggest some good reasons for persevering with the Westminster/Euston/ Tottenham Court Road/Oxford Sreet conference.

1. Not everything needs to be immediately relevant or applicable. Sermons are like this. You want something that will lead to practice, but it doesn't have to be today. The Word works differently. It is seminal. So are addresses like those at Westminster - at least, the better ones, and usually they are very well researched and carefully thought out by the speakers. Be prepared to listen well to things that do not seem immediately applicable to life; you will invariably find one or both of two things happening: (i) what did not seem to hold out any practical promise will suddenly prove to be surprisingly relevant; (2) seeds will be sown that will bear fruit later.

2. Papers such as those we heard are like windows on areas of history, church life and theology that we would not otherwise visit. Look at the conference not as a working visit but as a bit of a holiday. Take a look at some unfamiliar countryside. And some interesting, if maybe slightly quaint, stately homes. Listen and think. Question. In your head if not aloud (though there is little danger of getting involved in a debate - that art has long been lost).

3. In other words, don't be a slave to the immediate. There is a place for the hands on, pastorally relevant conference, no doubt. But there is a danger of imprisonment in the present as much as in the past, and we become slightly conceited about our ability to cope without a knowledge of church history and of great figures - and many not so great figures - of the past. There is so much back there that we do not know that is very relevant if we have patience to listen and learn.

And after all, there is always Costas and Caffe Nero nearby and Waterstones' second hand section a couple of hundred yards away. From 2011 I suppose it will be the opportunity for a spot of Christmas shopping in Oxford Street. Well, perhaps not...

Which is not to say that the Westminster Conference could not be improved. It could. But perhaps the biggest job is to sell it to a generation which is rapidly losing interest in what it stands for, and that would be a shame.