I wrote a piece last December called 'Westminster Conference - what's the point?' I was positive but after this year's meetings I want to gush. It was excellent and people who missed it missed something special; what a shame there were fewer than a hundred people there.
The theme was religious liberty. Bob Letham gave us a scholarly introduction to chapter 20 of the Westminster Confession but did not go into depth on the issue of the civil magistrate defending Christian faith, worship or conversation. Knox Hyndman gave a stimulating survey of the Covenanters of the 17th C., leaving me feel that while they won my admiration for the way they chose to suffer than to sin (as they saw it) when persecuted, I am not sure I would like to have been a Baptist under any regime they formed. Obadiah Holmes was a Baptist who suffered for his principles in New England and Stephen Rees gave a powerful and challenging presentation of his life. How ironic that the men who went to New England for religious liberty ended up persecuting others; and those who left these shores to find freedom of conscience, would have probably been more free, at least till the Restoration, had they stayed here. And if the 20,000 who left England in the 1630s alone had stayed - how different would the history of England and America have been?
On Wednesday Lewis Allen gave an excellent paper on why the Puritans 'failed'. Perhaps the broad conclusion was that they failed to take the people with them; imposing godliness by statute can only accomplish so much. By the late 1650s, too many were disillusioned, and ready for change. In the eighteenth century there was perhaps a reaction to doctrinal precision and Robert Strivens charted us skilfully through the departure from orthodoxy on the Trinity and the person of Christ. Many at that time were unhappy to have to sign up to Confessions, including men who were orthodox such as Philip Doddridge - for many reasons he believed it was wrong to tie peoples' consciences to forms of human words. He maintained orthodoxy but others departed from it; while trying to retain the doctrine of the Trinity they varied in degrees of Socinianism and arianism in their view of Christ.
The last paper was a moving and inspiring account of the life and missionary labours of John Eliot, 'Apostle to the Indians'. It was a great note on which to leave and we are thankful to Hugh Collier for it.
The venue was excellent - the Salvation Army 'Regent Hall' in Oxford Street. I hope the Conference will be able to find a new home there. I had looked forward to a soup kitchen, but the cafe was fine.
The Westminster Conference is counter cultural. One has to listen for an hour at a time. Handouts are at a premium. One has to concentrate (did you make it to the end of that word without drifting or reaching for the zapper?). After each paper one is invited to discuss - this was better this year, but a discussion of more than two consecutive contributions on the same issue is rare.
A conference on 'leadership' or 'church planting' would no doubt draw many more. After all, such things are immediately relevant and practical. That is how short sighted we have become. We lose touch with our history and historical theology at our peril. This year's papers were of more immediate relevance than usual perhaps because most Christians are aware of the pressure on our liberties from contemporary governments and some of these issues were touched on in questions. But even where this is not the case, we must not be arrogant in our slavery to the present and the immediate.
The next Westminster Conference is 4-5 December 2012; mark it in your diary now.